Joanna Clark (Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark)
Joanna (Sister Mary Elizabeth) Clark is a transgender and HIV/AIDS activist who founded AIDS Education and Global Information System (AEGIS), a database of AIDS information and research. Clark's activist career began in 1977, when she successfully fought her dishonorable discharge from the Navy Reserves for being transgender. She continued to advocate for changes in California law for transgender individuals, and operated the transgender clearinghouse J2CP Information Services with Jude Patton throughout the 1980s.
In 1988, Clark took religious vows and the name Sister Mary Elizabeth. Following her encounters with several People With AIDS (PWAs) while working in a rural Missouri community, in 1991 she was inspired to found AEGIS. For her work Clark received the Award of Courage from the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights from the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, the Joan of Arc award from the Orange County Community Foundation, and the Crystal Heart award from the San Diego GLBT Center.
Clark stepped down from the leadership of AEGIS in 2004 and now works as an environmental activist.
1977: Clark is discharged from the Army Reserve on false charges.
Prior to her transition in the mid-1970s, Clark had a 17 year career in the U.S. Navy that ended in 1972 when they learned about her plans to transition. Though bitter about the experience given her commendations for outstanding service, she began a civilian career in 1975 as a typist. A few months later, an Army Reserve recruiter approached her about re-enlisting in the Women's Army Corps (WACs). At the time, he assured her that her trans status wouldn't be a problem.
Though she did eventually re-enlist, she was discharged 18 months later. This time, Clark successfully fought her discharge, settling with the Army out of court in 1981.
1977 - 1978: AB 385 signed into law in California and SB 2200 defeated.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Clark was active within California politics lobbying for trans rights. From 1976 to 1981, she served various roles at Santa Ana, CA-based Renaissance: Gender Identity Services, including as the head of Legal Research. During this period, she developed a variety of informational materials for trans individuals and allied professionals, including the informational books LEGAL ASPECTS OF TRANSSEXUALISM and TRANSSEXUALISM AND THE LAW: A Source Book For Professionals.
Beyond her informational work, she led a campaign in 1977, along with members of the Los Angeles-based "TS Rap Group" (the term "rap" during this period was used to describe something similar to a support group) for the passage of Assembly Bill 385, which allowed trans individuals to recieve updated birth certificates. She also worked to defeat Senate Bill 2200, which would have prevented California residents from having trans-related care covered under Medi-Cal.
1986: J2CP Information Services founded.
J2CP emerged as a successor to the Janus Information Facility, an organization headed by psychologist Paul Walker. Janus had itself taken over many of the Erickson Education Foundation's functions following the closure of its offices in 1977. J2CP was named for Clark and its other founder, Jude Patton, whom Clark had previously worked with at Renaissance: Gender Identity Services.
J2CP remained an important source of information into the early 1990s, when the Atlanta-based American Educational Gender Information Service (AEGIS), led by activist Dallas Denny, took over publishing and distribution of its materials.
1988: Clark takes her vows as Sister Mary Elizabeth.
Clark, who had wanted to take vows since her early childhood, in an unofficial ceremony in 1988 took the name Sister Mary Elizabeth and inaugurated her own order, the Community of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Clark would remain a nun for many years, leaving the religious life in the mid-2010s.
1991: AIDS Education General Information System (AEGIS) BBS founded.
In 1990, as part of her charitable work, Clark moved to rural Missouri to herd cattle as a way to fund care for the needy. While there, she met several HIV-positive individuals, who had limited access to medical care and were desperate for more information. Inspired by this experience, Clark shifted the focus of the gender community BBS she'd founded in 1990, TerraNet, to become an HIV/AIDS information hub. Initially, she re-named the BBS the HIV/AIDS Info BBS, but eventually settled on AIDS Education General Information Service that same year. While there was a pre-existing BBS under that name founded in 1986 by Jamie Jemison, he was no longer actively maintaining it and offered Clark use of the name.
Over the next few years, AEGIS grew substantially. In October 1992, the board had over 1,500 files and nearly 20,000 callers so far in that year alone. By 1994, the board's database had ballooned to 144,00 files. In 1995, the BBS shifted from being solely sponsored by the Sisters of St. Elizabeth of Hungary to an independent non-profit.
1997: AEGIS moves to the World Wide Web.
As access to the World Wide Web increased throughout the mid-1990s, AEGIS shifted from a BBS to a fully fledged website. AEGIS would move to AEGIS.org in 2000, in recognition of its non-profit status. The site would be honored throughout its tenure, including a 1999 nomination for inclusion in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, which aims to preserve valuable holdings in archives and libraries around the world.
2013: AEGIS closes its doors and donates database.
Though AEGIS had been successfully grant-funded for many years, by 2013 the organization was struggling to find new funders and officially closed its doors. Though still involved, Clark had previously stepped down as director of operations for AEGIS in 2004. Following AEGIS's closure, Sister Mary Elizabeth donated AEGIS's substantial archive to several organizations, including the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and i-Base in the UK.
- “Transsexual Served as Man in Navy, Fights Discharge” - October 5, 1977 article in the Baton Rouge State Times Advocate on Clark’s campaign to not be discharged from US Navy following her transition
Interviews, Secondary Material, and Other Works
- Pasco, Jean A. "A Life of Service." Los Angeles Times. (December 1, 1997): Profile of AEGIS and Clark.
- Pasco, Jean A. "Wing, Prayer Battle AIDS." Los Angeles Times. (December 28, 2004): Profile of AEGIS and Clark after receiving the Award of Courage from the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Human Rights Award from the International Assn. of Physicians in AIDS Care.
- Rose, Katrina C. "Our Past Must Be Our Present (to Ourselves): How Transsexuals Can Survive Proposition 8." Journal of Race, Gender and Ethnicity, vol. 5, 1 (2010): Includes in-depth discussion of the passage of AB 385.
- Trans Talk: A Living Legend - 2017 interview with Joanna Clark on The Tenth Voice, a weekly program on 90.1 KKFI, Kansas City Community Radio
- Joanna Clark Oral History: Oral history recorded with Joanna Clark in 2019.
- Moving Trans History Forward 2021: Elders Panel: 2021 panel that includes commentary from Joanna Clark
- Clark, Joanna and Margot Wilson. Before My Warranty Runs Out: Human, Transgender and Environmental Rights Advocate: 2021 memoir