SEPTA's Gender Discrimination

Is SEPTA playing gender police?

By Daniel Denvir 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 20 | Posted Jun. 16, 2009

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Pass code: Charlene Arcila has filed a complaint against SEPTA, charging that gender stickers are discriminatory.

Photo by Faye Murman

Verify correct date and gender sticker. So goes step one of SEPTA’s guidelines for the correct use of a transpass. The ironically named pass, which requires riders to affix either an “M” or an “F,” has led to many uncomfortable, humiliating and bizarre moments for transgender people, who are often challenged by drivers as to the veracity of their gender identity.

In 2007, trans-identified female 
Charlene Arcila was told she couldn’t use her transpass as she boarded the SEPTA bus she regularly took to work as a counselor for people living with HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. It wasn’t the first time the 46-year-old Mississippi native had this problem. Previously she’d been told she couldn’t use the female transpass, so in desperation she got a male sticker. To no avail.

“The driver said, ‘You can’t use that,’ and I said, ‘Why can’t you all make up your mind?’ That last time two years ago, I’d had enough,” she says.

Arcila now pays full fare or uses tokens on SEPTA, with the difference coming out of her pocketbook. 

Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, filed a complaint against SEPTA on Arcila’s behalf. The complaint, which charges that the gender stickers violate the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, is being argued before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. Equality Advocates charges that the stickers are also a violation of the Equal Protection Clauses in the federal and state constitutions.

Spokespersons for SEPTA and the Commission on Human Relations declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. According to Equality Advocates Legal Director Amara Chaudhry, SEPTA argues that its goal is to cut down on illegally shared passes and is not discriminatory in intent (same-sex couples and frat houses, share away!). But SEPTA’s other defense, according to Chaudhry, is that because the transportation authority is a regional body, it’s not bound by city ordinances—implicitly acknowledging the policy is discriminatory in effect. 

Chaudary doesn’t buy it. “SEPTA’s use of the gender sticker is contrary to the language and spirit of the Fair Practices Ordinance,” she says. And she points out that SEPTA employee manuals instruct drivers to verify passengers’ gender. 

Equality Advocates and other activists say that this episode highlights the need to pass House Bill 300, which would institute a statewide ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. If HB 300 were now law, SEPTA would be unable to hide behind other jurisdictions’ less selective legal protections.

Transpass holder Christina Molieri, 28, uses a “female” gender sticker but has been forced to pay the full fare a number of times. Drivers have even attempted to confiscate her pass. Molieri is not transgender, but is a more masculine-identified lesbian. “The problem is that by societal definitions I don’t look female,” she says. But when she switched to a “male” sticker, drivers would continue to question her gender, especially if she hadn’t got a haircut recently.

What worries Molieri the most isn’t paying full fare, although she certainly finds that annoying. It’s that such public questioning puts gender-variant people at risk of violence and harassment. “Not only is it humiliating to be called out in front of an entire bus or be kicked off, it puts my safety at risk,” she says. Molieri has signed an affidavit in support of Equality Advocates’ complaint.

The movement against SEPTA’s archaic adhesives has recently gained momentum, with a Facebook group, Riders Against Gender Exclusion, that now boasts 504 members after just a few weeks online. Max October, a 25-year-old transgender man, started the group with friends after realizing that he wasn’t alone in being questioned by SEPTA employees. “It got to the point where I just bought tokens or walked where I had to go,” he says. 

The group is hosting a happy hour at Stir (1705 Chancellor St.) on June 17 for people who want to get involved—October says they want to do some public outreach before developing a plan of action. Asked what they had in mind, October said that the group was full of people with community organizing experience, and that they were discussing ways to put pressure on the SEPTA board and General Manager Joseph Casey. 

The group also hopes to work with the Citizen Advisory Committee and the Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents SEPTA workers. CAC Chair Robert Clearfield says RAGE members will make their case at a June 30th meeting. Clearfield says that the CAC cannot take a position on the gender stickers while the complaint is pending, but suggests that it could be a moot point soon with a new electronic farecard system, similar to DC or New York’s, under discussion. 

October says the fight is no trivial matter for people in Philly who don’t conform to traditional gender stereotypes. “This has real discriminatory effects on Philadelphians. You get harassed by SEPTA employees who are just trying to do their job, and sometimes by other passengers.”

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Comments 1 - 20 of 20
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1. Lyn said... on Jun 16, 2009 at 09:18PM

“Good luck in your fight. I hate to have to explain to a salesperson, why I, a person of color has a platinum credit card in my wallet. Discrimination in any form is wrong. let the bus drivers stick to driving buses and not giving paying customers a hard time.”

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2. Kate said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 08:14AM

“This is an outrageous example of discrimination. I'm glad excellent organizing is happening to change this discriminatory policy.”

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3. Julia said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 09:26AM

“Kudos to the PW for this nice article which helps people understand the impacts of the gender stickers. I don't think pass-sharing would be such a huge problem if they took the stickers off - what a bizarre system to start with!”

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4. Marc said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 09:55AM

“I once asked a ticket agent at Suburban Station what they do when someone's gender isn't obvious. She kind of grimaced and said "guess". I can't imagine the ticket agents or conductors are any happier about this policy than transgenders or other gender-benders.

I can see the point of the policy - most couples are heterosexual couples and it prevents the hubby and wife from sharing a pass. But it's such a loose thing - not only does it affect gender-benders, but there are also a multitude of ways for people of the same sex to share passes (same-sex couples, buddies, random people you found on Craigslist, etc.)

Not sure there's an easy answer. One way might be to require everyone to print their name on the pass at the time it is bought. Then, randomly select a few people to show proof that they are the person who's name is on the back of the pass. Of course, that opens up a whole other can of worms because some people don't have ID and you shouldn't have to have ID in order to ride public transit.”

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5. ch said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 10:13AM

“I hear you.Septa claims the reason why for the F AND M,is to stop fraud use such as ,transpass sharing.Please!Like a person will just take it off and use a old F or M! Or just hide it.It cost enough to ride so why would they care?In the long run we all pay for the transpass,weekly,monthly,Septa still will get their money.We depend on the system to get around.The letters should be dropped.The only passes should look different are the ones for school kids,period!”

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6. nikki said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 12:05PM

“Glad to see you're covering this important issue. I don't want to have to announce my gender every time I board a bus. It's a useless, outdated policy, and frankly, SEPTA could use the money they save on purchasing the M and F stickers on something more useful, like better trolley maps.”

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7. KDH said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 12:30PM

“I'll admit, when I forst clicked on this article, I expected it to be some inane piece about another frivilous lawsuit. But, I see the point. Hey SEPTA, how about these letters... WTF?”

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8. KDH said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 12:31PM

“I'll admit, when I forst clicked on this article, I expected it to be some inane piece about another frivilous lawsuit. But, I see the point. Hey SEPTA, how about these letters... WTF?”

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9. TG said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 01:35PM

“Aside from the fact that both biological sex and gender are not either/or categories, I doubt SEPTA is actually making more money with the inclusion of the stickers. Too many people still can share passes by pulling stickers off and putting different ones on, sharing it with same-gendered friends, etc.

Thanks for covering this issue, PW!”

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10. WAP said... on Jun 17, 2009 at 05:10PM

“They have a "F" sticker for female, and a "M" for male,why not a "O" sticker for other, plain, simple, and will solve many disputes. The driver should do just that, "DRIVE". He is not a judge of any sort, just a plain simple, CDL carrying Bus Driver that works for SEPTA.”

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11. Fabricio Rodriguez said... on Jun 18, 2009 at 09:00AM

“SEPTA's gender equity blindspot...

SEPTA management shows through this an other policies like not giving their women workers any maternity leave (they have to use sick-leave, as if having a child and catching the flu in the same year are not allowed) that they are decades in the past in regard to these issues. If SEPTA were serious about "getting there," they would change these policy's and institute a top to bottom gender sensitivity training.”

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12. gi joe said... on Jun 18, 2009 at 01:49PM

“Make a "T" sticker. PROBLEM SOLVED.”

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13. Anonymous said... on Jun 18, 2009 at 03:18PM

“I am shocked that this policy even gets enforced. I believe it, but the conductors I see on the regional rails, they won't even tell someone to quiet down in the "quiet car." They are so apathetic, I think I would fall over if they told someone "no" about anything, let alone dispute someone who has a monthly pass. SEPTA why expose yourself to such a ridiculous lawsuit. It's so assanine, people in Philly are just trying to get to and from their lives. I wouldn't worry about the .5% of people who may try to share a pass.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jun 18, 2009 at 05:51PM

“I didn't get the meme about there actually being a 3rd gender.”

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15. Ada said... on Jun 23, 2009 at 11:08AM

“In response to the suggestions that there should be an "o" or "t" sticker - this does not address the core issue - that people do not want to, nor should they have to, explain or defend their gender presentation, or "out" themselves as transgender simply in order to use public transportation. If SEPTA's concern is to increase ridership and to make their enterprise more fiscally sustainable, I suggest they look at systems of other cities, which get by without policing their paying customer's gender.”

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16. Stefanie said... on Jun 25, 2009 at 10:39AM

“Kudos to PW for covering such an important topic. Adopting a new transit fare system (similar to DC and NY) would be a great thing. There is no reason to have a gender marker on a transpass. It's not like it can be used for identification or anything like that, so WTF? And as far as people sharing transpasses, hell, if the the fairs weren't the highest in the nation maybe more people could afford them.”

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17. Anonymous said... on Nov 22, 2009 at 04:02PM

“Funny how they have those stickers. I imagine if they tried to categorize race as well that someone would actually do something...... If they told a person that he didn't look "black" enough when it said African American on it, Al Sharpton would come down and carry on a fuss. LGBT needs an obnoxious person to come down and scream for each discriminatory act they do......”

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18. Anonymous said... on Dec 15, 2010 at 05:52PM

“This is an absolute wast of time. I cannot believe people are complaining about a gender sticker. You are either male or female. If you don't look the part don't blame other people for not knowing your gender. Give me a break. What are you going to do next? Complain about passports and driver's licenses displaying sex? Just because you choose to live your life a certain way does not mean everyone else should have to cater to your lifestyle. If you are a man who dresses, looks, and lives like a woman you should be strong enough to deal with anyone who doesn't agree with something so ridiculous. Do what you want to do and stop trying to make everyone else accept it.”

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19. Desiree said... on Nov 7, 2011 at 11:25AM

“I remember when the transpass first came out in the mid 80's, there was no gender specific sticker on it. I believe Septa started this to make more money. I do not see the need for having a male or female sticker on a transpass.”

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20. Anonymous said... on Nov 13, 2011 at 07:53PM

“People always got something to complain about, like we dont have enough laws already!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111111”


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