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Yet serving on commissions or eventually as cochair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club didn't pay the bills. Sparks worked as a bank teller, and nabbed a seasonal gig packing sex toys at Good Vibrations during the 2001 Valentine's Day season. While there, she applied for a financial manager position. Upon seeing her business credentials, Good Vibrations' manager immediately hired Sparks to help expand the sex-positive cooperative into a profitable franchise.
Sparks overcame her reservations about putting a sex shop on her résumé and went to work slashing costs. Her ties to the neighborhood associations of upper Polk Street helped convince local businesses that the proposed store location would attract healthy retail traffic to the neighborhood, not trench-coated porn-shop habitués.
Sparks says Good Vibrations' sex-positive ethos helped her shed some of her own conservative attitudes and accept her changing sexuality. After her transition, "to my surprise, I started to be attracted to men." She began dating a male freelance journalist, a relationship that lasted five years. Sparks now says she is attracted to both sexes: "I don't know if that means I'm bisexual. I guess by pure definition, that's what that means, but I'm more attracted to the person, not to their sex."
Of course, the world outside Good Vibrations is still not so open-minded. In 2003, Mark Leno (who had since been elected to the state Assembly) presented Sparks with his district's Woman of the Year award. Tonight Show host Jay Leno couldn't resist using it as fodder in his late-night monologue: When Sparks accepted the award, Jay Leno riffed, "he said there was a part of him didn't want to accept it, but that's gone now." While transgender activists nationwide were outraged on her behalf, Sparks says no one bothered to call her to ask what she thought: "Quit taking yourself so damn seriously. Sure, I wasn't thrilled he was making a joke about me, but he's a comedian! He's on TV! ... What's the alternative? To be miserable? I sometimes may feel some embarrassment, but you know — life's too short."
There was no avoiding the scrutiny, especially since Sparks underwent the last steps of her transition while squarely in the public eye. In 2004, she was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the police commission, the body charged with creating department protocols and disciplining officers. Despite her high-visibility position, Sparks says she was so self-conscious about her masculine features that she forced the SFPD to take down her photos at police stations.
Around that time, she completed the last step of her physical transformation: facial feminizing surgery. "After her gender surgery, the next important thing to her was to feminize her face so that people would not look at her and point, basically," Bolig says. "I think that in itself has helped bring some peace to her." Sparks shed her frumpy bob for sophisticated auburn layers, lost 30 pounds, and agreed to sit for a new photo at the Hall of Justice to be hung in every police station.
Many cops and commissioners say Sparks has earned their respect as an independent-minded, pragmatic workhorse who served, as she says, in spite of being transgender, not as someone defined by it. Former commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese says Sparks could look beyond the identity politics that so often determine voting records in this city. He says progressives and the LGBT community had blasted his efforts to register sex offenders' residences because the label could include some gay people charged with sodomy crimes. To Veronese's surprise, Sparks still supported his resolution to get the state attorney general's clarification on whether offenders could register as homeless to avoid restrictions on where they could live. Under Sparks' leadership, the commission also required that police use interpreters for encounters with anyone with limited English.
Sparks had her share of detractors. Many grumbled about her stubborn defense of former Police Chief Heather Fong, and said that both of them were appointed only because of political correctness.
"My sense is [Sparks] tried to do the right thing by the cops," says Sergeant Carl Tennenbaum, who goes by Carl T. "There's the old puritanical Irish Catholic boys who have problems with a person being a transgender person. ... I could put you in contact with a bunch of guys that hate her because of what she is, [and say] she's a freak, but they would hate anyone who wasn't born in the Sunset and went to SI [St. Ignatius College Preparatory]."
Sparks has found the best way to defuse any discomfort about her transgender identity is to take the first, and funniest, jab herself. At a police commission meeting earlier this year, she complimented one sergeant on his knowledge of hazardous waste disposal — her former specialty. The officer responded, "Thank you, Madam President. I've been doing this for 15 years, and I had a full head of hair when I started."
Sparks shot back, "You know, I won't even go there and tell you what I had when I started." The meeting room erupted into laughter. Point Sparks.
On a recent morning, Sparks hopped in her Prius and zoomed over to the Human Rights Commission at 25 Van Ness, where she walked past the "Theresa Sparks, Executive Director" sign in the hallway and into her still-spartan office. As an experienced business executive accustomed to shaking things up, Sparks is planning big changes. She envisions expanding the commission's functions beyond its current role of investigating discrimination complaints and ensuring contractors comply with the city's equal benefits and nondiscrimination policies. She has already made moves to boost the number of certified small businesses eligible for discounts in contract bids.