I have been reading of one of the most remarkable people transgender people ever born; Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, formerly Joanna Michelle Clark, formerly Michael Clark.
Michael Clark was born on 16 June 1938 in Pontiac, Michigan, USA. From 3-years-old he found he felt he was different from other boys, he preferred the company of girls, and even tried to emulate them. “I tried to talk and act like a girl instead of a boy,” said Michael in an interview, “I believed I was one of them – even though I knew I had a male anatomy. When I started going to elementary school, the other boys called me a sissy because I walked without ‘macho’ stride and carried my schoolbooks like a girl.”
By the time he reached junior high school, Michael tried to discuss his transgender feelings, but could not make them understand. Obviously there was a great deal of prejudice at the time, and Michael tried to be what he perceived as normal, joining the US Naval Cadets while in High School. When he left school in 1957, he went into the USN full-time as an avionics technician, eventually rising to Chief Petty Officer and an Instructor/Evaluator in anti-submarine warfare, scuba diving and sea survival in Hawaii, and serving on active duty in Vietnam.
Michael married his first wife in 1961, still trying to prove he was ‘normal’. However, although fathering a son, he could never satisfy his wife, and of course suffered the frustrations of not being sexually fulfilled himself, which led to him throwing himself further into his Naval career. The couple divorced in 1972, and he never saw his son again.
Still blinded by the prejudice of others, Michael married again, and this time found a partner who was not only sympathetic to his plight, was to be instrumental in changing his life.
“My new wife was a girl that I really intensely loved as a person. I still love her today. We liked the same things – hiking, concerts. But she needed more from me than I could give. And she started having a guilt trip over our situation, thinking she was at fault. Finally I said to myself: ‘My God, I’m reining this beautiful woman’s life by keeping my secret from her.’ So I broke down and told her I was a transsexual – a woman trapped in a man’s body. Instead of making me feel ashamed, she talked about what we had to do.”
Clark’s wife encouraged him to tell his parents, who far from rejecting him as he feared, all too fully understood (good parents know, dears). Thereafter he underwent psychological evaluation, which must have been groundbreaking for the 1970s, as it confirmed that Michael was a woman inside.
The downside is that someone blew the whistle about Mark’s evaluation to the US Navy. He was discharged upon the spot, and although it was an Honourable Discharge, it left Mark “angry and bitter”. And quite rightly so; Mark had often been commended, had excelled in everything he did, his work undoubtedly saved lives, and he can thereby be considered an American Naval hero.
Michael Clark underwent hormone therapy and in June 1975 underwent gender reassignment surgery, emerging under her new name of Joanna Michelle Clerk. She then divorced her wife, and moved in with her parents in San Juan, California, and got a job as a clerk-typist. In 1976 she enlisted in the US Army as a Staff training assistant, acting supervisor Fort MacArthur. She rose to Sargent First Class in the WACS, but after the authorities became aware of her background, Joanna was dismissed from the Army Reserve 18 months later. This time Joanna decided she was not going to take it lying down a second time and took the US Army to court. It was eventually settled out of court with a stipulation that details of the settlement not be made public. However, it is known that Joanna received an Honourable Discharge, with credit for time served in the Reserve.
This put Michael / Joanna Clark in the unique position of having served in the US Navy and the US Army, as both a man and a woman. The only person in history to have done so. But there was more to come…
Having realised all too painfully how transgender rights are trodden upon, Joanna Clark successfully lobbied in 1977 for replacement birth certificates and driving licenses to be made available for transgender people in California. She wrote Legal Aspects of Transsexualism, an important document which continues to be referenced by the law fraternity in the USA to this day. She founded the ACLU Transsexual Rights Committee, which she chaired for many years, working endlessly for the legal rights and status of TS persons. In the early 1980s she worked with transgender campaigner Jude Patton as a TS advisor.
By the late 1980s, Joanna’s life became more spiritual and in 1988 she took her vows as a Nun and founded the Order of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, a non-profit Episcopalian order. She transferred to the Order of St Michael of the American Catholic Church in 1997.
In 1990 Sister Mary Elizabeth founded AEGIS; AIDS Education Global Information System, the largest HIV/AIDS online information and website and BBS, which supplies reference material, information and an online meeting place for people worldwide. Sister Mary Elizabeth has won several awards for her work fighting for LGBT+ rights, and HIV/AIDS awareness, and in 2005 was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
As Michael Clark, Joanna Michelle Clark, and as Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, this is a truly remarkable woman, who despite giving everything she has done her utmost, often pushing the limits of endurance, and often for others with little thought for herself, remains nonetheless humble. Someone I think we can all, whatever our gender, can look up to.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, military-wise, or working with children, I don’t think I’ve had anything in my life that I’ve had more passion for. I really can’t put it into words. When you see letters from people and you know that you’re helping them, that’s what it’s all about.”