When Filipina doctoral student Meredith Talusan came out as trans at Cornell University earlier this year, she knew she might face social pushback. As a transgender woman of color and social justice activist, she was well aware that she could encounter stigma and ignorance.
But little did she know that the response from one housemate at the Cornell-affiliated Telluride Association would escalate so quickly into harassment and ultimately endanger her housing and scholarship. And she could only hope that the university administration would intervene on her behalf as she lodged a formal complaint — a possibility that has, she tells The Advocate, been bypassed, as the administration continues to not take her claim of mistreatment seriously.
Talusan's ordeal intensified in early December, when she was asked by her Telluride House roomates to leave their housing cooperative. She was being ousted, Talusan told Salon, because she had informed the group that a housemate was harassing her for being trans and requested that the alleged harasser be temporarily housed elswhere as her behavior was investigated.
Talusan told her housemates that her alleged attacker had referred to Talusan as "a man dressed as a woman" asked her why she "make[s] such a big deal" about being transgender, and stated "you have lost your dick," according to a Change.org petition written after the Telluride Association and Cornell's administration opted not to remove her alleged attacker from the house. Talusan also alleged that, against house policy, her former roommate had been housing "couchsurfing" strangers in their living quarters.
Talusan chose to temporarily leave Telluride House because, she says, she feared for her safety as long as the violator remained housed there and because the woman had, according to Talusan, hosted another stranger after being ordered by a Telluride House vote to cease. The danger of this practice felt particularly acute to Talusan, she told Salon, because she is a trans woman of color who has been threatened and has had trans friends who were murdered for expressing their gender identity.
Talusan then approached Cornell's disciplinary office about her situation. Once officials issued a no-contact order that Talusan and her alleged attacker should remain 25 feet apart, Talusan felt a bit safer and returned to Telluride House two weeks after she initially left. She began discussing and protesting her alleged mistreatment among her housemates, some of whom supported her — including the house president, who resigned in solidarity.
For days, Talusan maintained her petition online, kept Facebook followers updated on the situation, posted a statement to the Telluride House website that led to her being suspended from posting (and then quickly reinstated when she pointed out on social media the act could be considered "censorship"), wore a homemade hat reading "So you lost your dick?" in Telluride House, and refused to be silent when house members allegedly tried to speak and laugh over her during a communal dinner. One such instance on December 5 ended in an escalation of obsentities from Talusan's supporters, who joined her in pounding on the table shouting, "This is what democracy looks like."
When house members demanded a formal review of Talusan's behavior, she refused to comply, according to Salon. When a vote to remove her was called in response, several housemates tore up their ballots, ending the vote. Subsequently, Talusan was anonymously accused of bullying by a housemate and suspended immediately for her actions — a suspension that currently remains intact and has kept her from receiving her room-and-board scholarship.
As debate about the administration's handling of Talusan and her alleged attacker now rages on social media, new sites, and Change.org — often speculating about, as Salon notes, whether Talusan's response to her alleged abuse was excessive or volatile, rather than denying that her account of events was true — the predominant issue for Talusan has now become the need to fund her own housing and to ensure that the Telluride Association and Cornell take responsibility for the fair treatment of their trans students.
And as Talusan continues to demand that the administration address her alleged maltreatment, her story is raising questions about how much liberal educational institutions actually "walk the talk" of their gender identity nondiscrimination policies (which both Telluride and Cornell currently have).
"The Telluride Association is one of those hippie-dippie, social-justice/educational organizations full of well-meaning liberal folks," explains Talusan's friend and Salon writer Gabriel Arana. "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."
Arana contends that Talusan is, in a sense, being penalized for not being an ideal minority student that U.S. educational institutions can find palatable and assimilable: quiet about the ways that her minority status still marks her as supposedly "less than" or a target for classmates' or administrators' prejudices. A first-generation Philippine immigrant who lived through the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Talusan says she will remain steadfast in opposing what appears, to her, to be a selective application of rules and active attempts to silence her experience from becoming public knowledge.
In fact, she's become all the more empowered.
"Essentially," she tells The Advocate, "the Telluride Association has not only failed to adequately address my concerns, but by prolonging the situation and refusing to back down in the wake of public pressure against them, without any evidence to contradict my version of events, then supporting house members who took retaliatory action against me by suspending me, they're exposing me to more attacks just so I can continue to fight for myself and future trans students, so we can have the right to be treated equally and fairly in their programs."
Further, with the details of her situation reaching a wider and wider audience, Talusan tells The Advocate that the hateful messages she's receiving daily should only confirm to Telluride and her housemates the need for true protection of trans people's equality and dignity.
"If they were in doubt before about why transphobic abuse and disregard for the safety of trans people, especially trans women of color, is such an issue, I hope that the online victim-blaming and personal violation I've endured as a result of lodging my complaint demonstrates why it's important to adopt policies that are sensitive to the needs of trans people," she says.
Talusan expects to learn the final decision on whether she can retain her housing with the Telluride Association in the next few days.