Shouts of “Take it off!” filled a concourse in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station this past Tuesday. Pausing during their home commute, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority riders crowded the tiny space to cheer on, and sometimes gawk at, a diverse group of thirty activists. The event, SEPTA is a DRAG, was held to protest SEPTA’s monthly passes, the transpass and the trailpass. Before the passes can be considered valid, they require a sticker designating the rider as either male or female. Although no other identifying information is included, SEPTA maintains that this policy is in place to prevent the sharing of passes.
However, the organizers of the event, Riders Against Gender Exclusion, argue that the passes are discriminatory against the transgender and gender non-conforming community. They point to stories of SEPTA employees refusing service because the gender sticker on the pass does not match the passenger’s perceived gender. To a victim of this policy, it results in more than merely paying a few extra bucks for a ride. As RAGE member Ray Murphy put it, the passes are “unsafe for the riders who get identified [as gender non-conforming]. It could result in physical violence.”
The event included speakers, a drag show and a poetry slam. Jean Knight’s Mr. Big Stuff blared as RAGE organizer Max Ray repeatedly failed to force a gender sticker on an oversized transpass held by co-organizer Nico Amador. Wearing a pillow-stuffed suit jacket, Ray was acting as SEPTA General Manager Joseph Casey, who the group met with last year. Between performances, chants of “no more gender stickers” rang throughout the hallway. Andrea Harrington rounded out the event with her spoken word piece “I Am a Woman” to cheers from a crowd of observers.
Over the noise, Maggie Hayes of Temple University’s Queer Student Union said, “I came to show my support even though I’m not transgender myself.” Straight ally Elizabeth Walmsoy attended the protest in solidarity, although she is not a member of RAGE. Walmsoy said, “There is no point to labeling people on their transpass. [SEPTA] is still going to get their money.” And indeed, that was what many of the protesters were arguing. A large sign held by one protester read “My Money Doesn’t Have a Gender Sticker on It.”
In an interview with Out In Jersey, Max Ray explained the origins of the grass-roots organization. RAGE “started when a group of people, who had all faced trouble on SEPTA before, got together and said, what can we do to stop this?” Along with Amador, Ray set up the protest with twenty other activists through networking with trans groups in the Philadelphia area and web-based organizing. RAGE collected stories from riders who have experienced discrimination while using their transpass or trailpass. Ray said, “They face harassment directly from employees, and it puts people in situations where they face danger from other SEPTA riders, usually after they leave the train but sometimes on SEPTA property.” He quoted stories from transgender riders who have been followed, pushed, or threatened.
Last July, SEPTA’s Citizen Advisory Committee unanimously recommended the immediate removal of the stickers. In October, RAGE followed up with a meeting with SEPTA officials, including Casey. SEPTA promised that the gender designations would disappear when the new pass system was put in place. Due to budgetary constraints, the date that the changes would be implemented has been pushed back indefinitely. In the mean time, RAGE called for reimbursements for passengers who had their passes confiscated or paid unnecessary fairs. They also requested a complaint system. Ray says that SEPTA has yet to institute any of these measures.
In a phone interview, SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said, “It is unfortunate that [transgender and gender non-conforming riders] feel any embarrassment.” She said that SEPTA drivers are instructed to kindly ask if a person is transgender if they feel the passenger’s gender presentation does not match the pass. If the rider is transgender, drivers are instructed to allow them to board. Williams continued, “We are really sorry if this does hurt anyone.” She was unaware of any studies in the thirty years of the policy that demonstrated that the gender stickers save SEPTA money.
Ray said that the rally would provide a “public forum for people who are transgender and gender-queer to stand up.” RAGE member Kody Hersh was hopeful that this was accomplished. “It’s important to meet people and to know faces,” Hersh said. She hoped that putting faces to the allegations of discrimination would help to change SEPTA’s policy. Until then, RAGE promises to continue pressuring SEPTA in increasingly visible ways.
SEPTA riders who feel they have experienced discrimination are encouraged to contact RAGE at 267-21-SEPTA and SEPTA’s customer service line at 215-580-7800.