Photo of Talusan and her cap. (Meredith Talusan)

“So you lost your dick?”: Inside an Ivy league transphobia nightmare

Meredith Talusan thought her fancy liberal college would be a safe space for a trans student. Here's the ugly truth


Gabriel Arana
December 20, 2014 12:35AM (UTC)

In some ways, Meredith Talusan is what intolerant fools call the “good" type of minority. A first-generation immigrant from the Philippines, Talusan is a doctoral student in comparative literature at Cornell University. She has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and two arts degrees — one in photography from the California College of the Arts and another in creative writing from Cornell.

But Talusan, who is transgender, is also an activist, which makes her what intolerant fools call the "bad" kind of minority, the loudmouth type who “makes a big deal about it.”

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Earlier this month, Talusan was asked to leave her home at Telluride House, a cooperative living community loosely affiliated with Cornell that seeks to foster “self-governance and intellectual inquiry.”

Her crime? Protesting alleged harassment from a fellow resident, who at various points referred to her as “a man dressed as a woman” and as having “lost [her] dick.” A Change.org petition with more than 1,200 signatures has called on the Telluride Association, which oversees the House, to remove the alleged harasser and compensate Talusan for expenses she’s incurred finding alternate accommodations.

“I’m in a comparably better position, both politically and financially, than someone who is economically bound to the institution,” says Talusan, who transitioned from male to female ten years ago. “But I’m scared the [Telluride] administration would treat similar complaints of discrimination in the same way.”

The Telluride Association is one of those hippie-dippie, social-justice/educational organizations full of well-meaning liberal folks. But the way it has failed to protect its first transgender resident is an object lesson in the ways those on the left can actually be even more unsympathetic — and in this case, vicious — as those who don’t even pretend to care about minority rights.

The affiliation between Telluride House and Cornell is a bit murky — in the several days since I’ve asked, the Cornell University Press Office hasn’t been able to clarify the relationship. It seems to operate a bit like a fraternity house — if you replaced all the rowdy frat boys with lefty intellectuals, idealists, and activists from various backgrounds. The House is known as the “Cornell branch” of the Telluride Association, and serves as a residence for undergraduate and graduate students attending the university as well as faculty. Its alums include Michel Foucault and queer theorist Eve Sedgwick.

Full disclosure: Talusan and I are friends; we met when I was a graduate student at Cornell. Because of this, I have made extra effort to allow the Telluride House’s members and the Telluride Association, its leadership, to respond. I’ve invited the accused, whom I’ve reached out to several times, to speak with me either on or off the record multiple times. None of my requests were answered. (Another account of Talusan's story, written by someone who apparently does not have this kind of relationship with her, can be read here.)

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But over the course of reporting this piece, it became clear to me that members of the leadership have employed “confidentiality” as a tactic to try to stop this story from being told. The House’s administration (comprised of members self-governing the facility) has threatened residents, both explicitly and implicitly, with losing their scholarships (i.e., free room and board), at the House, for taking a stand. Meredith even had publication privileges suspended on a community blog she herself created in an attempt to stop her from speaking out. Michael Barany, head of the Telluride committee that has been the decision-maker on behalf of the Association (and himself a Cornell alum and former resident of Telluride House), asked me multiple times not to write this story.

***

The alleged harasser, whom out of an abundance of caution I will call Susan, is an international exchange student. Along with 22 other residents, Talusan and Susan both reside at Telluride House.

On several occasions over the last few months, Susan asked Talusan, who has written publicly and widely about transgender issues, why she “makes such a big deal” about her gender. “So you lost your dick?” Susan asked during one of these conversations. In another, Susan referred to Talusan as a “man dressed as a woman.”

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“At first, I approached it from a place of education instead of conflict; I tried to absorb the line of questioning as coming from a cultural and language gap,” Talusan says.

But the more the pair spoke, the more clear it became clear to Talusan that the brusqueness of Susan’s remarks didn’t stem from lack of linguistic or cultural familiarity: Meredith says Susan had little interest in learning about transgender identity. “She is the type who insists that she is who she is, which in this case is casually transphobic,” Talusan says.

The situation escalated when Susan, who is in charge of overseeing guests at the House, began hosting strangers from Couchsurfing.org, a social-networking site that pairs travelers with free sleeping spaces.

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I think it’s difficult for cisgender people to understand how important issues of personal safety and space are to transgender people — and it is here that I think all the good liberals who run the organization have an empathy gap.

Minorities, ethnic or sexual, are routinely subjected to violence and discrimination. But no other group is the target of this type of violence and discrimination to the degree that transgender women are, especially trans women of color. Despite making up a significantly smaller slice of the queer community than gay men or lesbians, in 2013 transgender women accounted for 72 percent of all anti-LGBT homicides according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Talusan had transgender friends who have been murdered and has faced threats of violence because of her gender identity in the past. For transgender people space and safety issues are a matter of life and death.

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“Despite how many degrees I have, how rich I am or not, or how much of a media profile I have — and all of these things have been used against me,” Talusan says. “When I walk in the street at night I’m afraid that someone who is transphobic is going to identify me as trans and hurt me.”

Talusan felt the practice of inviting strangers into the House, which violated the associations’ policy on guests, endangered her safety, but sought to address the situation without the involvement of the House administration comprised of residents. She confronted Susan, who in a meeting with other House-members promised she would not invite strangers into the shared residence again.

A week or so later, Talusan checked Susan’s profile on Couchsurfing.org. There was a new review from someone who had recently stayed in the House. Susan had given this person the key.

“I felt like I was living with somebody who not only did not care at all about my well-being, but, in light of her saying deeply transphobic things, but was an active threat who could potentially harm me,” Talusan says. “After that, I could no longer perceive the transphobic comments as neutral.”

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Talusan lodged a complaint with the Telluride Association and asked that Susan be offered alternative housing while mediation took place.

The Telluride Association collected written witness statements from a number of House members (Talusan said she has no idea how many or what they said). After two weeks during which Talusan heard nothing from the administration, the organization issued a decision: Susan had not violated the House rules. She was ordered to undergo sensitivity training. The decision was final and could not be appealed.

To Talusan, the decision did nothing to address her concerns about personal safety. She moved out of the House and wrote up a narrative of her experience and set up a petition at Change.org. “I do not feel that the Telluride Association has taken my needs seriously, even though they have an explicit policy that excludes discrimination based on gender identity,” she wrote. “It is clear to me that if, for example, [Susan] were male and I were a non-trans female being harassed, they would handle this situation very differently.”

Supporters — mostly Cornell and Telluride alumns but others, too — flocked to the petition’s comments section to express outrage at the organization’s failure to protect Talusan. More than a hundred supporters signed a letter to the association asking that Susan be removed from the House. The House president quit in solidarity with Meredith.

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***

In response to the petition, the Telluride Association issued a statement with boilerplate language about its commitment to gender inclusivity. “We appreciate the public's respect for all of our students' and community members' safety and privacy,” it concluded.

Talusan also sought the intervention of Cornell’s disciplinary office, which issued its version of a no-contact order between Talusan and Susan that required them to be 25 feet apart at all times. With the order in place, Talusan returned to the House, where she continued her protest by wearing a cap she had knitted with “you lost your dick” emblazoned across the top in public areas of the House. She posted regular updates on the petition and on her Facebook profile.

In every revolt there are accommodationists, which in this case included the House’s incoming president, who sought to institute an anonymous review of Talusan. When Talusan refused to comply, saying this amounted to victim-blaming, some House members tried to initiate a vote to evict her, but the vote fell through when a number of House-members ripped up their ballots, preventing a quorum.

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Talusan posted an update about the situation to the Telluride Association website, which she had helped create, and included a peer review as a testament to her credibility. The post was taken down and Talusan’s posting privileges were suspended. They, along with the post, were restored after Talusan pointed out that this act of censorship was against the university’s code of conduct.

One anonymous commenter on Talusan’s petition, who calls him- or herself “Concerned Citizen,” revealed Talusan's original name, a tactic known as “deadnaming” that is often used to question the truth of a trans person’s gender. He or she claims Talusan has “misrepresented and selectively portrayed this situation” and says that “[b]eing trans is not a guarantee against also being mentally ill.” But like her other detractors, Concerned Citizen does not say what Talusan’s misrepresentations have been; the critique that follows is about whether Talusan has been too extreme in her response to the alleged harassment.

The Telluride Association’s most questionable move has been to suspend Talusan and the president who resigned House privileges, including meals, and attempt to evict her for an alleged incident of bullying. While the Telluride Association has been tight-lipped about addressing the incidents of harassment against Talusan (see its statements here and here), its commitment to privacy didn’t seem to extend to what by all accounts was a screaming match at the dinner table. From its December 9 statement, which seemed to accuse Talusan of incitement:

We received several eyewitness reports that on December 5 unidentified individuals entered the Branch, on the invitation of at least one current resident, and harassed our students, guests, and faculty scholars. Several students reported being approached, being cursed at violently, and watching in alarm as strangers slammed fists on dining tables and screamed into their faces. In addition to the physical and verbal attacks, we have received multiple reports of a systematic, targeted campaign of email and verbal harassment, threatening defamation against other residents, associates, staff, and trustees.

Talusan says she had been trying to talk about her website posting privileges having been suspended when Susan, seated at the other end of the table, and a few other House-members laughed and raised their voices in an apparent attempt to stop Talusan from speaking. In response, several guests Talusan had invited to the dinner indeed shouted obscenities in an attempt to shut them up. The incident concluded with Talusan and her guests banging their fists on the table and chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

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Talusan does not know who is alleging she bullied them, and unlike her alleged harasser, she and the former House president were asked to leave immediately. Their scholarship is suspended while a review takes place.

Talusan, who lived in the Philippines during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, issued a response on her petition:

I am willing to go to prison for these rights, or to stay in the living room for an indefinite period until these rights are restored, through Winter Break and beyond. I am willing to endure all manner of physical and psychological pain for these rights because to not do so would be to dishonor the legacy of the thousands upon thousands of Filipinos who gave up their lives so that we can live in a country where we can speak freely, and where laws are not applied selectively to target those who oppose the despots in power.

In all the back-and-forth discussions on Facebook and the petition between Talusan and her detractors, no one seems to be repudiating her account of the events that have transpired over the last few months. The questions seem to be whether she overreacted, whether she should have sought to further educate her alleged harasser, and whether her behavior is “unstable” or “aggressive.”

On December 8, Talusan says the Ithaca Police were called to remove her from Telluride House, and that after some investigation, the police concluded that they had no grounds for doing so. Meanwhile, Talusan continues to reside at Telluride House, but the Telluride Association can initiate eviction proceedings against its first transgender resident as soon as tomorrow, December 20.

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Gabriel Arana

Gabriel Arana is a contributing writer at Salon. You can contact him by visiting his website.

MORE FROM Gabriel Arana

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

College Cornell Gender Higher Education Immigrant Ivy League Lgbt Men Minority Rights The Left Transphobia Women

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