Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Oklahoma Monthly, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 1977. Read “The Stories Matter” by Tom Boettcher, former editor of the now-defunct publication, to learn more about that progressive magazine, which was committed to courageous journalism in the 1970s.
She primped in front of the dresser mirror of her Oklahoma City motel room. Applying her lipstick and hairspray and remembering days gone by. She had not planned on recounting the past when she arrived here for a medical check-up in late September, but found herself reminiscing about her old Navy days when she served as Chief Petty Officer and diving instructor, and father of one child. Those were the days when Joana Clark was Michael Clark. That masculine identity became a mere memory on an operating table at Oklahoma City’s Baptist hospital on June 24, 1975.
Joana Clark is one of nearly 50 people who traveled to Baptist to have their gender identities changed by an expert five-person medical team that has developed a national reputation in medical circles for their total team concept for performing sex-change operations.
The operations have been performed at the Oklahoma City hospital for about four years. Nurses, doctors, and administrators at the hospital were aware of the fact that Baptist had become one of the leading centers in the nation for sex-change operations.
However, outside the world of Baptist Hospital, strangely enough, it had remained a secret for four years. Those within the hospital feared the reaction from the Baptist community if the secret were revealed.
Their fears were real, for earlier this summer a rural Baptist minister learned of the operations at Baptist and notified the Oklahoma Baptist Convention. Reportedly, many Baptist leaders from throughout the state were furious that such operations were being performed at their hospital without their knowledge. Baptist General Convention President Richard B. Douglas ordered the hospital’s chief administrator, Jay Henry, to prepare a report on the entire circumstances surrounding the sex-change operations.
Rather than further incense the Baptist community, the surgical team called a moratorium on the operations until the procedure could be evaluated by the Oklahoma Baptist Convention.
Baptist leaders now predict that the entire convention will vote to discontinue the controversial operations.
However, across town at University Hospital, sex-change operations will continue. Those at state-sponsored University were only made known after those at Baptist made the news.
Joana Clark had been unaware of all this controversy when she arrived in Oklahoma City late last month for a routine check-up by Dr. David Foerster, who headed the surgical team working with her. She was having problems of her own as the Army Reserve had just notified her that she was being released on the grounds that she was violating a Reserve regulation that prohibits the enlistment of any person who has abnormalities or defects of the genitalia. Another frustration in a life filled with frustrations for her.
When Michael Clark was five years old he began to realize that he was not like the other boys. Something that would become more apparent to him through 12 years in the Navy and two marriages.
He was slightly built, with little muscle development. He had the hair distribution of a woman. He would become so uncomfortable with his appearance that he would no longer attend gym class.
Finally, at the age of 35, he became so frustrated he was on the brink of suicide. He told his second wife, “I’m just as female as you are,” and with that admission he consulted with a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as suffering from “Gender Dysphoria” and recommended that he enter a program at Stanford Medical Center for transsexuals.
Is transsexualism a sickness, a form of human suffering not unlike cancer, which should be treated by any hospital if it has the means?
For the next year and a half, Michael Clark lived as a woman while undergoing hormone and electrolysis treatment. Gradually, facial hair disappeared and breasts started to develop. His body began to resemble more and more that of a woman’s. During this period he learned the social characteristics of a woman—for example, how to walk with this hips instead of the shoulders.
However, after 18 months of cross-living (the process of learning to live like a woman), Michael Clark learned that he would have to wait even longer for the sex-change operation. So he sought expert help in finding another clinic that would perform the operation and, much to his surprise, was referred to Dr. David Foerster, who was head of the Oklahoma City Gender Identity Foundation. Michael Clark, who while stationed at the Naval Training Center in Norman during the 1950s served as a Baptist Sunday-school teacher, was even more shocked to learn that his sex-change operation would be performed at Baptist Hospital.
When Michael Clark was five years old he began to realize that he was not like the other boys.
Is transsexualism a sickness, a form of human suffering not unlike cancer, which should be treated by any hospital if it has the means? Does it violate the teachings of the Baptist Church to change to gender of a human being? These very difficult questions must now be answered by the Oklahoma Baptist Convention as that body contemplates whether to allow the operations to continue.
What follows is an interview with Joana Clark about these questions and the general topic of transsexualism.
CLARK: I tried when I was about 13; I tried to tell two of my friends who were boys, but it was disastrous. I tried to confide in my parents and it was also a disaster. Sex at that time was taboo and people didn’t want to hear about things like that. If your arm was falling off you would have the attention of the whole world, but if you said, “I have a sex problem,” people would immediately turn you off.
OM: Did you try to hide it after those experiences?
CLARK: Yes, from 13 on I tried to bury it. I tried to conform. When I was 17 I joined the Navy to try to conform. I tried to get into underwater demolition, but I didn’t have the physique for it. I got more laughs when I suggested it than anything else. “Are you kidding, skinny like that.” That was the kind of attitude I got. And my friends would say, “Why aren’t you dating girls? Why aren’t you getting married? Are you queer? Are you gay?” No, I’m not. So I said if I’m going to be normal I have to get married. I found a girl who wanted to get away from home. I fathered a child and it lasted 11 years. I was married in a generation that believed when you got married it was for better or for worse. So we stuck it out. However, it finally ended in divorce. I made another try at being normal and, in 1972, I got married a second time. It lasted 16 months. That union between us and our personalities brought the real me out of the closet to be able to face reality and say, “Hey, I need help because I can’t live with it any longer.” The key to bringing me out was the fact that the girl I was married to was blaming herself and going on a guilt trip because she thought she was responsible for what was wrong with me. She didn’t know what was wrong with me and I couldn’t live with destroying her. I couldn’t live with destroying another human being because of the problem I had.
OM: Did the emotional strain ever reach the point that you considered taking your own life?
CLARK: Yes, it was just increasing frustration to portray a role of somebody I wasn’t—a man. It was as if I was an actor going on stage each morning when I got up. I would wake up and say, “Well, I have to go out there and face my public,” and to be accepted by the public I had to exhibit certain behavior patterns. Those behavior patterns weren’t me, but I did it. I performed, and I was successful until 1974 when I became so frustrated with life that I was reaching the point where I was contemplating suicide as an alternative. One thing that stopped me there, though, was my religious upbringing as a Baptist. It was not acceptable, even though I contemplated it.
OM: As a Baptist, do you see any conflict between the sex-change operations and the teachings of the Baptist Church?
CLARK: I see nothing wrong with it. People say that God doesn’t make mistakes; and I don’t think that God makes mistakes, but we have to realize that everyday we tamper with nature, and I think that mistakes happen. Look at the thalidomide babies. They were accepted immediately because their arms were shrunk and their bodies were disfigured. Does the church react negatively towards them? No, they responded positively. So what’s wrong when something goes wrong during conception and the child is born in the body of the opposite sex?
OM: When you were contemplating the sex-change operation at Stanford University Hospital, were you surprised to be referred to Baptist Hospital? Having been stationed in the area and knowing the people, were you surprised to learn that Baptist is one of the leading sex-change centers in the country?
CLARK: Being Baptist, yes. It was really a surprise, especially when you got to Stanford University Medical Center, which is one of the most prodigious medical facilities in the country, and when they do surgeries at Stanford, they don’t do them at their facilities. They do them at Choate Community Hospital. They put you down in the welfare ward and you don’t get a private room. They put curtains around you to isolate you from the rest of the room. I was amazed because when I came to Baptist I was treated like a human being. I wasn’t a transsexual; I was a person who had endured 35 years of emotional suffering, and they were there to get rid of that suffering. It was a beautiful experience. I think it’s tragic that a few persons here who are ministers and who are supposed to be out there alleviating suffering are allowing their own problems to get into the way of letting the hospital go about its business of healing.
OM: Following your operation, what was your reaction when you awoke and found yourself to be another sex?
CLARK: It was the most beautiful experience that I have ever known: to look down at myself and see my body appearing actually as I felt. It was great. There was no trauma. I was in a great deal of discomfort, for by no means was it an easy operation, but for me it was fantastic. That does not mean that for everybody it is a fantastic experience.
OM: What is the rate of remission?
CLARK: Very small. At Stanford there were three who wanted to change back. It’s a problem of screening. We all have to have labels. I’m female. You’re male. But, society is intent on putting a label on me and saying that I am a transsexual. Every label has a degree of stigma that goes with it. For a woman it means that you earn 25% less than a man. If you want to earn the same as a male with an eighth-grade education, you have to have a master’s degree.
We have a lot of transvestites and homosexuals who are bearing up under their stigma and guilt that they feel and, of course, society does a trip on them…Why do you dress in women’s clothes? …Why do you do that? …You shouldn’t do that.
And they feel guilty about it even though they can’t help it. Because whatever caused what they are now occurred when they were a baby. This compulsion to dress in women’s clothes happened when he was a baby and it manifests itself now and society does a real trip on him. The homosexual did not ask to be that way. Then they start looking for a way to relieve their guilt and the transvestite says, “Gee, if I were a woman, I would dress in women’s clothes every day and no one would say anything, and it would solve all my problems.”
When do babies start talking fluently? By age 3, your child will probably have words for almost everything. And by age 4, he’ll talk in sentences using five or more words, though his vocabulary will vary widely. He’ll also be able to answer simple questions and mimic adult sounds well enough for most strangers to understand him. A preschooler’s speech is usually fluid and he can talk easily without repeating words, though he may still mispronounce some of them. At this age, he should be able to understand a two- or three-part directive, such as “Pick up the paper, fold it in half, and then bring it to me.”
But it won’t. So, they go out and read all the books and successfully convince the doctors that they are transsexuals. That is why there is such a long waiting period before you can get the operation. Some as long as five years. It separates the boys from the girls. It’s a traumatic period because you are cross-living as the opposite sex when actually you are not. You have no identity. You can’t use the men’s restroom and legally you can’t use the women’s restroom, and yet if you are out in public and you have to use the restroom, you go into it (the women’s). I know a female-to-male transsexual who was arrested for going into a women’s bathroom when she was a mother with her child because she was so masculine looking. So this is a trip that society will do because of their insecurities.
OM: After your operation, how did the people in your past perceive you?
CLARK: My last wife and I remained friends for a long time. She finally remarried and went her own way. I haven’t heard from her in over a year.
OM: What did your Navy friends have to say when they found out you had the operation?
Clark: I was well accepted by the majority of them. Some of them I have talked to since the operation—that knew me both ways—say now they sensed that something was wrong with me before. I was always too macho, overcompensating in everything I did. But they didn’t know what the problem was and they were amazed about the change in me: that I am easy going and extroverted now and have no hang-ups about talking about it. I’m still growing because I’m still learning about myself.
OM: What was your parents’ reaction when they found out about the operation?
CLARK: Initially, they didn’t know about homosexuality or transsexuality or anything. My father was 65 years old and when it came to sex, he and my mother were probably the most naïve people in the world. Their initial reaction was they didn’t know what it was or how to handle it. But, I was their child and they loved me. About that time there was a series done on transvestites on a Los Angeles television station which they saw and it really upset them. They thought that’s what I was. However, my ex-father-in-law was the most supportive and able to talk to them and explain to them that I had a medical problem. He told them that I was a woman and not a transvestite. He told them I was a woman in the wrong body. He explained to my father how frustrating it would be for him to wake up in the morning in a woman’s body, because he would be a man inside. He talked to them and then they talked to a psychiatrist, and with that Dad took the position that if Joana had come home with cancer he wouldn’t kick her out of the house because it wouldn’t be her fault. And this isn’t her fault either, so how can I kick her out? They have been most supportive the whole way through. My mother makes a lot of my clothes for me because I’m hard to fit. They are over protective of me in some aspects. It would have been a sociologist’s dream when I first started dating after I recovered from my operation. I was living at home with them and they would say, “Make sure you’re in by 10.” They now relate totally to me as their daughter.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 11, June 1, 2014.