Lyft is rolling out new policies intended to combat discrimination in its ride-sharing services as a result of complaints brought forward by San Francisco drag queens.
Kevin Seaman, whose stage persona is LOL McPherson, was attempting to call a car after a performance at The Stud, a famed nightclub in the Bay Area, in June 2017. Seaman was dressed in full drag with "big hair" and makeup on. When their driver pulled up, he pretended he was not there to pick up the bearded queen who stood before him. Instead, someone else got in the car and the driver canceled Seaman's ride, leaving them standing on the street corner at 3:00 in the morning.
"The more that I sat with it, the more vulnerable that I felt," Seaman tells The Advocate. "I usually feel pretty safe when I'm in drag, but it made me question my own safety and maybe think twice about being in drag in public."
Seaman is a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a longtime troupe of drag nuns devoted to "community service, ministry, and outreach" in the LGBTQ community. After Seaman contacted the law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan, & Grunfeld, 30 other queens came forward to their team to report similar experiences, whether it was homophobic slurs or being kicked out of Lyft vehicles.
At least two RuPaul's Drag Race alums -- Aja and Pandora Boxx -- have been refused service or booted from their Lyft rides.
While Lyft apologized for the incidents, many found the response unsatisfactory. Although Seaman couldn't discuss their experience with the company's customer service team, the Bay Area newspaper San Francisco Weeklyreported the performer received a "$10 coupon" and "a promise not to be paired with that driver" in the future. The credit was good enough for one free ride.
"I immediately put on my 'Can I speak to the manager?' hair and said, 'Screw this!'" Seaman recalls. "I tried to do everything that I could to try to make change around this issue because if it's happening to me, it's got to be happening to other people."
But after nearly two years of discussion and negotiation, Lyft has agreed to overhaul the ways in which it handles complaints of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, particularly incidents motivated by an individual's gender identity or gender expression. According to Rosen, Bien, Galvan, & Grunfeld attorney Kara Janssen, the company plans to train employees who handle complaints on LGBTQ sensitivity and offer educational materials to drivers "so that they can understand their anti-discrimination obligations."
"Additionally, they are going to make it easier and maintain a clear method for riders to report discrimination using the app, so that Lyft can accurately gauge how much this is happening," Janssen tells The Advocate. "If you don't see a very clear button that allows you to report discrimination, you're not going to jump through all those hoops knowing that you're only going to get something like a $5 credit anyway."
Janssen credited Lyft's willingness to implement the new policies, which were not adopted as the result of litigation. Their team, which includes the advocacy group National Center for Lesbian Rights, has worked collaboratively with Lyft to draft a comprehensive solution since attorneys filed a formal complaint in February 2018.
All parties will be continuing to meet with Lyft throughout the year to ensure the new protocols are implemented effectively.
"We're going to review reports and how those reports have been responded to," Sister Selma Soul, president of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, tells The Advocate. "Hopefully we see a reduction in complaints over time through driver education -- that's the main hope--but if there are complaints, we want to see them addressed efficiently and thoughtfully. We want to make sure how they're responding is respectful and not dismissive."
While Janssen called the new policies a "real step in the right direction," community members hope all ridesharing companies will take greater measures to address the concerns of their LGBTQ customers.
Uber, for instance, has yet to unveil comprehensive nondiscrimination guidelines to protect members of the LGBTQ community, even despite similar complaints in its vehicles. Mayhem Miller, another former contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, reported in July 2018 that a driver in Minneapolis insisted that he had gotten in the wrong car after a promoter ordered the car for him. Miller was eventually forced to grab his belongings and get out.
But the ridesharing company has begun rolling out new features designed to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination, at least internationally. Uber announced on Monday it was unveiling a new "report button" in the Netherlands, just in time for this weekend's LGBTQ Pride Festival in Amsterdam.
"Unfortunately, there still exist some examples of intolerance and discrimination in the taxi business," it said.
Seaman says it's critical for companies like Uber and Lyft to continue making the safety of LGBTQ passengers a high priority, even in more liberal areas like San Francisco and Amsterdam. Many of the drivers who come to the Bay Area looking for riders drive from hours away and may hail from areas where seeing a bearded lady in six-inch heels isn't common. And even in one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country, Seaman says they still get "called 'faggot' on the streets sometimes."
"We're living in a political environment where incidents like these are on the rise," Seaman says. "People are feeling emboldened and empowered to spread their hate. It's really critical that we stand together against that hate."