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Remembering Karl “KJ” Surkan

It is with a heavy heart that we announce the unexpected passing of our dear friend KJ Surkan. KJ passed away peacefully in his sleep on Saturday, January 28th. Born February 6, 1969, KJ was a light in this world and was an integral part of our community. There are no words to express our deep sorrow but we are grateful to have known KJ.

KJ’s contributions and impact to the BRCA community is vast. As a leader and activist, KJ was an important voice for privacy, ethics, rights and research. He was a founding Board Member of the Light Collective (#BeLikeLight) and #LGBTQIA+ Patient Rights Advocate. If that wasn’t enough, KJ or Dr. Surkan was an author, lecturer, academic and a professor of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over 18 years. He was a beloved professor by his students and colleagues at MIT.

KJ’s greatest achievement are his beautiful kids. His devotion and love for his kids was immense. Our hearts break for his teenaged kids and family. We send our deepest condolences to KJ’s loved ones.

RIP KJ, you will be deeply missed.

I took the attached photo at our Light Collective cancer advocacy conference in Washington, D.C. The photo is of KJ, on the left, with the BRCA Sisterhood founders Teri Smieja, in the middle, and Karen Malken Lazarovitz on the right. KJ’s smile was big but his heart was even bigger.


  • cd ybarra says:

    KJ is so missed. Thank you for this memorial.

  • Lucas Hilderbrand says:

    I met Karl when we worked together for the Minnesota Daily A&E, the arts magazine of the University of Minnesota newspaper. We were both queer and soon forged a friendship, even a kinship. Karl was smart, funny, and always overextended. If I’m honest, his life was a little chaotic between juggling multiple jobs to support himself and his pets, multiple projects with piles of book and paper everywhere, and serial drama with serial girlfriends. He had a rakish charisma.
    Karl was also generous and kind. When I moved out of a boyfriend’s apartment, Karl took me in, and his house made for a happy home. (He also had helped me move in six months earlier, with an absurdly oversized U-Haul that was tricky to turn or park, because he was moving into his first house.) Karl’s dog Simon was the sweetest dog I’ve ever known, and we were a pack; but Simon was jealous of the cats Alice and Pablo. I helped Karl steal Simon back from an ex. Karl got a deal on a subscription for frozen Omaha steaks, so we ate steak almost every day, cooked on his George Foreman grill. One time when his adviser was out of town, Karl had to take care of her cats (who were macrobiotic and on various amino acids) and plants (that only drank still water that had rested and settled); the instructions were comical, but Karl followed through.
    Karl opened up lesbian cultures and trans lives to me in ways that expanded and formed my understanding of the world. Karl was working on his dissertation about trans memoir, which I think was his way of working toward his own transition. When a drag king troupe came to the Club Metro in St Paul, we went together. We talked about Boys Don’t Cry, which hit close to home because he was from Nebraska, and Bound, which seemed like a lesbian film at the time but maybe was always actually trans. He told me excitedly when he came home from a conference after meeting Sylvia Rivera Law Project founder Dean Spade and showing me Dean’s zine; Karl was buzzed on a contact high with the feeling of possibility.
    I didn’t keep in touch like I should have after moving to New York, then California; Karl had his own full life, too. I last saw Karl in Philadelphia in 2017 while passing through town. Karl had children by this point, yet he seemed exactly the same core person he had always been.

  • Brandy Schillace says:

    I didn’t know; I loved Karl so much—he stayed here while moving his parents. (I’m in Cleveland). I’m heartbroken.

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