Transgender drivers say their safety concerns have gone unchecked. Now, Uber claims it’s listening.
On June 1, with Pride Month in full swing, Uber rolled out Right to Pride, an initiative designed to “empower a better experience for our LGBTQIA+ community, and particularly the transgender community,” according to the company’s website. While Uber had already created community guidelines that expressly forbid discrimination, as well as an in-app option to report it, the new initiative’s bulleted list of upcoming measures included changing the Uber app to allow “trans and nonbinary drivers and delivery people to display only their self-identified chosen first name,” as well as the establishment of a fund to help its drivers cover the costs of updating names and gender on legal IDs and records.
Delivery drivers have provided an essential service over the past year while boosting sales for third-party delivery apps such as Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash. Companies are seeing results: In May, Uber Eats announced its delivery revenue was $1.7 billion, up 270 percent from the previous year. But even as the pandemic has delivered huge financial gains for delivery companies, it has also seen a spike in violence toward delivery workers. Gig economy drivers have been particularly susceptible to carjackings and car thefts, which have risen in several cities during the pandemic. In March, an Uber Eats delivery driver named Mohammad Anwar was killed in a crash after being carjacked in Washington, D.C.
For transgender delivery drivers, safety is an especially big concern. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, at least 25 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in 2021. Transgender delivery drivers, who often interact with customers when dropping off food, risk violence through exposure to transphobic people throughout the work day.
For three transgender Uber Eats drivers who spoke with Eater, Uber’s recent announcement marks a long-overdue change in policy. Two of them say that company practices such as displaying legal deadnames alongside a driver’s chosen name and rejecting up-to-date photos effectively outed them as transgender to customers, forcing them to choose between their safety and their income. What’s more, the difficulties they experienced with the app’s highly automated support systems led them to seek employment from other delivery services with more inclusive policies.
Milo Whitehead started driving for Postmates in Portland, Oregon, in September 2020. Uber Eats bought Postmates for $2.65 billion last November; after the acquisition, Whitehead had to re-onboard and quickly ran into issues: his legal deadname (a name given at birth), which is currently still listed on his license and insurance, didn’t match the chosen name already connected to his personal Uber account.
When Whitehead contacted in-app driver support, he was told that he would be able to add a nickname, but it would be displayed in parentheses next to his deadname, both of which would be visible to customers. (Eater has viewed screenshots of the exchange.)
“I explained that didn’t make me feel safe because having a masculine name as a ‘nickname’ and a feminine name as my legal name could out me as being trans to people,” Whitehead says. “At no point did I feel like they were listening to what I had to say about why that could be dangerous. If a problem doesn’t fit specifically into a neat FAQ or support section, then it’s not going to get answered.”
Whitehead was one of two transgender drivers who told Eater they received conflicting information from Uber Eats driver support on whether or not customers would be able to view their deadnames after updating their profiles.
In January 2020, Andrea Debenedetto started driving for Uber Eats and Uber in upstate New York. A year later, after undergoing hormone therapy that altered her appearance, she was forced off the app when she attempted to update her driver photo. Debenedetto had tried on three separate occasions to upload a new image, altering her makeup in an attempt to get the photograph accepted, but was rejected each time. After the third try, her account was flagged and frozen for fraud, which prompted her to call driver support. A support staffer told her that they would make a note on her file to accept the new image, but her next three attempts were also unsuccessful.
“After the third call and third time of it not working, I literally gave up and started driving for Lyft,” Debendetto says. “My life is already a big headache, one after another, most of the time.”
Lyft, along with DoorDash and Grubhub, told Eater that they allow workers to change their display names after registering with their legal name, without the legal name appearing in the last name field. Both Grubhub and Lyft said they allow drivers to change their names in the app, while DoorDash said they must contact support to do so.
Uber Eats often markets itself as promoting LGBTQ inclusion; it’s made splashy commercials with nonbinary Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness and tweeted macaron-and-cotton candy trans flags for Pride Month. Uber employees receive guidelines for gender transition that include creating a “transition plan” with human resources and state that “every effort should be made to use the new name and gender marker” on internal communication such as company identification cards, “regardless of legal changes to these identity markers.”
But while Uber supplies this support for its trans employees, the company has spent plenty of money to make sure its drivers are not classified as employees. Delivery and rideshare apps spent $224 million in support of California’s controversial Prop 22 last November, which categorized drivers as independent contractors. Its passage meant that, unlike most other business sectors in the state, these companies do not have to provide their drivers with common employee protections like health care benefits, unemployment insurance, or human resources.
Rebecca, an Uber Eats driver in North Carolina who asked that only her first name be used due to privacy concerns, had her account deactivated in April 2021 after two encounters with transphobic customers she believes falsely reported her for allowing someone else to use her account to complete deliveries. But she had already validated her identity twice during her shift: Uber Eats requires drivers to submit a photo of themselves wearing a mask at the start of each shift, and she also submitted a maskless photo during a “random” identity check.
Rebecca’s chosen name is also her legal name, appearing on both her Uber Eats profile and driver’s license. The issue arose, she claims, because the customer was upset that his order was second in a queue of deliveries, and greeted her with transphobic slurs when she made the delivery. While Uber Eats doesn’t tell drivers which orders lead to a complaint being filed, the experience left little doubt in her mind. “It’s just aggravating to know all it takes is one customer lying because they got upset that they didn’t get their food delivered first in a stack, so they put your whole job and lifeline at jeopardy,” Rebecca says.
With no formal appeals process available, she turned to Twitter and a reporter from the local ABC affiliate, for help. Soon, Rebecca received a call from an Uber representative who identified herself as part of a “special support task force” and reinstated her account over the phone, she says. Both Debenedetto and Whitehead say they have never been approached by anyone from the task force, and have lost income while they were waiting for the company to resolve their problems.
“We’re very sorry to hear that the drivers you spoke with had difficulties updating their name and photo in the Uber app. That shouldn’t have happened,” an Uber spokesperson emailed in response to Eater’s multiple requests for comment, which had been sent over the course of four weeks. The spokesperson went on to reference Uber’s June 1 announcement that it would allow trans and nonbinary drivers to display “only their self-identified chosen first name”; as of last week, drivers can now submit requests for photo and name changes through a link on the company’s website. Those requests “will be handled by a specialized Driver Inclusion team,” the spokesperson said. “With this new process in place, we hope to make it easier for trans and nonbinary drivers and delivery people to update their name and photo in the Uber app so that it reflects their true identity.”
Regardless of Uber’s stance on the display of deadnames, its Pride Month announcement comes too late for Whitehead. “Honestly I’m not planning to try this feature,” he says. In early May, after waiting several weeks for Uber Eats to resolve his issue, Whitehead applied to work for Grubhub and began driving for the company a few weeks later. He submitted a background check with his legal deadname, then called support to ask the company to use his preferred name, which was updated over the phone. “Grubhub has been way better to me in terms of pay and safety, and every time I see communication from Uber, like telling me that my account is active so I can start driving despite not resolving this issue, it’s so upsetting,” Whitehead says. “Long story short, it’s not worth the continued trauma.”
Debenedetto, whose Uber driver account has been suspended since mid-January, started driving for Lyft in March. On June 18, after a six-month court process, she received a new license with her updated gender marker and name, and uploaded it to Uber Eats. But once again, her account was flagged for fraudulent use. Debenedetto says she wasn’t aware of Uber Eats’ new specialized Driver Inclusion team, which wasn’t mentioned by the general support number she contacted for an appeal. At time of publication, her account is still suspended.
“I mostly assume the worst with Uber at this point, but I’m hoping this system is better,” she says. “Most of the other apps make it really easy to change your name and they have all your information, so I feel like it should be a lot easier, especially for trans people in this day and age.”