The world’s first transsexual nun also deserves a mention in military history. She served twice, once as a man and once as a woman, before being honourably discharged (for the second time).
It was then that she entered religious life as an Episcopal nun.
From Matt & Andrej Koymasky:
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Clark was christened Michael by his parents. But he soon realized nature had made a horrid mistake.
“From the time I was 3, I felt that I was different from other boys. I felt more comfortable in the company of girls. I tried to talk and act like a girl instead of a boy. 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.”
When he reached junior high school, Michael tried to talk to his parents about his mental torment. It didn’t work. After finishing high school in 1957, Clark went on active duty with the Naval Reserve. Two years later he entered the regular Navy. Within a few months he took my greatest step to show everyone he was ‘normal.’ and got marreied. The marriage was very painful for both because he couldn’t satisfy her needs and desires. It was further complicated by the fact that they had a son.
During this disastrous marriage he threw himself into Navy career, serving in Hawaii and Vietnam as an instructor in anti-submarine warfare, scuba diving and sea survival. In 1972, after 11 frustrating years together, Clark and his wife divorced. He hasn’t seen his son since. After the divorce he married again. He was still desparately trying to be ‘normal’.
“My new wife was a girl that I really intensely loved as a person. I still lover 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.”
She convinced Clark to tell his parents. Incredibly, they understood – a vast relief for him because he’d feared rejection. Then, with the encouragement of his wife and parents, Clark underwent psychological evaluation. It showed he realy was a woman inside. When the Navy found out about the evaluation, Clark was discharged. He had been an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy for 17 years, and rose to Chief Petty Officer. The discharge, though honorable, left him “angry and bitter” because he’d often been commended for outstanding service, he said.
Clark underwent hormone therapy, and then, in June of 1975, had a sex change operation – emerging as Joanna Michelle Clark. Joanna divorced her wife moved in with her parents in San Jaun Capistrano, California, and began a new life as a clerk-typist. But in August of 1975 a Reserve recuiter visited her office and urged her to enlist again. She revealed to him that she was a transsexual, but he said he didn’t think it would be a problem. And is wasn’t. She was accepted, becoming a supplys clerk as a Sargent First Class in the WACs…. but 18 months later she was booted out of the Army Reserve.
Ms. Clark fought the charges and discharge. The case was eventually settled out of court with a stipulation that the details of the settlement not be discussed. However, she received an honorable discharge, with credit for time served in the Reserve. The Army had capitualated on its charges… however, Ms. Clark had won a battle but lost the war. It remains unlawful for transsexuals to enlist in the services to this day, inspite of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
As Joanna Clark she lobbied successfully in 1977 for a law that allowed replacement birth certificates in the state of California. She later wrote Legal Aspects of Transsexualism, an important early document on the subject, still referenced twenty years later. She founded the ACLU Transsexual Rights Committee, serving as chair for several years, seemingly tirelessly working to improve the legal status of TS persons. Joanna served with Jude Patton as a TS advisor with a Gender Identity Clinic during the early ’80s.
She decided to become a nun; the world’s first transsexual Episcopal nun, founder and sole member of the Community of St. Elizabeth, a nonprofit religious organization. She took her vows at St. Clement’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in San Clemente in 1988. She transferred to the Order of St. Michael in 1997.
In 1990, as Sister Mary Elizabeth, she founded and continues to operate the largest AIDS and HIV online information BBS and website – ÆGiS (AIDS Education Global Information System; http://www.aegis.com), a definitive and comprehensive web-based reference for HIV/AIDS-related information, to meet the need for access to up-to-date HIV/AIDS information by people in isolated areas.
“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.”