‘Renaissance Woman’ embraces new phase of life and gender identity at 75

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

Stefanie Clark describes her regular stints volunteering at the Art Institute of Chicago as a way she can give back to the community that kept her moving forward during a tumultuous time in her life.

“This is one of my things I look forward to the most,” said Clark, 75, her gray hair swept into a small bun as she greets people at the doors of the museum. Indeed, the former financier, whose business card and email signature bear her self-ascribed moniker “Renaissance Woman,” wears many hats.

After receiving a 2015 inheritance from her stepfather, Clark set out to immerse herself within her community and to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

This renewed sense of purpose came just a few years after she came out to her family as a transgender woman at the age of 68 following the death of her wife in 2011.

The disclosure was liberating, putting an end to years of cross-dressing in private while maintaining public roles as a husband and father, Clark said. But it also led to years of despondence. It took some time for her three children, all in their 40s and 50s, to come around to “Stefanie” — especially her son, Peter.

“My son definitely had problems with Stefanie and ‘Dad,’” Clark said.

The inheritance and Clark’s financial independence allowed her to redefine her existence. In addition to taking up volunteer posts and speaking engagements, she was able to invest in a 13th-floor North Side condominium overlooking Lake Michigan — “Stefanie’s Riviera,” she calls it.

In addition to volunteering at the Art Institute, she gives regular talks at area colleges, nursing homes and other organizations. She also recently became involved with SAGE USA, where she plans to help lobby on behalf of LGBT elders.

In her little remaining free time, she attends at least a dozen events each month as a member of the Village Chicago, an organization that arranges speeches, seminars and other gatherings for adults over the age of 50.

“I walk into these rooms a lot of times not knowing what the topic is and prepared to walk out if I’m not learning something,” said Clark, a wry smile flashing across her face. “You know what the word on my tombstone is? ‘Next.’”

Renee James, a Chicago-area author, said Clark didn’t seem as self-assured when the two met, before Clark came out to her family.

James said her own personality isn’t particularly “bubbly,” and when she and Clark went to dinner together after seeing a play at the Raven Theater, Clark was friendly but not especially talkative.

After Clark came out, however, “her personality had just completely changed,” said James, 72.

“She was so outgoing — so full of life and enthusiastic about everything. And that’s really when we started to bond, because I found her enthusiasm infectious,” James said.

James, who uses a pen name and says she lives in two genders, commended Clark for her generosity.

“I have come to admire her,  to really appreciate this kind of second life she’s living,” James said.

Clark is project-oriented and often works on sharing her story across many platforms. Earlier this year, she worked on a rendition of her story with Susan Lieberman, creator of the Stories in the Spotlight series at the Center on Addison, a senior facility for the LGBT-friendly Center on Halsted.

Clark saw her story come to life as part of the series’ “Transgender Journeys,” a performance which ran for one wintry February night at the Center on Halsted.

Lieberman said Clark helped to push that show toward fruition. It required six weeks of workshopping personal anecdotes written by seven transgender women, whose stories were then performed by two professional actors.

“It takes [the stories] to other dimensions,” Lieberman said of the medium.

She said the themes explored in the show included exclusion and loneliness but also love. The mix of emotions are “typical of LGBT elders because they had a life before you could walk down Boystown and hold your partner’s hand.”

For her Stories in the Spotlight segment, Clark focused on her relationship with her son.

About four months after the Stories in the Spotlight show, Clark received a Father’s Day card in the mail — but “addressed to Stefanie,” Clark pointed out as she shared the pink and orange card with me.

The card includes a generic Father’s Day message on the inside. Beneath that, Peter Clark writes, “You are my father, and I want to recognize you for all you have done for me and my family. I love you!”

Stefanie Clark was silent for several seconds, then explained that she usually cries when she tells this story.

“It’s not done yet,” she said of the reconciliation. “But at least…” and her voice trails off.

Photo at top: Stefanie Clark, a transgender woman who came out just seven years ago, at 68, volunteers as a greeter at the Art Institute of Chicago on a recent Saturday. (Lauren Robinson/MEDILL)