Sparks was born on April 8, 1949 in Kansas City, Kansas, where
she grew up. Assigned male at birth, Sparks expressed her gender
identity at an early age by wearing women's clothing, though
she later resisted these impulses in adolescence.
Sparks went to Kansas State University and graduated with a
degree in engineering. She served in the United States Army
during the Vietnam War. Later she managed several waste management
and recycling companies and patented two recycling techniques.
married her first wife in 1971 and together they had three children:
two sons and a daughter. After nine years of marriage, Sparks
finally revealed to her wife her desire to live as a woman.
They separated shortly after and eventually divorced. Sparks
remarried, but that marriage also ended in divorce.
1997, Sparks was ready to live full-time as a woman and moved
from San Diego, California to San Francisco, where she felt
she could more easily adjust to the change. All three of her
children reportedly supported her decision to transition.
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 managing
three environmental consulting companies as a man, Sparks struggled
to find a job in San Francisco as a woman. She applied unsuccessfully
for more than 100 jobs. Sparks eventually picked up some sporadic
work as a cab driver, bank teller, and census taker to narrowly
avoid becoming homeless.
evening while walking through the Tenderloin neighborhood of
San Francisco, an area known to be strolled by transgender sex
workers, Sparks said she was harassed by a police officer, who
demanded to see her identification and questioned what she was
doing there. "The police assume if there's a transgender
person walking down the street in the Tenderloin it's probably
because they're prostitutes," she later said about the
2000, Sparks traveled to Thailand to undergo sex reassignment
surgery. Sparks could not afford the surgery in the United States
and, like many other American transsexuals, opted to pursue
sex reassignment surgery in Thailand, where it is more affordable.
In April 2001, Sparks reported she had spent about $30,000 since
1997 to finance her transition.
identifies as straight, meaning she is predominantly attracted
Not long after her arrival in San Francisco, Sparks immersed
herself in the San Francisco 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.
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. Held in the Harvey
Milk Plaza of the Castro District, the Transgender Day of Remembrance
grew into an annual event honored around the world every November.
In 2000, Sparks' activism 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. A year
later, Sparks and Leno helped to establish broader medical benefits
for municipal employees diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The
new law was the only governmental policy of its kind in the
nation and provided medical coverage for hormone therapy and
sex reassignment surgery.
Willie Brown appointed Sparks to chair the LGBT Advisory Committee
of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission in early 2001,
making her the Commission's first-ever transgender appointee.
Sparks used her position to lobby for a new transgender-sensitivity
training program for county police officers, which the San Francisco
Police Department (SFPD) on August 10, 2001 agreed to produce.
The program includes specific guidelines for how to treat transgender
people and how to appropriately document cases involving transgender
people. She served on the commission for two four-year terms.
Impressed with Sparks' public service, the San Francisco Board
of Supervisors appointed Sparks a police commissioner, and she
was sworn in on April 30, 2004 by Mayor Gavin Newsom. 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.
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.
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
Sparks found some temporary work in 2001 in the shipping department
of a worker-owned sex toy company named Good Vibrations. The
general manager of Good Vibrations, Beth Doyle, quickly recognized
Sparks' management skills and hired her as a financial manager
when the position became available three months later.
Doyle left the company in April 2005, frustrated with the constraints
of the co-op business structure, and the board of Good Vibrations
elected Sparks to be the new general manager. In February 1,
2006 under Sparks' leadership, the board voted unanimously to
drop Good Vibration's co-op structure but retain its progressive
business roots. Sparks herself was the main instigator of the
change. "We researched Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry's,
and others. All these companies have progressive values, but
they're not co-ops," Sparks' explained to a reporter later.
"Something had to give." The board became shareholders
in the newly structured company, splitting the shares evenly.
a speech commemorating the Compton's Cafeteria riot, Sparks
said her company was "one of the top US employers of transgenders"
and "proud to continue the fight for transgender equality."
of the Year
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.
Leno angered the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC)
after making jokes about Sparks' award on a March 31, 2003 broadcast
of his talk show, The Tonight Show. During his opening monologue,
Leno quipped, "[The California Assembly] awarded a man
who had a sex change as its Woman of the Year. When he accepted
the award, he said there was a part of him that didn't want
to accept it - but that's gone now."
NTAC's executive director, Vanessa Edwards Foster, criticized
Leno's comments as dehumanizing. "In a country where no
positive accomplishments of transgender people are ever reported
it's curious that belittling humor of these same people is openly
welcomed," Forster said. "Leno's remarks took an historic
recognition for a transgender community leader and summarily
diminished it with insensitive humor." The NTAC also criticized
Leno for using the male pronoun to refer to Sparks.
LGBT Advisory Committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission
reported at a meeting on April 15 that Jay Leno had apologized
to Mark Leno for his comments. Minutes of the meeting also recorded
that "national organizations have been responding to Mr.
Leno without conferring with Commissioner Sparks first".
Award, Human Rights Campaign (2004) - first transgender person
ever to receive this award
Roll of LGBT Elected and Appointed Officials, Horizons Foundation
Award, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club (2004)
of the Year, California State Assembly (2003) - first transgender
person ever to receive this award
Service Award, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club (2001)
Honorary Grand Marshall, San Francisco Pride (2001)
100 LGBT Leaders in the United States, Out Magazine
Marshall, San Francisco Pride Parade (2008)