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Lyft has announced a new feature on the ride-hailing service that allows passengers to choose their pronouns as part of their profile. But a lack of safety precautions and a misguided marketing scheme for the announcement is leaving some queer folks uneasy—and for good reason.
Lyft shared on May 29 that in preparation for Pride Month, it’s introducing pronoun choices into the app and allowing riders to display their pronouns in their Lyft profile. Riders can choose the gender-neutral “They/Them/Theirs” pronouns, or they can opt for “She/Her/Hers,” “He/Him/His,” “My pronoun isn’t listed,” or “Prefer not to say.”
Speaking to Mashable, Lyft’s chief marketing officer Joy Howard said the feature is a part of the company’s “Two is Too Few” campaign, which seeks to challenge the entrenched societal expectation of a gender binary. Howard said that there is a “sense of community” with Lyft and that the pronoun choices are intended to encourage respectful conversation.
However, on Twitter, many queer folks expressed serious hesitations and criticisms of the pronoun feature. While it’s validating to be called by the right pronouns, the world can still be a dangerous place for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming (GNC) people. As the Cut writer Madison Kircher pointed out, disclosing your identity to a stranger “can invite harassment and violence.”
in a perfect world, letting a lyft driver know your pronouns would be easy and safe, but we live in a world where getting into a car alone with a complete stranger and letting them know you're GNC or nonbinary or trans or queer can invite harassment and violence.— Madison Malone Kircher (@4evrmalone) May 29, 2019
cool, more chances to get surveilled and potentially harassed pic.twitter.com/jEzjm8B9VZ— jes skolnik (@modernistwitch) May 30, 2019
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 63% of trans people have experienced some form of serious discrimination due to their gender, including denial of service and physical and sexual assault. Asking a trans or GNC person to reveal that information about themselves to their Lyft driver, in a situation where they are alone and unable to easily leave, is asking them to take an enormous risk. Although “prefer not to say” is an option, if everyone else is using he, she, or they, having no pronoun displayed on your profile could be even more conspicuous.
Worse still, in an apparent attempt to appeal to queer people, Lyft created a “zine” to announce the new in-app gender pronoun options. The irony is that, by definition, a company cannot produce a zine. Zines are made by individuals or independent groups, they are self-published, and they are not made for commercial purposes. As a queer zinester, the purpose of my zines isn’t to make money but to share information, which is why I am just as happy to sell them for $1 as I am to trade them for someone else’s zine. By calling its seven-page advertisement a zine, Lyft is essentially eating a staple of queer culture and excreting a polished, sanitized bastardization of it. It’s an insult to the queer zine-makers who spend hours writing, drawing, folding, and stapling their work to enrich their community.
Beyond the potential risks posed to riders who are trans or nonbinary, Lyft’s effort is yet another example of a large company attempting to assert itself as a bastion of queer culture while actually doing very little. This concept is known as “rainbow capitalism.” One one hand, Lyft does more than many other companies, including donating to StoryCorps to preserve the stories of LGBTQ elders and offering a resource group for LGBTQ employees.
On the other hand, some of the other things Lyft advertises as supporting LGBTQ people exploits queer people’s labor and money with the promise of support. For example, on the main Pride page, Lyft advertises that it has “partnered with the National Center for Transgender Equality to provide drivers assistance with changing the name and gender designation on their driver’s license.” But if you click through to learn more, you will find that a driver must first complete 100 rides and that the offer is only guaranteed to the first 75 drivers who apply. Lyft says if there is interest beyond that, the ride-hailing company will “explore” expanding the program.
Lyft also claims to be “donating to causes,” but it’s the riders who actually do the donating. Lyft’s “Round Up and Donate” program asks riders to round up their ride fee to the nearest dollar to donate to the Human Rights Campaign. The catch in all programs like this is that the company makes the exact same profit it would have otherwise, but because the consumer has passed their donation to the charity through the company, Lyft can now use that donation for tax breaks. (If you want to support LGBTQ organizations, donate directly instead of rounding up your Lyft receipt.)
Depending on the community you live in, Lyft’s pronoun choice feature might be an incredibly validating addition to the app. But the risks are serious, and it doesn’t appear that Lyft has properly assessed them. In combination with sly marketing schemes and appropriation of queer culture, Lyft has unintentionally made itself a shining example of the rainbow capitalism problem that has dominated many other conversations around Pride this year. And it doesn’t seem like Lyft or other companies are slowing down any time soon.
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Alex Dalbey is a writer and zinester currently living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They have written for The Daily Dot, Kill Screen, The Lingerie Addict, and Bullet Points.