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Sister Mary Elizabeth - an Icon for the World

Update - March 19, 2005
Profile by Amber Thorne


The list of selfless acts of kindness to others is as diverse as it is long for Crystal Heart Award winner Sister Mary Elizabeth. Her name is recognized throughout the world, and yet if you are not involved in the arena of the AIDS pandemic you may not have heard of her. Transsexuals in this state may not know that their ability to amend the sex moniker on their California birth certificate is directly attributed to her work. She has dedicated her life to God and is a tireless champion for her fellow man.

She was born Michael Clark in Pontiac, MI, in 1938 and by the age of 3 she knew that she was different from other boys. She felt more comfortable around girls because in her heart she knew that she was one. She tried to talk and act like a girl even though her feminine mannerisms prompted much taunting by the school boys. As is the case for many in our community, she suppressed her true nature and conformed to societal expectations.

In an attempt to live a normal life she joined the US Navy Reserve in 1955. Then in 1959 she got married and joined the regular Navy serving in Hawaii and Vietnam as an instructor in anti-submarine warfare, scuba diving, and sea survival. The marriage ended after 11-years in divorce.

Mary Elizabeth married again to another woman who would be pivotal in her life. Feeling guilty about her secret, she came out as a transsexual to her wife who then supported her as they talked about what they had to do. Her wife convinced Mary Elizabeth to tell her parents, and contrary to years of feared rejection, they understood. Encouraged by a loving spouse and parents she underwent a psychological evaluation which showed that she was a woman inside. When the Navy found out about this evaluation, Chief Petty Officer Michael Clark was discharged honorably. The discharge left her "angry" because she had often been commended for outstanding service.

After her Gender Identity Dysphoria diagnosis she began hormone therapy and in 1975 had sex reassignment surgery, emerging as Joanna Michelle Clark. In August of that year she was surprised by a Reserve recruiter who visited her office, urging her to enlist again. She told him that she was a transsexual, but he said he didn't think that fact would be a problem. With full disclosure to the Army she was accepted, becoming Sergeant First Class Joanna Clark in the WACs.

Eighteen months later during proceedings to promote her to warrant officer the military found out about her transsexual status and initiated discharge proceedings, claiming fraudulent enlistment. She fought against this discharge and her case was eventually settled out of court with a stipulation that the details of the settlement not be discussed. In the end, she received another honorable discharge with credit for time served in the Reserve. To this day it is still unlawful for transsexuals to enlist in the US military, in spite of its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Mary Elizabeth's involvement in the transsexual community began in 1975 while visiting a Los Angeles-based transsexual rap group moderated at the time by San Diego's own "Ar"lene Lafferty. She listened to its members sharing the problems they were encountering in establishing new identities. In classic form she said, "If you can't change your records because of the law, then change the law!" This was a task many thought impossible. "I believe the process will work for those willing to make it work," she said at the time. Many people thought the idea was crazy and couldn't be done. Even her father, a retired city council member, told her to forget it. But she went ahead anyway, determined to prove that the system can work.

She leased a Savin word processor and began a letter-writing campaign aimed at changing the law. With the sponsorship of Willie Brown, and significant support of the Gray Panthers, AB 385 (W. Brown-1977) became the law that everyone said could never be. For thousands of post-operative transsexuals in California the road to a consistent identity became a reality. AB 385 which permitted the State Department of Health to issue new birth certificates to post-operative transsexuals became effective on January 1, 1978.

Shortly thereafter, State Senator Paul Carpenter along with twenty-two co-sponsors introduced emergency legislation SB-2200 to prohibit Medi-Cal from funding sex reassignment surgery and related services. Mary Elizabeth argued the unconstitutionality of the bill before the state Legislature and his bill was defeated. Today, although it is extraordinarily difficult, Medi-Cal will pay for sex reassignment surgery.

In 1978, she wrote "Legal Aspects of Transsexualism," an important early document on the subject of transsexualism which is still referenced today. She was behind the creation of the ACLU of Southern California Transsexual Rights Committee, the first such committee in the history of the ACLU impacting existing laws and regulations on both state and federal levels.

Forming the community of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary with two other women at St Clements, Mary Elizabeth made her vows as an Episcopalian sister in 1988 "We got off to a good start until I made my vows," she explained. "And then, of course, the press descended and the church abandoned ship the next day." After the other two founding members left, she changed her affiliation to the American Catholic Church, an organization of independent Catholic churches.

In 1986, Mary Elizabeth had emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder and though serious, she chalked it up to "what life had in store for me." Indeed, this experience affected her deeply. As she lay in her sixth-floor Anaheim hospital bed, a nurse cranked up the bed causing two of her IV tubes to catch and a pillow to fall over her face. Not being able to move her arms, she asked a nurse to help get the pillow off her face. But the nurse refused to come near her.

She recalled, "I asked her what was wrong. "Why are you afraid to come over here?" And she said, "I'm not. I've dealt with patients with AIDS before." I replied, "I beg your pardon? I don't have AIDS unless you infected me last night during the emergency surgery. In that case I would be HIV-positive and not have AIDS yet.'"

Did this experience move you to work in the AIDS community?

We had a person with AIDS in our church. I got involved as a buddy, driving him around to the doctor, and saw some more of the discrimination. But I still didn't do anything until I went to Missouri and the cows.

You have said that your work blossomed because of a gallbladder and the cows. Where do the cows come in?

In 1990 our community inherited a herd of cows so I went down to Missouri to herd cows. The cows didn't work out and they were hocked up to their horns, but while I was down there I met some PWAs that were totally cut off. The nearest major medical center was ninety miles away, and most of the phones were party lines so they were very worried that people would find out they were HIV-positive. It was a very rural, conservative community. The light bulb went on and I thought, "Hey, I know what I can do!" and we launched HIV/AIDS Info BBS, a Bulletin Board Service.

That year Sister Mary Elizabeth founded what has become the world's largest and best source for AIDS and HIV information online today. AEGIS, which stands for AIDS Education Global Information System, was a 1980s brainchild of Orange County resident Jamie Jemison, but cost and limitations of computers and modems at that time made the venture unsound. Jamie moved on gifting Mary Elizabeth the name AEGIS.

Today 8,000,000 users visit www.AEGIS.org annually. The website offers a staggering amount of data specific about the AIDS pandemic comprised of about 1.2 million files and at no charge to the user. Daily updates on the latest news, drug information, treatments, court cases, and judges' opinions keep its users the most informed in the world. Even the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control link to it from their sites.

The site's Ask The Doc program allows users to ask questions specific to their needs and the answer is then posted on the site. It has won numerous awards including the American Medical Association's Best of the Web. It also plays a role in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's Memory of the World project to preserve human knowledge about HIV and AIDS. All this is done by a staff of just four people based out of her parents' double-wide mobile home.

For all that AEGIS offers to the world, funding is a constant problem. Even though it receives unrestricted funding from Boehringer Ingelheim, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the National Library of Medicine, it's never enough to meet the needs.

Has the community supported AEGIS?

In terms of the community supporting AEGIS we've had a very difficult time. All we ask is a $10-a-year donation. If you can't afford it, don't worry about it. But if you're able to make a $10 donation once a year, we can use it and put it to good use. We bring in an average of $75 a month and four people have signed up for reoccurring credit card donations.

What is your relationship with the White House?

When Bill Clinton was in office I could set my clock every day at 8:30 in the morning. I'd look over at the Who Is on the screen for the server and there would be The Executive Office of the President of the United States. I've never seen it log on when George W. Bush took office, not once to my knowledge. He makes lots of promises knowing that people have a short-term memory. He'll say we're gonna give $15 billion over five years and then he lobbies against it behind the scene saying, "I don't want you to give $3 million this year I want you to give $2 million."

What in your opinion has this president done in the fight against AIDS?

Nothing, absolutely nothing. You can't give out condoms or give to an organization that promotes condoms for safer sex. It's got to be promote abstinence. Well, boring! Abstinence is great for some people if they're willing to do it. But for the majority of human beings, sex is a drive. I mean, sex is fun! The church will tell you that you are not supposed to do it because it's fun. And then they'll put a guilt trip on you. But in reality it was made to feel good. Otherwise imagine that you were being hit by an 18-wheeler. Would you go back for seconds? Only if you were a masochist.

Today Sister Mary Elizabeth is turning over the rains of AEGIS. An injury from jumping off of the wing of a burning P-3 anti-submarine patrol aircraft left her with three herniated discs in her back and the peripheral neuropathy causes her chronic pain. Combine that with inherited age-related macular degeneration and one is left with a sense of awe at her drive and workload. She begins her day at 5:00 a.m. and goes to sleep at midnight. She is truly a gem living in our own backyard.

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Copyright © 2005 - Reproduced courtesy of copyright owner - listed on source line.

AEGiS is a 501(c)3, not-for-profit, tax-exempt, educational corporation. AEGiS is made possible through unrestricted funding from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Elton John AIDS Foundation, the National Library of Medicine, Pacific Life Foundation and donations from users like you.

Always watch for outdated information. This article first appeared in 2005. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor.

AEGiS presents published material, reprinted with permission and neither endorses nor opposes any material. All information contained on this website, including information relating to health conditions, products, and treatments, is for informational purposes only. It is often presented in summary or aggregate form. It is not meant to be a substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professionals. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.

Copyright ©1980, 2005. AEGiS. All materials appearing on AEGiS are protected by copyright as a collective work or compilation under U.S. copyright and other laws and are the property of AEGiS, or the party credited as the provider of the content. .