Trans activist, artist and model Stefanie Clark poses for a photo at City Hall on June 20, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

EDGEWATER — Stefanie Clark describes herself as a “renaissance woman” always striving to learn new things.

Clark, 80, came out as trans in 2011, when she was 68. She changed her name and gender marker in 2016.

In living as her authentic self, she’s spent recent years engaging in her many passions, like modeling, designing fashion lines or creating jewelry. All the while, she’s sharing her story of self-acceptance with anyone who will listen.

“I define being a renaissance woman as seeking to do good in the world and seeking knowledge for the betterment of mankind,” Clark said. “My motto is, ‘do good and cause no harm,’ and that wraps up this whole little package right here.”

Clark has become an outspoken advocate for the queer community, particularly LGBTQ+ seniors. She’s helped to implement legislation bolstering their access to health care. Clark frequently meets with federal and state legislators to advocate for the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.

Most recently, Clark closed out Trashion Revolution, a fashion show designed to raise awareness about sustainability, wearing an outfit made from unrecyclable plastics.

“I’m learning about so many things about sustainability I never knew about just a year ago,” Clark said. “That’s part of being a Renaissance woman. As long as I can adapt to a challenge, think it through and make it better for somebody else in the future, that’s my goal.”

Being ‘The Only Male In The Family When I Knew That I Was A Female’

Stefanie Clark turned 80 this year. Credit: Provided///Stefanie Clark

Clark grew up in Seattle and first knew that “there was something different” about her when she was 3 years old, she said.

“All I knew was that I’d rather play with dolls than trucks, and that’s kind of a dead giveaway,” Clark said. “My mother caught me in her lingerie when I was 12 and she told me to stop. But I couldn’t, so I didn’t. This was 1957, so she didn’t even have the words to nurture me.”

Every other man in her life died when Clark was about 13, she said. She felt the pressure of being the only son in her family.

“That left me the only male in the family when I knew that I was a female,” Clark said. “So, I basically went into the closet for … 68 years.”

Clark met her wife, Evelyn, when they were seniors in college and they married 10 months later in 1967. They moved to Chicago in 1989 and raised three children together.

Clark’s wife knew that she would sometimes wear feminine clothes in private, and she didn’t support the behavior, Clark said.

Clark was careful to keep her feelings about her gender a secret because she didn’t want to “disrupt the marriage.” But both spouses traveled frequently and had a lot of time to themselves, Clark said. When Clark traveled for work, Clark would seek out LGBTQ+ spaces and frequently spent time with other trans women, she said.

“I really just wanted to learn,” Clark said. “I wanted to be around them so I could scope out what my next step or my next action could be.”

The couple were together for 44 years before Clark’s wife died in 2011, she said.

“The two women in my life who could’ve had a meaningful impact on me, my mom and my wife, didn’t have the vocabulary to support me,” Clark said. “But Evelyn stayed by my side for 44 years. Just imagine, how hard it would be if you had found your Prince Charming and changed your whole life for him, then you find out he’s not everything you thought he would be.”

Almost immediately after losing her wife, Clark started going by the name Stefanie and told her family she planned to transition.

“My wife died on a Friday after she’d been sick with cancer for two or three years,” Clark said. “I came out on Saturday and haven’t stopped since.”

Stefanie Clark models a wedding dress from Luminous Bridal that was enhanced by Sara Habi. Credit: Provided//Stefanie Clark

‘I’m Still Learning New Things Every Day’

Coming out later in life was difficult, Clark said. Only one of her children still speaks to her because they each had “their own problems” accepting her identity, Clark said.

Clark immediately began connecting with the LGBTQ+ community and sought out any opportunity she could to share her story.

She spoke at numerous events hosted by Sage USA, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ seniors. She got to know young people at the Broadway Youth Club, a Howard Brown Health organization that serves LGBTQ+ young people experiencing homelessness. Most of the philanthropy work Clark does now benefits them, she said.

Clark legally changed her name and gender marker June 24, 2016 — “the affirmation of my journey until that point,” she said. The more Clark presented herself the way she’d always wanted to, the more comfortable she started to feel, she said.

“I went to a Fourth of July party with predominantly other women just after that, and I can still remember what I was wearing,” Clark said. “I had on a white skirt and a red top. To be recognized as a woman, amongst women who I truly respect, and to see them start to respect me, meant everything to me. That’s when I felt truly accepted.”

Through her speaking engagements and her own experience seeking out health care, Clark learned LGBTQ+ seniors were struggling to access culturally competent health care.

Clark helped advocate for an Illinois law that, among other things, requires physicians that work with or receive funding from the state’s Department of Aging to complete training on preventing discrimination and providing affirming care for older queer people.

Clark still frequently travels to Springfield to speak with legislators and advocates for LGBTQ+ causes, like increasing access to treatment and prevention care for HIV/AIDS.

“Searching for doctors is not an easy thing, especially when you leave North Halsted Street. They don’t all put rainbow flags up,” Clark said. “The bill really addresses the fact that knowledge and understanding of someone’s living situation are key to providing adequate health care.”

In addition to her political efforts, Clark is constantly finding ways to increase visibility for trans and nonbinary people.

Stefanie Clark models an outfit she wore in at last year’s TransMedia Fashion Show Produced by Tony Long. Credit: Provided//Stefanie Clark

About a year ago, Clark decided she wanted to become “the most visible trans model in, humbly, the Midwest,” she said. Since then, she’s modeled clothing in more than 10 fashion shows, which has helped her feel more confident, she said.

She credits Tony Long, who led the Trans Media Fashion Show in partnership with Howard Brown Health, with seeing her potential and helping her increase awareness about trans people’s experiences within the fashion industry.

“He’s been like my fashion godfather ever since,” Clark said. “I have a lot of friends in the industry now who really respect what I’m doing, and aside from being a woman, that’s probably the thing that I gleam from the most. Tony and I will talk about gender and inclusion from the runway and share with audiences about the importance of welcoming the trans and nonbinary community.”

Increasing the visibility of trans people is one of the most important things Clark does, she said.

“What I try to do, every day, is show people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it doesn’t have to be another train,” Clark said. “I try to show people that life isn’t done yet, that we’re here to take care of you. That’s all I can do, is just show kids that they can do it and don’t have to be afraid.”

Stefanie Clark (right) walks the runway with designer Shiwana Francis. Credit: Provided/Stefanie Clark

Clark said she feels lucky to have met friends of all different ages to exchange stories with. She said it’s important for LGBTQ+ people to create intergenerational connections so that they can show each other the ways they’ve learned to survive.

“There are so many things in my life where I think I’m the only one who’s had this experience, then I get on stage with seven people I don’t know, and they’ve all been through the same thing,” Clark said.

“I’m still learning new things every day, and I mean, I’m really only seven years old so, give me a break.”

Since celebrating her first birthday as Stefanie in June 2016, Clark has learned how to make room for both her past self and her current self in her mind.

Though most trans people do not use their deadnames — their names before they transitioned — Clark said the ability for Stefanie and Stephen to coexist within her body has given her a sense of peace, she said.

“About two years ago, a dear friend of mine who knew me when I was still hiding, said to me, ‘Stefanie, don’t you ever forget Stephen because, as good as you are, he carried you for 68 years. At the age of 80, you know things most women would never dream of knowing.’ So, now, I let them have equal places in my life and take them both with me to all my meetings. They each bring expertise that most consultants would kill for.

“What I like most about my life right now is that Stefanie is respected,” Clark said.

To learn more about Stefanie Clark and her numerous creative projects, visit her website.

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