The Telluride Association’s Silence And The Transphobic Harassment Of Meredith Talusan

It’s been almost three months since I started looking into the case of Meredith Talusan, a trans* scholar at Cornell University who had a housing scholarship through the Telluride Association, “a nonprofit organization that creates and fosters educational communities that teach leadership and service through democratic participation.”

The reaction to the original piece was predictable: A lot of support, and a few very vocal critiques, which is a generous code word for being told that I was putting my credibility and my employer’s at risk with a story that was generally received as even-keel and was transparent about exactly how much information I had and exactly where I got it, as well as that I had not “done even the slightest bit of critical thinking” on the matter, and that I was “grinding an ax,” “in denial,” and a “wingnut.” I mean, go back and see for yourself if that seems about right (obviously, I don’t think so). I mention it not because I take any of it to heart, personally, but because one of the commenters, posting under the handle “Concerned Citizen,” has become a sort of figurehead for a lot of the things that have gone wrong with Meredith’s case in the last almost-three months.

In December, when I talked to Meredith, she was living in the living room of the Cornell Branch Telluride Association house as a protest against a string of actions taken against her: First, a fellow house member told Meredith “You lost your dick” and “you’re a man in a dress.” Then, that house member — who I’ve been referring to as X at the request of the Telluride Association — invited houseguests who were strangers (even to X) through the website Couchsurfing, without asking any of the other house members. When Meredith explained to X that she had been stalked in the past and that giving houseguests who could not be vouched for keys and the run of the house put her at risk, X claimed that she would stop hosting strangers — and then did it again anyway. Meredith filed a complaint against X through the Telluride Association, both for the issue with the houseguests and for the transphobic remarks, and asked that X be removed from the house and given other housing until they could mediate a solution to the problem. Instead, TA launched a cursory investigation, found that X had done nothing wrong, and assigned her to go through sensitivity training.

Meredith launched a petition through Change.org to — successfully — get funding for alternative housing for herself, pending what she still hoped would be a positive resolution to the conflict between herself and X. Meredith moved back into the CBTA house just a few weeks later, after X was issued a no-contact order. X didn’t, by the accounts that are available to me, abide by that no-contact order. She also didn’t stop inviting unknown houseguests. Meredith tried to post about the situation on the CBTA house blog; the post was unilaterally removed at the urging of the committee that oversees CBTA, and Meredith’s posting privileges were revoked. She put pressure on the house members and on the CBTA committee to reinstate her posting privileges on social media, and succeeded. House members tried to call for an anonymous peer review of Meredith, and she refused to participate, anticipating that it would give people a free forum on which to blame her for her own victimization without consequence. Finally, when X continued to dismiss and laugh off Meredith’s experiences, Meredith and some houseguests she was hosting (not strangers!) staged a protest at the dinner table, during which they raised their voices and pounded on the table. A house member tried to have Meredith removed by force from the premises; Meredith successfully fought that, too.

Since then, she has been “depreferred” by the CBTA, meaning, in effect, evicted; however, because of the complicated nature of the situation, she was able to negotiate a stipend on which she’s been living for this semester. She’s gotten housing elsewhere. She heard back from Cornell about their investigation into the situation with X last week, and was told that by their judgment, neither X nor Meredith did anything that merits action on Cornell’s part. Meredith told me that, after she filed her complaint with Cornell, “It took them three months to only talk to her. They didn’t gather information from anyone else, and they didn’t give me a chance to respond, they just took all of her statements at face value when I have e-mails from her that contradict those statements.” She was told by administrators at Cornell that they understood the quality of the harassment she was facing, because they were people of color who could empathize with racism, women who could empathize with sexism, or GLB individuals who could empathize with homophobia.

But, as Meredith points out, transphobia and the harassment of trans* individuals takes on a completely different tenor than those forms of harassment. So far this year — just in the last two months — at least seven trans* women have been killed in America in hate crimes, and it’s hardly being reported on except through special interest, GLBT-oriented outlets like The Advocate. Which isn’t to minimize the violence other communities face, of course; it’s just to say that the popular attitude toward trans* people and trans* lives is not one that is particularly validating. We are having major, widespread discussions about police brutality against Black people, about domestic violence against women, and about equal rights for gays, but we are not having major, widespread discussions about the deluge of hate crimes against trans* people. It simply isn’t the same thing; empathy regarding harassment toward one marginalized group cannot guarantee the ability to understand or empathize with the experience that a different marginalized group has with harassment. Cornell’s investigation seemed inadequate to Meredith on its face, just in terms of the actual process; but it is furthermore inadequate that there seemed to be no serious reflection on the part of the people investigating as to whether they were truly able to empathize with Meredith about why the harassment she faced was so destructive and therefore come to a decision that would be just. There’s an appeal pending on that decision now.

Meredith is also appealing her depreferment from CBTA. She describes the process as such: “[CBTA has] assigned three people to present my case, to put to a general vote at their annual convention. The three people are not required to contact me, and I’m not allowed to know who the three people are. I’m not even allowed to be at the convention to present my case. I have 10 minutes to present my case remotely.”

So Telluride Association launched an investigation that took two weeks and involved no follow-up, during the last semester. Cornell launched an investigation that took three months, but involved no follow-up, and was concluded this semester. Now, Meredith’s last shot at asserting herself involved three people who are anonymous to her and who have chosen to remain anonymous to her, who are not required to speak to her, presenting her case at an annual convention that she’s not allowed to attend.

Telluride Association has invoked “confidentiality” all along as their reason not to make any substantial comments on the situation past a public statement that, as I explained in my first post on Meredith’s case, painted the situation as if Meredith had been duplicitous and violent, but that X had done nothing wrong. And, as I explained, these are stereotypes about trans* individuals that go back a long, long way in American culture — the prevalent attitude being that trans* people are liars. And again, as I explained, I do not believe that the Telluride Association, at that point, was acting in bad faith or being explicitly or intentionally discriminatory toward Meredith as a trans woman, but I think that that old, ingrained attitude about trans* individuals crept into their judgment nonetheless. That’s the way the public statement read, and that’s the way their correspondence with me read.

But let’s get back to this invocation of confidentiality. First of all, the public statement itself did not apply confidentiality to Meredith: anyone with an off-hand knowledge of the situation would know that the public statement was talking about Meredith’s forms of protest, but did not mention a word about X’s harassment of Meredith. There: Confidentiality applied to X, but not to Meredith. An e-mail I received from a committee member implied that Meredith was lying to me, but made no mention of anyone else involved in the situation. There: Confidentiality applied to X, but not to Meredith. And now, we have an appeal process in which Meredith cannot know who is supposed to be defending her, but they are nonetheless able to talk about Meredith’s case publicly, at the annual convention. There: Confidentiality applied to the representatives, but not to Meredith.

Worse, though, is the issue of confidentiality as it relates to the online harassment that Meredith has been facing in the last several months. And let’s tackle “Concerned Citizen” first. You can find their increasingly disturbing responses to Meredith’s Change.org petition in full here, and the comments on our post on Meredith’s case here, but I will highlight a number of key points:

TRANSPHOBIC REMARKS:

  • “Experiencing injustice is no excuse for becoming a tyrannical monster who seeks to bludgeon and terrify others into compliance with their wishes.” And elsewhere: “Yes, she is a monster.” [Depicting a trans woman as not human, a very old, entrenched way of talking about trans* people.]
  • “She gave away the truth through her lies — lies of omission, lies of chronology.” And then: “She wants a lawyer, tell her to bring it on. The truth will come all the way out then…” [Depicts Meredith as a habitual liar, also a very old, entrenched stereotype about trans* people.]
  • “Has anyone realized that she has been a professional grad student for almost 20 years now? I know that when she was at Harvard as [REDACTED – Dead name] Talusan, she pitched an epic fit when a dance project of hers wasn’t funded.” [Dead-naming trans* people is a way of insisting that they are actually the gender that they were assigned when they were born, as well as calling their integrity into question by implying that they aren’t who they say they are.]
  • “I looked, but all of her name changes and identity shifts obfuscate more than not. […] Someone else would have to get involved for deep background and because this is a microsituation it’s not likely I’d get help. However, given her relationship with truth-telling, and claiming that anyone who spots a lie or calls her on her bullshit is a villain and transphobe, I suspect that there are other fraudulent and self-serving actions in her past, typically powered by the radical misappropriation of social justice rhetoric.” [This made my jaw drop: It actually, directly equates having a trans* identity with lying and obfuscation.]

INACCURACIES:

  • “Then she demanded that this person be evicted, because she felt unsafe around her.”
  • “You inviting a group of people over to yell at your housemates and disrupt their home and academic lives is context that MATTERS, and it is bullying!” And elsewhere: “It was non-residents that Meredith invited over for the sole purpose of having a goon squad, because she felt she needed numbers on her side.” [Meredith’s statement to me on this: “I invited them for dinner. The protest was spontaneous.” Even representatives from TA seemed to understand that Meredith did not intend to protest at the beginning of the meal.]
  • “I do not know anyone who lives at Telluride House.” And then, later: “I knew that a genuine case of unequivocal hate speech would have berserked the house, which is basically packed full of bright-eyed young idealists.”
  • “Her obvious goal was a personal vendetta seeking retribution and retaliation against one person.” [Meredith has consistently stated that she was seeking a peaceful solution to the problem, and has screencaps of e-mails that she sent to TA administrators to demonstrate this.]
  • “I inferred that her request for people to come add numbers to her “Occupy Telluride/Living Room/Table” of the house (which she made public on facebook) was related to the consequent event.” [I looked through Meredith’s public posts on Facebook and found no such invitation, other than an invitation for people to sign her petition and a letter to the Telluride Association.]

ARMCHAIR DIAGNOSES AND SCARE TACTICS:

  • “You have done so many good things in this world prior to this event, and everything is now being tarnished by the gross brush of histrionic narcissism that makes you look like you have a serious case of borderline personality disorder.” And then, later: “I believe they have a moral obligation to make sure that you get a psychiatric intervention. Your lies and deceptions are either sociopathic or delusional.” And elsewhere: “It’s about a narcissistic sociopath who wants things her way, and screw everyone else.” And again: “Being trans does not inoculate someone against being a sociopathic asshole.”
  • “I would not be surprised if you finally burned the house down because you’re not getting your way.” And elsewhere: “I’m scared of her, and I’m scared for the scholars who live there. I think she’s going to burn that house down to the ground. The police have been called out several times because of her behavior.” [A statement from Meredith, on Facebook: “In case this isn’t clear I am now residing in Telluride House legally as Ithaca police has determined that there are no grounds to remove me.”]
  • “Trans people, as is true of every other marginal/intersectional/minority group that has ever been marginalized or victimized, are not magically inoculated against being sociopathic assholes by virtue of their participation in that cohort.”

OTHER EXCERPTS TO PAY ATTENTION TO:

  • “I thought it would be prudent to semi-identify myself to Telluride in case Meredith claims that my comments constitute some kind of internal privacy breach.”
  • “And when you or anyone else decides to go to social media to try to ruin someone with lies and ask the internet to help you do it, they should expect inquiry. They should expect investigation. And that is a blade that can turn in your hand.”

Phew. Imagine being on the receiving end of that.

Meredith had been trying to just ignore Concerned Citizen rather than validating them by giving them her time of day, but here’s where things get really, really strange: On a Facebook status in which she thanked her significant other for his support, the partner of a Telluride Association housemember linked to the comment in which Concerned Citizen dead-named Meredith, and demanded a response from her. Shortly thereafter, this partner — who we’ll call Y — became friends with a scholar at another institution — who we’ll call Z — who, just two weeks ago, posted harassing comments on an article Meredith had shared to her timeline, written by Jon Ronson about the social media campaign against Justine Sacco. Z claimed that Meredith had tried to launch just such an attack against X and other members of the Telluride Association, the veracity of which, frankly, I’ll leave up to the reader. Meredith did make some very strongly-worded posts on Facebook about her situation, but, in my opinion, it did not rise to the level of shaming Sacco received after sending out a very poorly-thought-out tweet, and Meredith, again, has evidence to prove that she expressed to TA administrators that she did not want X to be evicted from the house or removed from Telluride Association.

Here are some really choice excerpts from Z’s comments:

  • “…Trying to get [X] evicted from the house?” [Another false accusation that Meredith attempted to get X evicted, similar to Concerned Citizen’s responses.]
  • “You claimed to have become utterly incapacitated and incapable of functioning because of two offhand comments made by someone who was simply baffled by your sense of inflated entitlement.” [If X was making the comments “You lost your dick” and “You’re a man in a dress” because she felt that Meredith is “entitled,” then Z is expressing a belief that being trans* requires a “sense of inflated entitlement,” another transphobic remark.]
  • “The inviting of randos to the house to scream at people…” [Another accusation that Meredith’s friends were invited specifically to protest, when by all accounts they were invited for dinner and the protest was spontaneous.]
  • “You tried to use social media to wage a war against this girl and TA in general and the knife turned in your hand.” [Please refer back to the last comment listed under Concerned Citizen: “And when you or anyone else decides to go to social media to try to ruin someone with lies and ask the internet to help you do it, they should expect inquiry. They should expect investigation. And that is a blade that can turn in your hand.”]
  • “And then you’ve got your winged monkeys, ever dwindling in number.” [Again comparing Meredith to a monster -0 in this case the Wicked Witch of the West.]
  • In a separate comment, Z linked to this “Office Homophobe” sketch from “Key & Peele,” which asserts the same thesis as Concerned Citizen voiced many times, albeit, I think, with different intent: “Being trans does not inoculate someone against being a sociopathic asshole.”

And, very, very importantly, there’s this piece of information: “You had at least one housemate literally hiding in a bathroom that night.” Prior to Z mentioning this, Meredith had been unaware that anyone in the house had been hiding in the bathroom during her protest, which meant that Z had information from someone inside the CBTA (remember, Z is not a TA member or, to anyone’s knowledge, associated with TA at all). A mutual friend of Meredith’s confirmed with Z that she had been getting information from Y, the partner of a housemember with whom Meredith was on bad terms, as well as a separate CBTA house member.

There: Confidentiality applied to everyone else, but not to Meredith.

Because Concerned Citizen’s comments had contained sensitive information about Meredith, X, and the whole situation, I looked up Concerned Citizen’s IP address through The Frisky’s commenting system. The coordinates of that IP address, when mapped, correspond to the university where Z is employed as faculty. Coincidence? Possibly, I guess. But between the similarities in rhetoric, tone, and phrasing, and the location of Concerned Citizen’s IP address, I would consider that a practically impossible coincidence. Add on to that the fact that I had sent Z a message via Facebook asking if she would be interested in explaining the interest she’s taken in Meredith’s case, as demonstrated in her comments on Meredith’s Facebook page, and Z has since either blocked many people, myself included, or deactivated her account, and it all seems extremely suspect. I’ve reached out to Z for comment, and if I get a response, I will update.

The problem isn’t that some rando scholar who isn’t at all connected to the situation is harassing Meredith, although that’s unfortunate. The problem is that Z sought out members of TA, found TA members who would give her information, and used that information to harass Meredith, apparently for months, if Z is, in fact, Concerned Citizen. Worse still, if Concerned Citizen can be taken at their word and they indeed identified themselves to the Telluride Association, then TA has actively and willingly allowed that harassment and breach of confidentiality to continue. I wrote to the President of Telluride Association, Amy Saltzman, asking the following: “TA has been claiming confidentiality as its reasoning for not speaking publicly about the situation. If house members aren’t respecting the confidentiality of the case, does the Telluride Association hold its house members to the same high standard of confidentiality? Is leaking information to unrelated third parties that they’re using to harass a depreferred house member against the Telluride Association’s rules?” And again, if I receive any comment, I will update.

Meredith put it beautifully: “The confidentiality that they’re espousing is at their discretion.” It seems, after the last three months, that TA only values confidentiality when it protects their reputation. They protect themselves with silence, withholding, and refusals that are couched in a veil of “confidentiality,” but if they have the opportunity to make Meredith vulnerable by exposing information about her actions and speaking about them in such a way that it makes her look violent or deceitful, then they will certainly do so; if they have the opportunity to make Meredith vulnerable by allowing other people to speak to her experience on her behalf at TA’s annual convention, but will not let Meredith choose those people or even know who they are, then they will certainly do that too. If they have the choice to care about the abuse that Meredith is facing online because TA members leaked information about her that’s supposedly “confidential,” they choose not to. There are only consequences for breaking confidentiality when it’s Meredith and she’s naming involved members of the harassment situation on social media in an attempt to stand up for herself against an institution (which has held Meredith’s career at the mercy of their will) that has consistently demonstrated itself to be biased against her.

My guess is that at this point, I won’t hear from anyone, particularly not anyone from Telluride Association, no matter how many times I ask them to tell me their side or explain their thinking or even just give me some clue as to how their appeals process, with its layers of unbalanced confidentiality and anonymity, serves their purpose of providing a living environment in which students can participate in democracy. I’ve gone over the comments on my original post about this a few times, and the only thing that bothers me about the critical comments is the accusation that I designed the story to be one-sided. I corresponded with the people at the Telluride Association with whom I was allowed, basically, to correspond. I included their responses and provided my reaction to it in the context of the information that I had available. This time, I have to throw my hands up in the air on trying to obtain even a single comment from anyone at TA, CBTA specifically, or Cornell, because I’ve reached out and not gotten a response. The Telluride Association, by not responding, is leaving their reputation up for interpretation, and it doesn’t look good under examination.

And to be clear: I do not believe that Meredith is a compulsive liar, a sociopath, or a narcissist. I believe that she is a hurt human being, and that her feelings are affecting the way she talks about and perceives this situation. I’ve taken that into account. Nevertheless, as a source, every piece of information she’s given me about the timeline of the events, about her own life, about other people’s statements, has checked out when cross-referenced.

Meredith is writing and defending her dissertation this semester, which means that even if things had gone swimmingly, she’d be out of TA soon anyhow. The Telluride Association could well just be crossing their fingers that if they evade and obfuscate and refuse to talk, Meredith will graduate, the whole thing will blow over, and they can just bury it. But Meredith’s not going to stop talking about it, because this isn’t only an issue of her housing while she finishes grad school. “How can trans* people feel welcome in the house after this situation?” She asked me. “How is it going to be possible for TA to move on if people are aware of the situation? And I’m going to try to make as many people aware of the situation as possible.”

Send me a line at [email protected].

UPDATE: Meredith sent me an e-mail with a factual correction. The decision through Cornell’s investigation – that neither X nor Meredith did anything that merited action on Cornell’s part – is not final, and is pending an appeal. “The judicial administrator told me it’s unlikely there will be an in-person hearing. They’ll just refer the decision to a panel of three faculty members. I don’t know if I’ll be aware of who those faculty members are.”