Much like Rosa Parks, Charlene Arcila never set out to be a symbol for the civil-rights movement. In 2007, the transgender woman says she was denied the right to use her weekly TransPass because a SEPTA worker insisted that her gender did not match the “F” sticker on it. Arcila says she was harassed by the SEPTA worker and was forced to explain her gender identity. She refused.
“I’m tired of being questioned about my identity by someone who don’t even know me,” says Arcila in a documentary that sheds light on the transgender community’s ongoing battle against SEPTA’s use of gender-identification stickers. Arcila is just one of many transgender activists interviewed in Gender Sticker Film Project, which chronicles the work of Riders Against Gender Exclusion, the local activist group leading the fight to end the use of SEPTA’s gender-ID stickers. Last month, about 20 members of RAGE gathered on the second floor of Tabu Lounge on 12th Street in the Gayborhood for a sneak preview.
“The policy is putting SEPTA employees in an odd position—they have to do their job and [be the] gender police,” says Philly native and independent filmmaker Wren Warner, who funded the film with a grant from the Philly-based Leeway Foundation, an organization that awards grants to women and trans artists who create art to engender social change. “The goal of this film is to try to remove the gender stickers,” says Warner, “but the underlying goal is to spread awareness and educate people about trans and gender variant issues.”
The film highlights the activists’ belief that “transit authorities have no business checking what’s in our pants!” and that SEPTA workers have no business playing the role of doctor. RAGE also alleges that SEPTA workers routinely confiscate their TransPasses, force them to pay extra fees and harass them if their appearance doesn’t match what the sticker says.
“Sometimes they will take a person’s pass away or force them to pay more,” Warner says. “If called out by some drivers, then other riders also start harassing them. It’s scary and dangerous.”
Nico Amador, a RAGE activist who’s interviewed in the film, says he’s fighting to eradicate the stickers due to painful personal experience. “As a transperson, I have experienced discrimination in the workplace and health care,” he says. “When I found out that it is also happening on public transit to other transpeople, I wanted to take action because I knew we could change it if we built momentum around it.”
Amador, who works for Training for Change, an activist training program, is helping RAGE gain momentum. With more than 800 followers on Facebook and email listservs, RAGE is continuing to plant the seeds of activism politically and socially, and is determined to keep on growing. The group held a public drag-show protest at the City Hall station in March, and will be holding a membership campaign this summer with the goal of recruiting 3,000 members. And in October—LGBT history month—RAGE plans to publicly protest to garner even more members and attention.
And RAGE, which has been making waves locally since 2009, is making its mission heard. Equality PA which stood up on behalf of Arcila, is helping by lobbying in Harrisburg to end SEPTA’s gender policing. State Rep. Babette Josephs, whose district covers the Gayborhood, wrote a letter to SEPTA last year to end the use of the stickers, and is one of many politicians who has signed RAGE’s Bill of Rights—which declares that riders of all genders are entitled to equal representation. Even Mayor Nutter has condemned SEPTA’s policy, saying that the issue “is significant because it relates directly to people being able to access public accommodations. Being denied transit is something we should all be concerned about.”
SEPTA, for its part, has continuously refused to address RAGE’s grievances until a new payment system—which would eliminate the need for weekly and monthly TransPasses and by extension the stickers—is established. But the agency says a new system won’t be in place for another three years.
“There is a legal case pending in regards to the gender stickers,” Amador says. “SEPTA is trying to get out of being investigated. They say they fall outside of city discrimination laws because they travel outside of the city.”
Even so, RAGE continues to fight. “We want to win as soon as we can,” Amador says. “We hope to win in the next year.”
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom