A note on Kiira Triea’s place in the history of intersex activism

A couple of times now I’ve been asked about certain online misrepresentations of my activist colleague Kiira Triea by academic colleagues who, in their classes, use Kiira’s excellent essay, “Power, Orgasm, and the Psychohormonal Research Unit,” an essay which I had the privilege to reprint in the anthology Intersex in the Age of Ethics. My academic colleagues and their students can tell right away that the loony things said about Kiira on certain sites are indeed loony. So they’ve asked me to provide them with some of Kiira’s real history so their students can know more about the background of the author whose work they are reading. I am happy to do that here.

Kiira Triea was one of the founders of the intersex rights movement. During the earliest days of ISNA, Kiira organized events for ISNA and managed a lot of the early support requests and portions of the ISNA website. As ISNA moved heavily in the direction of policy and advocacy and away from active peer support, Kiira and Heike Boedeker founded CISAE, the Coalition for Intersex Support, Activism, and Education, to help fill that need.  Kiira’s importance in the early days of ISNA and the intersex rights movement is one reason historians like me and and other academics have turned to her for information about the early intersex rights movement, including ISNA’s earliest history.

Kiira recently entrusted to me her original correspondence with Cheryl Chase, the founder of ISNA. Reading it gave me chills, as it records in their interchange the first real articulations of what would become the intersex rights movement. For example, there’s an amazing letter dated July 3, 1993, from Kiira (who was legally Denise Tree, but who used Kiira Triea as her political name) to Cheryl Chase (the political name used by Bonnie Sullivan/Bo Laurent). There Kiira gives her personal and medical history, and then writes:

I decided to try and get to the bottom of everything. It’s like my whole life had been a lie so I’d find out the truth, no matter what it was. […] The first thing I decided to do was find other intersex people, especially people who had been at the [Johns Hopkins] PRU, to see how they felt. […] Like you, I’ve met a few other intersexuals. […] I too have been very much wanting to talk to others with our experiences who have had genital surgery and to share our experiences and perceptions about our sexuality. […] I feel the same as you too about this culturally enforced isolation that intersexed people have no choice but to live with, all alone. I want to change that very much. We need to be able to network. […] I am thrilled we have met, you are the first other intersex person I’ve been able to talk to about the larger issues that have affected our lives[.]

A few weeks later in the correspondence, Kiira responded to a question from Cheryl about what it was like to be in the Hopkins gender system. (Cheryl had been treated by descendants of Money’s model, not by Money himself.) Kiira answered:

The hardest question you’ve asked me though is what it was like being Dr. Money’s patient. I think I am so confused and twisted by my experience at the PRU that I’m not ready or proficient to say anything sensible. He seemed so understanding at times, this powerful man who seemed like he wanted to help, and then the same day something would happen to me at the PRU which he ran which would humiliate and embarrass me so much I can barely think clearly of it. All I could say for certain is that something was wrong there, something I’m not sure what, was wrong with him. The PRU was an unhealthy place, a place with some kind of sickness as part of its nature.

As it turned out, long before John Colapinto exposed what happened to David Reimer (known as “John/Joan”) at the Hopkins clinic of John Money, Kiira publicly exposed in powerful prose what had happened there to her (and others like her), through her autobiographical essay, “Power, Orgasm, and the Psychohormonal Research Unit.” This piece was published originally in 1997 in a special issue of the journal Chrysalis, a volume made possible through the kind support of Chrysalis editor Dallas Denny and the editing efforts of Martha Coventry and Cheryl Chase. In that volume, Kiira also used her comedic talents to contribute a satirical send-up of the Hopkins approach to intersex. (The satire was so well written that at least one academic article cited it as a real primary source!)

Kiira is perhaps most famous for designing the Phall-O-Meter, a brilliant little activist tool based on an idea by Suzanne Kessler. The Phall-O-Meter (printed on laminated paper in actual size) allowed us intersex activists to quickly explain to people what we were talking about and why the existing system of “treatment” for intersex was pretty crazy. Because it also had a sense of humor built in, the Phall-O-Meter utterly disarmed people–even surgeons. The Phall-O-Meter is so historically important that copies of it are now held in the Smithsonian Institution collection on the history of intersex activism, a collection being curated by Katherine Ott.

As I understand it, some of the online misrepresentations about Kiira claim she does not have the intersex and intersex activist history she has said she does. (I say “as I understand it” because I don’t bother to read sites that consist of fiction representing as fact.) This is completely absurd. Not only do historical records (including ISNA’s own archives, now housed at the Kinsey Institute) confirm Kiira’s history, a few years ago a clinician associated with John Money and the Hopkins gender clinic confirmed for me Kiira’s medical history as an intersex patient at the PRU. (He didn’t do it on purpose, since it violated patient confidentiality, but he confirmed her diagnosis and status as a patient there anyway, during a discussion on another topic.) To state the obvious, one shouldn’t believe everything one reads on the Web. Look at the evidence, and consider the trustworthiness of the source.

Finally, I don’t mean to imply with this post that there are not other people (including many with intersex) who were critical to the early history of the intersex rights movement and whose histories have also been obscured or muddied by the way media (including the internet) works. To name just a few more examples of people whose critical contributions to the early intersex rights movement have been largely ignored by overly simplistic stories about the intersex rights movement: Max and Tamara BeckMorgan HolmesSherri Groveman MorrisDavid Iris Cameron StrachanMani MitchellAngela Moreno LippertDavid Vandertie, and Hida Viloria.  But there are many others.

This was originally published February 12, 2008. Kiira died in 2012. My remembrance is here.