Gender Minority Transit Riders Experience Violence and Discrimination
JaDee Carathers, Miriam Abelson, Amy Lubitow & Maura Kelly | September 4, 2019
Despite the reputation of Portland, Oregon as a tolerant environment for queer and transgender people, gender minorities report heightened experiences of harassment and violence when accessing transit. We find that the presence of transit police officers, contrary to increasing feelings of safety, actually heightens the sense of danger experienced by gender minority transit riders.
Our study, based on 25 in-depth interviews with transgender and gender-nonconforming people in Portland, Oregon, finds that gender minorities experience frequent harassment while engaging with the public transit system. We also find that beyond the immediate safety concerns associated with harassment, the discrimination and violence experienced by transgender and gender-nonconforming riders restricts their mobility or freedom of movement.
We use the term transmobilities to articulate how experiences of discrimination, harassment and violence inform the ways that gender minorities move through space. For example, participants in our study report adopting tactics to divert attention away from themselves and choosing to avoid riding public transit at certain times of day—all while simultaneously internalizing an approach to transit use that requires constant awareness, vigilance, and attention to other transit users. This simultaneous use of external strategies to anticipate and respond to others, combined with individual-level responses such as shifting transit use patterns, reflects the concept we call transmobilities.
Gendered Mobilities and Public Transit
Other researchers have noted the need to consider the gendered dimensions of safety to increase the accessibility of public transit options, but they have largely focused on the concerns of cisgender women.
Our study adds to this body of research by suggesting that intersecting identities shape access to public goods, including transit. Without the ability to safely utilize public transit, gender minorities find their mobility constrained by cissexism in ways that cisgender women do not experience.
Without the ability to safely utilize public transit, gender minorities find their mobility constrained by cissexism in ways that cisgender women do not experience.
The 2015 US Trans Survey, for example, found that 34 percent of respondents reported being denied equal treatment or service, verbally harassed, or physically attacked while using public transit in the past year because of their gender identity or presentation.
Notably, other passengers were the perpetrators in most experiences of cissexism, (i.e. discrimination against transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming individuals) reported by participants in our study. However, our participants also noted examples in which the perpetrators were employees of TriMet—the publicly funded agency that provides buses and light-rail trains in Portland.
One participant (who we will call Christine) recalled being denied entry by a bus driver. She reported that ‘[the bus] stopped and the door opened. I started to put my foot on the platform and the bus driver looked at me and said, “uh-uh, not on my bus buddy,” closed the door and drove off.’ Christine understood this as a refusal of service based on gender—a clear violation of TriMet’s anti-discrimination policy which protects gender, but not gender identity and expression. We suggest explicit protection of these categories to help alleviate gender minorities’ barriers to transit access.
Although Christine developed effective personal coping strategies to help her navigate potentially negative or hostile experiences while using public transit, such hypervigilance can take its toll on a population already facing extreme forms of marginalization. Compared to trans men and cisgender women, trans women face higher rates of victimization and violence, which may explain why Christine framed this hypervigilance as a small price to pay.
Trans women, trans-feminine, and visibly gender-nonconforming riders reported higher incidence of violence overall, with trans riders of color and disabled individuals being especially vulnerable to harassment from other riders and TriMet staff.
Mobility and Transgender People of Color
Transgender people of color experienced race-based harassment and had particular concerns about being targeted by transit police. Working intersectionally, we consider how participants’ experiences are shaped by their identities. Thus, appearing to be white, gender conforming, masculine, and able-bodied seemed to offer some protection for gender minority transit users.
For our participants of color, in particular, interactions with transit police created anxiety and fear, rather than an atmosphere of safety. One participant, Janelle said: “My worst experiences…have been TriMet police. I do not feel safe with any police officers, ever. I don’t trust the police, just based on my personal history with them, but also being Black and trans and queer and disabled.”
For our participants of color, in particular, interactions with transit police created anxiety and fear, rather than an atmosphere of safety.
Janelle vividly described having their fare checked by an armed TriMet police officer, recalling “I feel very unsafe in those scenarios. I often wonder—am I going to get shot? Am I gonna be a hashtag?” Janelle, who reported a number of incidents that they described specifically as racial profiling, said the presence of police was the “biggest barrier” and “number one deterrent” they experienced in accessing and navigating public transit.
Because the majority of our participants were also transit-dependent, it’s important to consider how their increased feelings of anxiety and fear may be compounded by their lack of transit alternatives. Increasing the number of transit police, even unarmed “peace officers,” may not be the best approach to enhance feelings of safety for gender minorities.
Suggestions for Policy and Practice
Policy recommendations for TriMet are to provide training for transit operators and other staff to educate them about the increased risk of harassment and violence that transgender and gender-nonconforming riders face. Importantly, we also suggest educating staff about appropriate and inappropriate language related to transgender and gender-nonconforming identities; staff should be trained not to use gendered language or assume to know the gender of transit riders based on their appearance, and instead replace gendered greetings (e.g. “hello, sir”) with gender neutral greetings (e.g. “good morning/afternoon/evening”). This seemingly small remedy could do much to alleviate the everyday strain and dysphoria that can accompany being misgendered.
Policy recommendations for TriMet are to provide training for transit operators and other staff to educate them about the increased risk of harassment and violence that transgender and gender-nonconforming riders face.
We further urge the staff not deny service to riders based on gender identity or gender expression. We also suggest that staff attempt to intervene when they observe gender-based harassment and violence and to remove individuals from transit who harass or physically attack transgender and gender-nonconforming riders. To facilitate staff interventions, TriMet’s nondiscrimination policy should add protection for gender identity and gender expression, and TriMet should create signage to indicate that they do not allow harassment and discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming riders on transit or in transit facilities.
These policy suggestions attempt to shift the burden for creating a more accessible transit environment from transgender to cisgender riders. As a city with a progressive and queer-friendly reputation, public agencies and organizations in Portland are primed to be leaders in creating models that enhance mobility and accessibility for gender minorities.
Initiatives like the Equality Act may represent a bold move forward by extending federal nondiscrimination laws to gender and sexual minorities across the US. However, while we are optimistic about change at the federal level, we feel that targeted changes in local practice and policy would make trans and gender-nonconforming people better able to access all the city has to offer. The changes presented here offer a glimpse into the dynamics in one city; we encourage further studies on gender minorities’ transit access in other cities in order to better understand how local attitudes, policies, and practices, shape the dynamics of urban mobility.
JaDee Carathers is an adjunct professor in the department of Sociology at Portland State University.
Miriam Abelson is an assistant professor in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Portland State University.
Amy Lubitow is an assistant professor of Sociology at Portland State University.
Maura Kelly is an assistant professor of Sociology at Portland State University.
Featured image by Jacopo, licensed under Creative Commons.