By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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Sparks told her second wife, and after attempting to work it out for a couple of months — Sparks admits she didn't know if it would work, "I guess I would have liked it to" — they divorced. Back visiting in Kansas City in 1997, Sparks met her adult children in a park and explained why she now had longer hair and looked more androgynous after a year of hormone treatments, and told them the real reason behind the divorce from their mother years before. Everyone ended up in tears. Though Sparks' daughter stayed in contact, her sons' calls tapered off to none over the next weeks.
Sparks sent her siblings books on transgender issues; only a dog-eared Bible came in return. "One of my brothers actually said that ... he would hire a bum, wino, homeless person, or drug addict before he would hire a transgender person," Sparks says. "He said, 'You're going to starve, and I'm not going to help you.'"
Sparks applied for more than 100 jobs and was called in for five interviews, only to be told she wasn't qualified, or she was overqualified. Meanwhile, her expenses were increasing. She was paying for three weekly therapist appointments, electrolysis, and voice training, as well as building her wardrobe from scratch. Her post-divorce savings plummeted, and she went into debt. To offset the damage, she sold off the totems of her former life: Cartier watch, Armani tux, 1969 Mercedes convertible.
Sparks eventually couldn't make rent, and moved in with two friends from her single Southern California days who had moved to Sonoma County. Storti was shocked by the transformation: For Sparks "to get into Theresa, he wanted to totally change. So, basically, he killed [the male Sparks] to create Theresa. And quite frankly, it was like a slow death — like watching an old friend die."
Sparks also found a spot on the couch of DeSoto cab driver and then–taxi commissioner Jane Bolig, whom she'd met at a transgender social group, and took her up on the idea of becoming a driver. Sparks calls the job "transsexual boot camp," in which she could try out a new voice and persona with each new customer. Yet the effort left little attention for the road. Her first day on the job, Sparks rear-ended a car on Van Ness, and a woman stepped out of the car and berated her with transgender epithets. The scene attracted people from a nearby bar to join the chorus of "faggot," "pervert," "sir," and "mister."
"I remember she came home that evening in tears," Bolig says. "And the next day she got up and went to work again. ... No matter what kind of hit she took, she just kept trying."
Eventually the company didn't renew Sparks' lease after, at her count, four fender-benders in a year. She found work as a Census taker, and was beginning to think she'd never be employed up to her credentials again.
Gradually, Sparks was able to save enough for the next step in her transition. While women who take testosterone can lower their voices within months, no amount of estrogen will raise a biological man's voice. A surgeon stretched her vocal cords to raise the pitch of her voice a full octave, but the surgery didn't take. After about a year, her voice once again descended to its original range.
While Sparks had assumed that she would have to save up for sex reassignment surgery, she inherited $25,000 after her mother's death in 1999 — enough to afford the procedure in Thailand, where surgeons charged half the price of those in the United States. Cost wasn't the only obstacle. Sparks underwent another two angioplasties in April 2000, in her legs this time, and her doctor advised her against major surgery. Sparks wasn't deterred. "I wasn't about to give up now," she says.
In 2000, at 51 years old, Sparks boarded a plane to Bangkok with a suitcase full of traveler's checks and Bolig in tow for support.
In Phuket, before the nine-hour surgery, Sparks awoke in the early morning, walked into the bathroom, stripped off her clothes, and stared at herself one last time in the mirror. "I was saying goodbye to what I had been my whole life, my persona, the appendages ... and making peace with this new person."
After years of anxiety, Sparks finally felt calm.
After returning to San Francisco as a woman, Sparks charged into San Francisco politics, a world that was still waiting for its introduction to Ms. Sparks. She had already made her mark as an activist by coordinating a vigil in front of the Castro Theatre in 1999 for murdered transgender people, the first Transgender Day of Remembrance now held annually around the globe.
But her first major break in politics came when she was hired as a field coordinator for then-Supervisor Mark Leno's re-election campaign in 2000. His victory galvanized Sparks' political career. Leno and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors later appointed her to a new city transgender task force. The group urged Leno to introduce an ordinance to provide medical coverage for transgender city employees' gender reassignment surgeries in 2001. The Board of Supervisors' approval of the measure pushed San Francisco to the forefront of the country's trans movement. Leno also urged Mayor Willie Brown to appoint Sparks as a human rights commissioner in 2001, upon which she pushed for transgender-sensitivity training for all police officers.