Simply Theresa


Advocacy

In 1997, Sparks moved from San Diego to San Francisco, California, believing that the Bay Area would be more conducive and accepting of the life-altering change she was contemplating. It was region known for its tolerance, particularily of LGBT individuals. It was also an area of the United States with the largest transgender population and the greatest number of agencies and health-care professionals trained to deal with issues specific to individuals with an unusual condition called gender dysphoria. It was in San Francisco that Sparks began her transition from living as a man to living as a transsexual-woman, not really knowing what her future would hold.

But even in San Francisco, a city known as one of the most transgender-friendly in the country, Sparks faced challenges as a transgender woman. Despite 20 years of experience in waste management and having managed three environmental consulting companies as a man, Theresa struggled to find a job in San Francisco as a woman. She applied unsuccessfully for more than 100 jobs. Sparks eventually picked up sporadic work as a cab driver, bank teller, and census taker.  For that period of time she lived with friends, sleeping in spare bedrooms and on couches.

Not long after her arrival in San Francisco, Sparks immersed herself in the local political landscape. Frustrated with the obstacles she and other transgender people were facing such as employment and housing discrimination, anti-transgender violence, police harassment, and a lack of affordable medical treatment, she helped organize a group of transgender activists to lobby the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1999 they formed the Transgender Political Caucus (TPC) and campaigned to elect members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who would fight for transgender civil rights.

Sparks became the chair of the nascent transgender activist group, TG Rage, and in 1999 organized the very first Transgender Day of Remembrance to memorialize those transgender men and women who lost their lives to transphobic violence. This event, based on the research and subsequent web site, Remembering Our Dead, created by community historian Gwen Smith was held in front of The Castro theatre in the Castro District of San Francisco. The Transgender Day of Remembrance grew into an annual event honored around the world every November.

In 2000, Sparks' activism, coupled with the ever more visible local transgender community, prompted Supervisor Mark Leno to create a new city work group, the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force, of which Sparks became a charter member. This was the first transgender-specific task force of its type ever created in the United States.

A year later, Leno introduced local legislation at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors establishing full medical benefits, including gender reassignment therapy, hormone treatment and surgeries for transgender employees of the City and County of San Francisco. The new law was the only health benefit of its kind in the nation and has since been emulated by other governmental bodies in the United States and elsewhere around the world. This legislation was initially the brainchild of Leno legislative aide, Nathan Purkiss, a loyal and consistent supporter of the transgender community in San Francisco. But it was through the ongoing and diligent activism of local transgender leaders such as Cecilia Chung, Robert Haaland, Susan Stryker, Marcus Arana, Yosenio Lewis, Claire Skiffington, Jane Bolig, Veronika Cauley, Jamison Green, Tamara Ching, Shawna Virago, Stephan Thorne, along with Theresa Sparks, that this amazing feat was accomplished.

In 2001, Theresa Sparks was appointed by Mayor Willie Brown to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the first ever transgender appointed to that commission. she became the chair of both the LGBT Advisory and the Issues Committees. But it was at the LGBT Advisory Committee that Sparks was able to create a joint task force between members of the transgender community, LGBT Advisory Committee members and sworn members of the San Francisco Police Department to look into allegations of ongoing violence perpetrated against transgender individuals by members of law enforcement. After nearly three years of discussions, the Task Force made recommendations to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Human Rights Commission and Police Commission that defined specific protocols on how SFPD officers were to interact with individuals who self-identified as transgender. These recommendations subsequently became official policy of the San Francisco Police Department and are now being used by other law enforcement agencies around the world.

In 2003, Theresa Sparks became the first transgender woman ever named "Woman of the Year" by the California State Assembly. Assemblyman Mark Leno, Sparks' friend and a fellow transgender civil rights activist, said he selected Sparks for the award, not only to honor her advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community, but also to humanize a transgender civil rights bill he introduced earlier that year. Assembly Bill 196, which was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis later that year, amended the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, making it illegal to discriminate in employment or housing decisions on the basis of transgender status or gender stereotypes.

Impressed with Sparks' public service, and her work with the SFPD creating transgender-specific protocols,, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors appointed Sparks to serve on the powerful San Francisco Police Commission. She was sworn in on April 30, 2004 by Mayor Gavin Newsom, making her the first transgender person ever appointed to a civilian oversight commission of law enforcement anywhere in the United States. She served for two years as the commission vice president until May 24, 2006, when she voluntarily declined to reapply for that position: the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sparks "slam[med]" her fellow commissioners, citing the Police Commission's lack of progress in addressing the city's high murder rate, loss of SFPD staff, and low police morale. On May 9, 2007, Sparks made history yet again when she was elected president of the San Francisco Police Commission by a single vote, making her the first transgender person ever to be elected president of any San Francisco commission and San Francisco's highest ranking transgender official. The deciding vote was cast by Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese, which came as a surprise to many observers who expected the Newsom-appointee to back Joe Marshall, the candidate Newsom preferred. Newsom himself was reportedly stunned. When asked about his vote, Commissioner Veronese reported said that he only did what was right and voted for the most qualified candidate.

"Theresa defines trailblazer," Cecilia Chung told the San Francisco Bay Times shortly after the election. Chung, Deputy Director of the Transgender Law Center and a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, saw Sparks election as a landmark moment for transgender people in the city. "Her brilliance and dedication continue to open doors for transgender people throughout San Francisco and the state. She represents a strong, committed voice for our community on issues of police reform and oversight; and this election is a clear indicator of the increasing number of leadership opportunities that are open to more and more community members."