What Radical Democracy Looks Like In A Transphobic Culture: Meredith Talusan Vs. The Telluride Association

I hate talking on the phone, and so I was nervous to call Meredith Talusan: You get the impression from her social media feed, and from accounts of the recent events at the Telluride Branch at Cornell University, that she might be one of those people who gets wrapped up in their outrage and is hard to hold a conversation with.

Social media feeds are a series of monologues, though. In dialogue, Meredith is calm, personable, and pleasant, albeit also outraged, and also deeply hurt.

The Telluride Branch at Cornell is part of the Telluride Association, a not-for-profit organization that provides housing for students. The Telluride Branches are democratically managed by the residents. The Telluride website says that the Branches are meant to “foster an everyday synthesis of self-governance and intellectual inquiry that enables students to develop their potential for leadership and public service.” So, bottom line is, it’s cooperative housing with room and board scholarships as well as opportunities for academic and service scholarships for Cornell graduate students.

Meredith is the Cornell Branch Telluride Association’s first openly transgender resident at a Telluride Branch. She came out earlier this year. By her account, shortly thereafter, another resident at the house — whom I’ll refer to as X, as Meredith did in her original account of the events — started making extraordinarily transphobic statements to her, like “You’re a man in a dress,” or “You lost your dick.”

Meredith didn’t immediately respond to that harassment by lodging a formal complaint. “I was friendly to her, and that was used to discredit me,” she told me, referring to the complaint she did eventually lodge. The last straw for Meredith was that X consistently invited houseguests to stay at CBTA who X didn’t know personally, but had met through CouchSurfing.org. X gave those houseguests keys and free reign of the house without the knowledge or consent of the other house members.

Meredith took issue with this. As a trans woman, she tells me, she experiences street harassment and threats of violence persistently. In her original account of the situation, she states that she’s had “the recent experience of people going to extremes to try to have access to me.” The idea that X was inviting houseguests who X couldn’t vouch for from personal experience, and who X couldn’t hold accountable except through a couch-surfing website, made Meredith feel like her safety was in jeopardy. If someone had gone to extremes to try to have access to her, the possibility that they’d go through CouchSurfing.org to do it was very real.

The CBTA Advisory Committee met to ask X to stop inviting strangers into the house — Meredith wasn’t the only person who saw a problem with giving keys and run of the house to strangers. X was defensive, says Meredith, but eventually agreed not to invite couchsurfers anymore. A few weeks later, in the beginning of October, X had another houseguest who X claimed wasn’t from Couchsurfing. When Meredith looked at X’s profile on the site, though, she found a review from the same houseguest, and it was clear that X had met their guest on the site.

It was at that point that Meredith started having panic attacks. “I realized the degree to which I was absorbing the transphobia,” she said of X’s attitude toward her, both verbally and behaviorally, by dismissing Meredith’s safety concerns. “You’re trying not to let yourself be victimized, and then you hit this wall, and you’re emotionally paralyzed, and terrified of leaving your room.”

Meredith filed a complaint with the Telluride Association, asking them to find a different housing situation for X until they could resolve the situation positively. “I didn’t want a punitive justice model,” Meredith told me.

Telluride collected written statements from witnesses, conducted an investigation that lasted under two weeks, never asked Meredith any questions and to her knowledge never interviewed anyone or asked follow-up questions. Based on those written statements, the Cornell Branch Committee decided that X had not violated any rules, but had to undergo sensitivity training. They stated that their decision was final and could not be appealed.

So Meredith decided to move out of Telluride Branch. That’s when she posted her Change.org petition to try — successfully — to get Telluride Association to accommodate her alternative housing until the situation could be resolved. She moved back into the Branch a few weeks later, after X was issued a no-contact order, requiring X not to speak to or come within 25 feet of Meredith. Shortly thereafter, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee at CBTA resigned in solidarity with Meredith, saying that he was frustrated with TA’s handling of the situation and the safety risks it posed to Meredith.

The situation in the Branch has, I’m told, been tense. X hasn’t stopped inviting houseguests from CouchSurfing. Meredith tried to post about the harassment on the CBTA blog, and her post was removed by a different house member within minutes and her posting privileges were revoked. It was only when she pointed out that that constitutes censorship and became vocal about it on social media that she was given back the ability to post. Last weekend, some house members tried to institute an anonymous peer review of Meredith. She refused, on the grounds that she had already experienced a great deal of victim-blaming regarding the harassment she had experienced. She’s been told that because she was polite to X after X’s alleged harassment, she couldn’t have actually been harassed. She’s been told that because she waited to file a formal complaint against X, she couldn’t have really been harassed. She’s been told that she only complained about X in order to protect herself from strangers, but that X never actually harassed her. She’s been told that because she initially declined to provide all the details about the situation — including X’s name, which she didn’t want to release out of respect for X’s privacy, as well as having been advised not to by the Telluride Association — her account of the harassment wasn’t trustworthy. She’s been told that because she has been articulate about the way that she was harassed, because she can identify and explain harassing behavior and stay calm about it, she couldn’t have been harassed — victims, apparently, can never actually be verbally coherent about what happened to them.

This has been one of the most frustrating parts of this experience for Meredith. “I don’t come from privilege, I’ve built my privilege, and all the tools I’ve acquired to build that privilege are being used against me,” she told me. “I’m squeaky-clean as a victim — I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never gotten in trouble, I have a degree from a prestigious institution, my academic record is excellent, but it happened to me anyway. Imagine the number of trans women of color who have been arrested for being trans on the street, and what they’re told when they try to advocate for themselves.”

Because she refused to comply with the review, the house members tried to initiate a vote to remove Meredith from the Branch. Several supportive Branch members tore up their ballots, and the vote couldn’t be held.

If X has gone through with sensitivity training, it hasn’t been enough for X to fully respect Meredith’s experiences with harassment, in her view. The situation came to a head this week, when, by Meredith’s account, she was talking to other house members about her experiences as a trans* woman, when X started laughing at and talking over her.

Things escalated: For Meredith, this was outrageous behavior. Meredith and her house members, who had been there to provide a support network for her in a housing situation that had become hostile, started pounding their fists on the table and yelling, “This is what democracy looks like!” The choice of slogan was a critique of the CBTA’s model: It is supposed to be radically democratic and self-governing as a way to provide truly equal representation for all house members. But if some house members are transphobic, and can exercise the privilege to dismiss trans* experiences because they are cis, can all house members really be equally represented, or equally respected, without the help of the administrative organization, Telluride Association? And what if Telluride Association fails to help?

During the course of the conflict at dinner, some of Meredith’s supportive house members got physically close to and verbally aggressive toward house members who were defending X. A few days later, because of this incident, a house member called the police to get Meredith — who has been staying in the house living room as a way to remain visible and assert her presence — removed from the Branch. Telluride Association’s Administrative Director was on site, and according to a representative from TA, the Administrative Director helped to de-escalate the situation. According to Meredith, she pointed out to the Administrative Director that it wouldn’t look particularly good for TA or Cornell to have a trans woman of color dragged kicking and screaming from her home because she complained about being harassed.

Yesterday, Telluride Association released a public statement about the situation, including this passage:

Telluride Association condemns recent personal attacks against our students and other residents at our Cornell Branch. 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.

I was also informed by a member of the Cornell Branch Committee that there are “numerous public representations of the situation that contain significant factual inaccuracies.” I’m sure this is true. I’m sure that Meredith’s perspective on the situation is colored by her prior negative experiences as a trans woman of color. I’m sure that X’s personal experiences have contributed to their version of events, as well. I’m not sure that a concrete truth about the course of events can be established.

And I’m sure that Telluride Association is trying to assess the situation and play by the book, the book being this policy:

Our policies prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical disability. Telluride Association investigates all allegations of harassment and misconduct within our community. We follow established rules and procedures, make formal findings, and take actions that ensure the safety and personal integrity of all Branch residents. Whenever necessary, we offer temporary housing, professional mediation, and other forms of social and transitional support.

But the problem is that the book — every book of policies and guidelines — that has been written in American educational institutions has been written in ignorance of the experience of being trans* and facing harassment, violence, stalking, threats, and defamation for it. The problem is that it’s well and good to say that you don’t allow discrimination based on gender identity, but actually enforcing that sentiment is difficult when you can’t even identify the statements and behaviors that constitute discrimination against trans* individuals. The problem is that there are so few openly trans* administrative officials in any school or education-related housing agency in America or anywhere else that it’s ridiculous to believe that the administrators who make decisions about what does or does not constitute harassment of trans* individuals have the insight to make that decision in an informed way.

And that’s reflected at Telluride, from the information that is so far available. X received the message from Telluride Association that telling Meredith “You lost your dick” and “You’re a man in a dress” was OK, that it didn’t violate policy, that it didn’t constitute discrimination based on gender identity. X heard Meredith talking about her experiences with harassment and violence as a trans woman of color, including a passage from this article Meredith wrote that detailed those experiences, and when Meredith told X that inviting strangers into their shared home made Meredith feel unsafe, X disregarded it. X was sent the message that behavior and attitude was OK. Meredith was left to advocate for herself, and when she did that, she was penalized for it. Her scholarship with Telluride (and therefore her housing) is under review, as is one of her CBTA allies’ scholarship.

Even the language contained in Telluride Association’s public statement poses problems. E-mail campaigns and public self-advocacy are not unheard-of for victims who are members of marginalized groups, and Meredith’s use of social media has been one of the few ways she’s been able to successfully gain enough support to pressure TA into action on her behalf as a resident with a harassment claim, as seen in the #StrikeTA! tumblr. For the TA to call it “a systematic, targeted campaign of email and verbal harassment, threatening defamation against other residents, associates, staff, and trustees” is negligent, inasmuch as it doesn’t disclose the fact that Meredith faced ongoing harassment and was left to fend for herself; and it’s also an exaggeration, inasmuch as Meredith has been trying to hold members of Telluride Association’s administration and alumni groups accountable for their decisions and for their silence. Vocally, loudly, even aggressively demanding accountability isn’t a harassment campaign, it’s an advocacy campaign.

In addition, the repeated insistence that there are “factual inaccuracies” in public accounts of the events implies that, because Meredith is the only party who has been public about the events (and not X or other house members who are in opposition to her presence in the house), Meredith is lying. That must be considered in the context of a public portrayal of trans* individuals as inherently dishonest. The story goes, trans* persons present as one gender, but were born with genitalia that says otherwise; therefore they’re lying about who they are. Look at this ad that portrays a trans woman as a man who’s been deceptive to a potential sexual partner. Look at this now-infamous Thought Catalog article that paints trans* individuals as pathological liars and psychologically damaged, that Thought Catalog nonetheless refused to remove from their site in the name of validating all thought as “important,” no matter how grossly ignorant or flagrantly bigoted. Look at Grantland’s article on Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt that used Vanderbilt’s trans* identity as evidence that she was prone to lying — and then outed her without her consent and led to her suicide. At no point has Telluride Association implied publicly, or to me in our conversations, that X’s or X’s allies accounts include factual inaccuracies —  only Meredith’s.

And that’s only one way in which Telluride Association has not treated everyone in this situation equally, despite what I think was truly their intention to do so. The most important way in which that has been the case is that it’s been an uphill battle for Meredith to have her concerns about what she describes as X’s pervasive and persistent attitudes and harassment listened to, validated, and treated with respect by Telluride Association; however, the house members who felt threatened by Meredith and her guests getting loud at the dinner table, pounding their fists, and having at least one guest use expletives have had their concerns listened to, validated, and treated with respect to the tune of Meredith being at risk of losing her scholarship and housing.

My perspective is this, having talked to Meredith and representatives from Telluride Association: I think the administrators of Telluride Association are trying to do their jobs well. I think they’re trying to protect their residents. I think they have good intentions. But I think they’re doing their jobs in a culture that is and has always been dismissive of non-cis gender identities. I think they’re working on foundations that were built exclusive of trans* people. And I think that because they’re doing their best to do the right thing, they’re digging their heels in on their narrative of Meredith as harasser, Meredith as liar, instead of stepping back and examining those trans*-exclusive foundations, and whether or not some very, very old biases against trans* individuals are creeping into their assessment of the situation.

I was encouraged repeatedly not to publish a story on this situation right now, because the investigation is ongoing. To that point, I have to note that I do not have all of the information about the situation, and more or different information becoming available could change the conversation. There’s a lot that the Telluride Association won’t and/or can’t say, and they’re interested in this discussion being private; and on the other hand, Meredith is very interested in having this be a public conversation and has accordingly been extremely vocal about her perspective. My concern is, if we don’t talk about it now, will the investigation go forward under a premise that has transphobic underpinnings? Will a trans woman of color lose her home in the process? If not now, when?

[Telluride Association]
[Change.org]
[Medium]
[ThinkProgress]
[Thought Catalog]
[Deadspin]

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