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On a recent Saturday morning, Theresa Sparks strode into Rasselas Jazz Club in the Fillmore in her size 11 leopard-print flats, peeled off her sunglasses, and sized up a tough room. It had been just seven weeks since she had started her new job as the director of the Human Rights Commission, the agency that boosts the ability of small, locally owned businesses to compete for city contracts and subcontracts. She had been invited to speak by the African American Democratic Club to answer one main question: What did this mayor-appointed white lady raking in a $167,000 salary plan to do to get black folks jobs?
A dainty crucifix hanging around her neck, Sparks grabbed the microphone and spent 10 minutes trying to answer that question and announce her other plans for the commission. It's for appearances like these that she wishes she had worked on feminizing her baritone voice a bit more before getting into the public eye. More than a decade after she started her life's Act II as a woman, Sparks, now 60, still has the down-home Midwestern man's voice from Act I. It's the main feature that gives away her own minority status, belying the meticulous manicures and multiple surgeries that have coaxed her body into the gender she knows should have been hers at birth.
After Sparks finished outlining her plans, many in the room seemed unimpressed. The Human Rights Commission's perceived ineffectiveness helping African-American businesses has long been a sore spot in black San Francisco, and Sparks' speech didn't satisfy the commission's critics.
When Sparks took questions, 76-year-old events promoter James Pye grumbled that the people in the room had been sitting there for 50 years, "swallowing" promises of change. He looked directly at Sparks in her black knee-length skirt and cast a distinct shade of ugly over the proceedings: "Thank you, sir."
Sir. The pain of the word hit Sparks like a dart. She looked down, silent. After a few other angry speakers, Commissioner Julius Turman, who is African-American, stood to say that there was no reason to demonize Sparks and nearly got shouted down by Reverend Arnold Townsend for defending her.
Sparks then addressed Townsend directly, with some fight in her voice. "I don't pretend to understand what you've gone through ... just like you don't pretend to understand what I've gone through."
"No, I don't," he allowed.
"And I'm not suggesting I can be a leader in your community, because I can't be," Sparks continued. "What I'm suggesting, what I'm asking you, is for this club and other organizations in this city to come to me ... to determine how we're going to go forward together. Because we share a common goal, we've both shared discrimination, and if you don't believe I've had discrimination, then you haven't been watchin'."
Townsend backed off and said he didn't mean any offense, and Sparks said she didn't take any. She even earned a loud round of applause from the audience. Afterward, she walked up to Townsend and gave him a warm hug before sliding on her sunglasses and walking out onto Fillmore Street as if she'd just come from a cordial brunch.
If there was ever a test of how effective a politician Sparks can be, how effectively she can move past her own minority status to talk to others, the meeting was one such test — and Sparks had just aced it.
Theresa Sparks' story is the story of many transgender people in San Francisco. She moved here from more conservative locales in the Midwest and Southern California, seeking a place to come out and be accepted. But even in San Francisco, she hasn't always found total acceptance. However, she has found success as the most powerful transgender woman in town. In 2004, she became the city's first transgender police commissioner, and is now among the country's first openly transgender department heads. But Sparks is pondering a move that would be the biggest of all: becoming San Francisco's first openly transgender city supervisor.
It's hard to imagine that in June, Sparks was back where she was a decade ago: unemployed, with no savings and several maxed-out credit cards. Like many transgender people, she'd had trouble finding work — some 14 percent of transgender Californians were unemployed in 2008, twice the general population's rate during that period, according to a study by the San Francisco–based Transgender Law Center. Last fall, she left her job as CEO of Good Vibrations, a sex-toy retail chain, after a management shakeup and spent almost a year applying for positions around the country, including within the Obama administration.
In her former life, Sparks was a successful executive in the oil-recycling and environmental decontamination industries. Yet after a year of applications and interviews for private and public sector jobs, the only job offers came from San Francisco's progressive city government.
Sparks' acceptance of the Human Rights Commission post still created controversy, although not for the expected reasons. Soon after her appointment, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation to prohibit city commissioners from taking city jobs for at least a year after stepping down from their volunteer posts, saying it could create a pay-to-play system. When Sparks took the job, she was still serving on the police commission, and some critics believed she let Mayor Gavin Newsom become too involved in the selection of new Chief George Gascón. (The commission presents a shortlist of candidates to the mayor, who makes the final pick.) Sparks insists she kept the mayor at arm's length during the selection process, and dubbed Mar's measure "Theresa's Law."