SEPTA’s Gender Discrimination

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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