As I watched Theresa Sparks during Pride weekend this past June, it was clear to me that something had changed. The soon-to-be-ex-Police Commission president seemed more restrained than when I'd followed her during the same events in 2008. Then, she had shouted through the microphone with an activist's recklessness (“Fuck the Human Rights Campaign!”—a reference to the LGBT group's futile attempt to win congressional votes for a federal antidiscrimination bill by agreeing to cut transgender people out of it). But this year, Sparks kept it short and sunny. The most controversial thing she did all weekend was introduce departing police chief Heather Fong, and Sparks' rhetorical bouquet—“Every now and then, an individual comes along who is the right person at the right time in history”—stirred things up only in that it brought the room to a five-minute standing ovation. Never mind that she could have been talking about herself.
Sparks is tall, with a Julia Child-like solidity and tousled, shortish hair that shifts through various shades of red. She dresses conservatively—for Pride, she chose blue jeans and a black cardigan, with designer sunglasses—and moves with deliberate grace, though sometimes she forgets herself and chops at the air with her hands. You would never guess that she used to be male until you hear her voice—the baritone drawl of the blunt-spoken Kansas oilman she once was. Usually, she wouldn't have cared who was listening, which made her a reporter's best friend (and a handler's nightmare). On Pride weekend, however, she expertly buttonholed politicians—supervisors Bevan Dufty and David Campos, state senator Mark Leno—for conversations out of earshot. Sparks, it turned out, had made a momentous decision: to run for San Francisco supervisor in November 2010, perhaps the most high-profile bid for power ever attempted by a transgender person in the United States. And the way these elected officials were treating her—their body language showed respect, even deference.
Just the year before, Sparks had been thinking of leaving San Francisco, the public sphere, or both. Politics had come to seem a bit dirty to her, she told me then: the back-scratching, the unending pursuit of popularity. “I'm getting to like the limelight too much,” she confessed. “I don't want that to be the motivator.” She preferred her work as a turnaround executive—she was CEO of the sex-toy retailer Good Vibrations—and her role as a transgender activist and queer icon (she was the 2008 Pride Parade's “lifetime achievement grand marshal”). That Pride weekend, I tagged along with her and the comedian Margaret Cho in a limo they'd hired to shuttle friends from bar to bar. Just after 1 a.m., we arrived at Divas, a dive even among Tenderloin dives, where patrons hunch over their drinks in rumpled shirts and baseball caps or cruise for “dates” decked out in heavy makeup and silicon boobs. Cho, whom Sparks has known for years, got up on the little corner stage and said, “This place brings back memories. People say, like, pine trees remind them of their childhood, but for me, it's the smell of balls in panty hose.” Then the master of ceremonies called Sparks' name and thanked her for clearing up a dispute between the bar and the police. It was a nice moment, and a political climber would have made the most of it. But Sparks just waved demurely, her prim Midwestern politesse clashing with the bar's palpable air of desperation.
Soon, though, Sparks was in desperate straits herself. Later in 2008, she lost her job and discovered that, despite her gold-plated résumé, no one wanted to hire a sixtyish transsexual grandmother. (“I've been telling people when I apply for a job, ‘You know, I had a couple things removed a few years ago, but one of them wasn't my brain,'” she wisecracked then.) As the rejections piled up, one of San Francisco's most effective public servants became so dispirited that she considered moving back to Kansas City, where her daughter lives. “It might be harder to find a job there,” she told me, “but at least there would be lower rent.” By this past spring, though, she had hit upon one last strategem for finding a job: running for office.
One measure of Sparks' resolve is how much like a politician she already sounds. She's created an exploratory committee, she stresses; the formal announcement will come later. When pressed to explain why she thinks she'd make a good supervisor, she says, “The city has been going in the wrong direction for the past several years. It's hard to believe that, with revenues of $6 billion, we still have a $500 million deficit. We need to look at fiscal and budgetary reform.” Or how's this for canned? “I've demonstrated that I'm independent, and I look at every issue on an individual basis.”
[Photograph by Violet Blue]
A rabble-rousing Harvey Milk, she's not—at least not as Sean Penn portrayed him. Yet the Milk comparison is one we'll hear a lot in coming months, as Sparks' candidacy attracts waves of national attention (and, no doubt, right-wing hysteria). Like Milk, she is the leader of a mocked and downtrodden group rising to knock at the doors of power. Like Milk, she has the business background and the surprising friends (Milk bonded with the unions; Sparks has the respect of law enforcement) that can broaden her appeal. But there's one difference: For all the gains made in San Francisco, it's still far tougher to be transgender here today than it was to be gay in Milk's era. If Theresa Sparks hopes to change that—and history in the process—then bland and canned may be exactly the right approach.
Sparks' handling of the San Francisco Police Department fits a larger pattern in which she has taken something in need of major change—a government agency, a business, her family, even her own body—and transformed it. As man and woman, she's been able to envision what's possible, charm others into helping her get there, and win their respect in the process. “I was just blown away by Theresa,” says Cho, who first met Sparks when she called out of the blue and persuaded the comic to join Good Vibrations' board. “She is so powerful, such a badass. But also so warm and funny.”
As she enters the campaign, Sparks' latest claim to competence is pushing the hire of the city's take-charge new police chief, George Gascón. It was her last act while leading the Police Commission—the body that fires officers (including chiefs), provides the final word in discipline cases, and creates department policy—and it confirmed Sparks' reputation as someone who can play politics with the best of them. Gascón is a different breed than the SFPD's other recent chiefs—an outsider who has spent time on the third-biggest police force in the country (Los Angeles) and who earned a reputation at his last job (in Mesa, Arizona) for being willing to knock heads and make high-profile enemies. “Here's a person to implement change, not just develop it,” Sparks says. “Here's a person to shake things up. Here's a person who's gone nose-to-nose with an entrenched good-old-boy network and come out on top.” Gascón is, in other words, a lot more like Sparks than like Fong (known as “Feather” to her detractors on the force). Fong's aversion to the press and laserlike focus on behind-the-scenes bureaucratic minutiae created a vacuum of charismatic leadership that Sparks, more often than not, filled.
Sparks came to the commission seven years after arriving in San Francisco and beginning her gender transition. Her interest was piqued by a stint on the Human Rights Commission, where she pushed through new policies for the way police handle trans people—transvestites, transsexuals, and those in between. (The department, recognizing that her recommendations were pragmatic rather than punitive, went along without a fight.) It was a taste of the power Sparks had wielded as a man, and she wanted more. But when she approached an aide to the newly elected Gavin Newsom about an appointment, he laughed in her face. A transgender person helping to lead the SFPD? “That's not going to happen anytime soon,” the aide declared.
In fact, Sparks' timing was perfect. Crime was up, morale was down, and voters—shaking their heads over Fajitagate (when what seemed like the entire SFPD top brass was accused of covering up for the boorish kid of one of their own)—had expressed their disgust by stripping away some of the mayor's authority over the commission and the department and handing it to the Board of Supervisors. Sparks found an ally in then supervisor (and Newsom nemesis) Tom Ammiano, who named her to the panel. She was sworn in a few days after Fong became chief, at a time when anyone who could fix the SFPD's dismal public image would reap a rich political bounty.
Sparks' fellow commissioners became instant admirers. “I look at that $400 million budget and, whew, it's complicated,” attorney Petra DeJesus says. “But Theresa has some skills she brings to the table. She just cuts through that budget.” She also cut through stereotypes: Anyone who assumed that a transgender commissioner would be somewhere to the left of Che Guevara was in for a shock. In a city where the knee-jerk progressive move is to slash police funding to pay for social services, Sparks campaigned for more cops, more training—even more tasers. “She organized us to go to all the budget meetings to advocate,” DeJesus says. “We said, ‘What are we going to ask for, academy classes or technology?' And Theresa said, ‘We need to get both.'” As a result, an astounding 35 percent of the force has been hired in the past five years—despite two budget-busting economic downturns. The police were more surprised than anyone else, as one officer tellingly admitted. “We were laughing, and I asked him what he'd expected,” Sparks says. “And he said, ‘Well, my buddy and I, we thought you would come in and try to emasculate us.' Then he turned bright red and said, ‘That's the wrong word.' But I think that may be exactly the right word.”
Change was glacial, though, and a frustrated Sparks again outmaneuvered Newsom to stage a coup of the commission in 2007, persuading the mayor's appointee and friend Joe Alioto Veronese to side with her rather than with Newsom's pick for commission president. Says Veronese, whose decision infuriated the mayor, “Theresa was the one person able to get along with everyone: the union, the supervisors, the far left.” Sparks, who had been publicly critical of Fong, ultimately found the chief to be receptive to the commission's ideas, and as allies, they set up one system for flagging problem officers and brought in auditors to conduct eight major studies—the kind of details that are both vital for reform and utterly unnewsworthy.
[Photograph by Paula Craig Steele]
Fong was lousy at PR, so Sparks took control in every public interaction under her purview. At one commission meeting I attended, a man told a rambling story about being ignored by the Office of Citizen Complaints. “So that's my response to the OCC's report,” he concluded, spitting out the last word as if disgusted to discover it in his mouth. It was the kind of comment normally met with a polite but frustrating “Thank you—is there anyone else who wishes to be heard?” But Sparks responded as if she actually had heard, and directed the OCC's head to talk with the man in the hallway. Sparks' responses sometimes worked like magic. As one petitioner told the commission after another such exchange, “That was like a vitamin that cured me almost instantly.”
Sparks grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, one of five children in a classic 1950s family. The boy he was then dreamed of going to West Point, but a nod from his congressman—a requirement for admission—went instead to the son of one of the lawmaker's friends. So Sparks headed off to Kansas State, where he aced his first-semester classes and became pledge-class vice president of Delta Tau Delta. Despite his popularity, though, he felt deeply isolated. Sparks had a secret: Ever since he could remember, he'd found a happy, weightless relief in female clothes. At four or five, when his mother dressed him as a girl for Halloween, he pretended to hate the costume but stayed up late savoring it. As a boy, he'd lock the bathroom door behind him to dress up; in college, he'd tell his fraternity brothers that he was visiting his parents and instead would buy some women's clothes, rent a hotel room, and live for a day or two in drag, doing homework and watching TV. He did this intermittently—sometimes once a month—abandoning the clothes each time. But it became harder and harder to return to normal life. Sparks started spending days on end holed up in his dorm room, playing Bob Dylan records, skipping lectures, and failing his classes. Then, one day toward the end of his freshman year, when he could bear it no longer, he walked down to the navy recruiter's office and enlisted.
It was 1968, and his parents flipped out and persuaded him to switch to the reserves. After a year, the 19-year-old Sparks was sent to a desk job in Hawaii—a relief and a disappointment. Part of him wanted to prove himself in combat, to have a transformative experience. He spent another year on active duty and three more in the reserves.
When he returned to Kansas, he bumped into a childhood friend: The annoying girl from around the block had become a woman so beautiful that she was working as a model. Sparks had always been attracted to women; they fell in love, married, and had three kids in three years. He briefly returned to college, then started working for a farsighted engineer who saw the profit potential in used motor oil. In 1977, Sparks patented an oil-recycling device with three other men, formed his own company in Kansas, and began peddling his invention at energy conferences around the world. One year, he was away for 300 days, marketing and overseeing the construction of plants in Norway and the Philippines. These constant absences were brutal for his marriage and family, but, of course, there was more to them. When he traveled, Sparks took two suitcases—one for suits and one for dresses—and booked two hotel rooms. His wife knew he was holding back, though she couldn't guess why. It was as if he had another woman. The shame Sparks felt after these transgressions was intense. He'd destroy the clothes and vow to stop.
Then life became particularly rough. Income from the business fell off. His marriage of 10 years came apart. To this day, Sparks thinks of her first wife as the love of her life. If the relationship was going to end, Sparks thought, she deserved to know why. He sat her down and tearfully explained, hoping she might understand. His wife listened, then told him it was over.
Around the same time, Sparks missed a payment to the lender who had fronted him the money to start his company. Though he had paid off virtually all of the debt—the missed payment would have been his last—his investor seized the business and fired him. The move was legally dubious, but Sparks declared bankruptcy and slunk away to California, too devastated to fight back. But once again, his competence buoyed him up. Within a few years, he was leading a branch of his former competitor, the multinational engineering company KTI, whose owner was a brilliant and cutthroat Dutch businessman named Jake Voogd. Though Sparks disapproved of Voogd's rapaciousness, he admired his boss's toughness—and he learned to play rough, too. When he finally got fed up with Voogd's shenanigans, he booked a flight to the Netherlands on the company credit card, walked into his boss's office, told him to take his job and shove it, then flew home. With no understudy in the wings, Voogd doubled Sparks' salary to lure him back—but as soon as he found a replacement, he flew to California to fire Sparks in person.
In the '80s and early '90s, Sparks went on to lead progressively bigger companies and to serve on state and federal task forces, helping to develop environmental policy for the North American Free Trade Agreement, draw up recycling guidelines for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and draft waste-management rules for California. (He was apolitical in those days, voting for Republicans and Democrats alike.) He married another beautiful woman, moved to a small estate in the hills outside San Diego, and zipped off on a company jet for weekends in Tahoe. In 1995, the sale of his most recent business left him with a tidy nest egg, but no job. His youngest son had just left for college, and in this slack time, Sparks was left to face all that he'd been avoiding.
Sparks had tried to erase his longings, undergoing psychother-apy and submitting to a horrific form of electric-shock treatment in 1984. He had embraced machismo—smoking cigars, coaching his sons' football teams, rebuilding a truck—but nothing had worked. He got an apartment in San Francisco, ostensibly to build a consulting practice, but really to see a therapist: Mildred Brown, who wrote the book on gender dysphoria. In their first session, Brown locked eyes with Sparks and asked, “Do you want to be a woman?”
“I don't know,” he said.
“No, you tell me right now,” Brown insisted. “Do you want to be a woman?”
“I really don't know,” Sparks mumbled.
“Don't think about it. Do you want to be a woman?”
Sparks had gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid this question. But when he was forced to address it, the answer was “Yes.” The decision would cost him everything.
After telling his wife, who filed for divorce, Sparks sent a long, emotional letter to his friends. “I had to have a couple of extra drinks when I found out,” says John Quirk, a New York investment banker who helped hire Sparks as president and CEO of his last company. “I feel a little guilty. Usually I'll call to check up on people, even past clients, but I didn't do that with Theresa—and we were friends.” No one was more shocked than Sparks' children. It was as if the woman Sparks became had killed their alpha dad. In 2001, her daughter came for a visit, but she was so upset by the transformation that she flew home early.
Sparks had hoped that San Francisco—a mecca for transgender people from around the globe—would be a forgiving place to undergo the profound metamorphosis ahead. But she soon found herself destitute, kept off the streets only by the generosity of friends from transgender support groups. A significant portion of her fortune had gone to the divorce settlement. The rest went to the process of transitioning, including therapy and hour upon hour of electrolysis. (Sparks emerged from each session looking—and feeling—as if she'd been pummeled.)
She sent out more than 100 job queries, but the eight or so that turned into interviews didn't pan out. “I could tell that as soon as they saw me—or as soon as they heard my voice—that I wasn't going to get that job,” Sparks says. She worked briefly as a bank teller, a census taker, and a taxi driver (DeSoto Cabs fired her after her fourth accident), but even as she was nearing bottom, her means of survival was shifting from flight to fight.
Though it was her own travails that drove her to political action, Sparks knew she was one of the lucky ones. “You think I had a hard time finding a job?” she says, shaking her head. “What about the young transgender woman who doesn't have a diploma because she was beat up in high school—what do you think her chances are?” Sparks ticks off the problems confronting those who transgress gender norms: prostitution, violence, drug addiction, murder. “Incidence of HIV/AIDS?” she says. “Off the charts.”
So in 1998, Sparks spent a week drafting a 51-page proposal, complete with budget and executive summary, for a city program to help transgender people find jobs. “Here was Theresa—homeless, with no prospects, sleeping on my couch,” says her friend Jane Bolig, president of DeSoto Cabs and a trans-gender compatriot. “But she's got a plan to change all these laws.” (Sparks' recommendations were ignored at first, but over the years, most have been adopted.)
Sparks began spending more and more time with activists, and in 1999, after a Boston transgender woman was murdered, she helped organize a Bay Area vigil, now known as the Day of Remembrance and marked annually around the world. In 2000, Sparks—still unemployed—heard that then supervisor Mark Leno, who was facing a rough reelection because of his ties to Willie Brown, might be supportive of transgender issues, and she got a short-term job canvassing for him. (The Transgender Political Caucus, which she helped found during that period, successfully lobbied to have sex-change operations included in city workers' healthcare coverage and is now courted by every politician in San Francisco.) Leno's campaign team was floundering, and within weeks, Sparks had helped set it back on course. Supervisor Bevan Dufty compares her to a “battlefield general.” Leno adds, “Theresa deserves as much credit as anyone for winning in that election.”
That same year, Sparks inherited some money and traveled to Thailand for sex-change surgery. While recuperating, she mingled with Thai transsexuals, though she could only communicate with them on a rudimentary level. The Thai girls would ask, “Cut-cut chop-chop?” while scissoring with their fingers, and Sparks—now fully Theresa—would nod, saying, “Yeah, cut-cut chop-chop.”
“I sort of think of my life that way,” Sparks jokes. “Pre-cut-cut chop-chop and post-cut-cut chop-chop.”
In 2001, a grateful Leno snagged Sparks her appointment to the Human Rights Commission, a milestone for the trans community. A couple of years later, the lawmaker—by then in the state assembly—arranged an even greater honor: Sparks was named that body's Woman of the Year for her advocacy for LGBT equality. Not surprisingly, the move incensed some socially conservative Republicans, who turned their backs as she walked through the chamber. More humiliating was the ridicule of comic Jay Leno, who joked, “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.” Though Sparks concedes it's the type of joke she might make herself, it stung to be called “he” on national TV. The award was her introduction to the nation as an “in-your-face-deal-with-it trans person,” she says, and in reaction, the nation jeered. Yet Sparks was almost as upset by the outrage that gay rights organizations expressed on her behalf. “No one ever asked me if I wanted an apology,” she fumes. “They said, ‘You represent something larger.' Fuck that. It was directed at me personally.” (Jay Leno eventually apologized—but to Mark Leno, not to Sparks.)
Meanwhile, Sparks was also regaining her footing in the private sector. In 2001, she found a job helping with the Valentine's Day rush at Good Vibrations, a workers' cooperative so packed with joyful deviants that her sex change seemed almost banal. The company's finances were a mess, and Sparks' new colleagues saw her not as a woman or as a transgender person, but as the former CEO of a $52 million company. Barely a month later, she was Good Vibrations' financial manager; within three years, she was president.
Among her coworkers was a young copywriter named Violet Blue. “We looked at each other and shook hands, and it was just one of those moments,” recalls Blue, now an Internet personality and sex columnist for SFGate. The two bonded over a discussion of motorcycles and firearms. “I told her that I had a .45,” Blue says, “and she said, ‘Oh, cool, I love guns.' It's just awesome when you meet other tough girls.”
“Theresa is so inspiring to watch,” Cho adds. “It's the fullness of her accomplishment—on the Police Commission, yeah, but also as a parent, a mentor, a human being.”
“Well, Margaret is a self-proclaimed tranny hag,” Sparks responds.
Sparks, who desperately missed her children, informally adopted Blue and another young woman, creating a new family of lost girls who had been cut off from their biological families. Sparks calls Blue “the feral one,” a reference to her adolescence as a runaway on the streets of the Haight. Christina, aka “the wild one,” is a stunner who earned her sobriquet by dancing onstage in transgender clubs. They go shopping together, send each other texts, and talk about their relationships.
As a man, Sparks was genuinely attracted to women. For years after transitioning, she says, she could only imagine being loved by “small animals”—puppies or kittens. These days, she is interested in men. But romance is difficult for any woman of her age, let alone a trans woman. Sparks dated one man for three years, then left him, convinced he was cheating on her.
Good Vibrations, meanwhile, was being pulled under by Internet competition. After convincing workers to change the business structure from co-op to corporation, Sparks managed to sell the company just in time to avert bankruptcy. But the new owner, Joel Kaminsky, head of a Cleveland-based family porn empire, didn't seem interested in what Sparks could bring to the table. “He's gotta be wondering what I do here,” she told me at the time. “I'm not cheap.”
In August 2008, the inevitable happened. Not only did Kaminsky dismiss Sparks, but he also found a way to grab a big chunk of her severance. Just as she had done nearly 30 years before, Sparks decided she didn't want to fight it out in court. Somehow her life had come full circle. But this time, she didn't slink away.
A few months after we met, Sparks invited me to her home, a ground-level flat near the top of Nob Hill, on a dead-end alley dotted with trees. The neighborhood was pleasant enough, but the one-bedroom apartment was tiny, especially in comparison to the aerial photo she produced of her compound from her San Diego days. She greeted me in a black sweatshirt spotted with paint, more dressed down than I'd ever seen her. I followed her along a narrow hallway lined with bookshelves, past her couch and four-poster bed, to the kitchen, which opened into a space that Sparks had made her study. Black-and-white photographs of her ancestors covered one wall. “This is my pride and joy,” she told me, pointing to a picture of her grandfather as a young boy, with his six older brothers. “Legend has it that these three brothers would sell mules to the army,” she said, laughing, “and these three would steal them back.”
I was struck again by how much Sparks cherishes her family. “If my daughter or my sons said, ‘I need you'—I'd move to be with them in an instant. I wouldn't even think about it,” Sparks told me, staring into her wine. “I think about it all the time.”
One of the unexpected joys of the past few years has been the slow repair of Sparks' relationship with her kids. Her middle child, whom I'll call Mary, was the first to reach out (she asked me not to use her real name, worried about how the publicity might affect her two children). When Sparks was the Pride Parade's grand marshal, Mary flew out to applaud from the sidelines—a big enough stretch for a suburban Midwestern mom, she figured. But Sparks insisted that her daughter march in the parade behind her convertible, and to her great embarrassment, Mary found herself strolling up Market Street, surrounded by Bears of San Francisco and Dykes on Bikes. Then she heard the chants—“Theresa Sparks! You are my hero!”—and saw the tears streaming down transgender faces in the throng. She says, “It was really one of the proudest days of my life.”
Sparks' sons have been slower to find their way back to her. She emailed with her older son, a Marine, while he was fighting in Fallujah—“I think he needed to talk with his dad,” she says—then they fell out of touch again. But he came to visit in August, introducing Sparks to his wife and two-year-old daughter. Next, her youngest son expressed interest in moving to San Francisco. Now they are living together. Sparks has even reconnected with some of her old business friends, and they've tossed around the idea of meeting up to play some golf. Sparks is rusty, but one of them, James Hattler, chief operating officer at Mercury Waste Solutions, jokes, “If she thinks this means we're going to let her take the ladies' handicap, she has another thing coming.”
Sparks is looking for a new place in the Tenderloin—aka the transgender Castro—big enough for her and her artist-bartender son. It's part of her plan to run for the District 6 seat held by the erratic Chris Daly, who will be termed out in 2010 and has already moved his family to distant but affordable Fairfield. Her main competition will probably be Debra Walker, an artist who sits on the Building Inspection Commission; as a member of the progressive coalition that took over the San Francisco Democratic Party last year, Walker seems likely to get Daly's endorsement, for what that's worth. (“Every candidate has their albatross,” says political consultant David Latterman. “Debra Walker has one big fucking albatross that she's not going to be able to shake—Chris Daly.”) The district is the city's most fascinating, comprising Union Square retailers, SoMa luxury high-rises, the dregs of Market, and the heavily Asian Tenderloin—perfect for a moderate in progressive clothing, like Sparks, says Corey Cook, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “She's a trailblazer, but not outside the mainstream, and she is insulated against attacks on being too moderate. You saw that a lot with Obama. He would take these relatively conservative positions within the Democratic Party, but when people challenged him for being too far to the right, it just seemed ridiculous. Calling Theresa conservative would just seem absurd.”
Soon after Sparks told me she was running, she got a reprieve: a new, $167,596-a-year job as executive director of the notoriously mismanaged Human Rights Commission. (Mayor Newsom, of all people, made the hire, kicking out Christopher Iglesias to give her the job.) That's a good bit more than the $98,660 she'd earn as supervisor, but by then, she was set on running, and so will step down from the commission if she wins. Sparks' chances will be helped immensely if Gascón, who was very publicly her pick, succeeds in forcing reforms in the SFPD. The new chief says he could have used Sparks' talent on the commission, which he observed for hours while deciding whether he wanted the job. “One thing that attracted me to San Francisco was Theresa's leadership style,” Gascón says. “Very straightforward, focused on best business practices.
But as the race heats up, Sparks is likely to become a target for people far more vicious than Jay Leno who will mock her record, her appearance, her voice. In one of my last conversations with Sparks, I wonder aloud: Does it bother her that the pitch of her voice prevents her from passing?
“Passing is very important,” she admits. “You'd just like to live your life and not deal with the stares and the rolling of the eyes and the little ‘I'm in on the joke' smiles they give you.”
“But you don't femme it up,” I say. “You don't raise the pitch of your voice.”
“Well, I tried. I had vocal-cord surgery. I risked losing my voice entirely. It raised my voice about an octave, but not up into the female range. But no, I don't femme it up. I decided a while ago that whatever I am—if it's 40 percent male and 60 percent female or 80 percent female, 20 percent male—that's just what I am. I don't try to be anything I'm not.”
But if that's true, I press, why is she so insistent that I not reveal her old—male—name? I found it with just a little investigative sweat, so her sensitivity surprises me. “As soon as that comes out, every reference to me in the media will be ‘Theresa Sparks, formerly known as X,'” she tries to explain. “I'd rather just be Theresa.” I agree that her former name wouldn't provide any insight into her character, but her reticence seems odd after she's shared so many intimate details of her past life, I argue. Politics is more than ever a blood sport, and she has to know what kind of attacks she's setting herself up for. “The right-wing crazies won't just expose your name,” I point out. “They'll harass your kids.”
“I'm not concerned necessarily about them bothering my family,” she responds. “We've talked about it, and, you know, it's taken 10 years, but they've all come to peace with this. I think we can take whatever they throw at us.” She pauses. “I'm not worried about anything verbally, but I am cognizant that there may be physical threats.” About a year ago, she was accosted by a stalker outside her apartment. He was chanting, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Six months later, he repeated the performance. “I'm sure he's just a crazy person,” Sparks says. “But even if he's not, that goes with the territory.”
So does explaining why people should vote for you. Whether she likes it or not, Sparks won't be just another candidate running for minor city office—she'll be making history. She insists she wants to run in spite of being trans, not because of it; nevertheless, if she weren't transgender, she probably wouldn't have entered politics or felt the need to run at all. She has always wanted to be ordinary—yet it's her 40-year quest to feel ordinary that has made her extraordinary. The character and skills forged during that process are what have enabled her to break through the resentment and gridlock that characterized the relations between liberal San Francisco and its relatively conservative police force for years.
To earn respect, a leader must find a way to satisfy the expectations of those she leads. Doing so in this culture, where leadership is defined in masculine terms, requires deft navigation of gender boundaries: A woman who seeks to live up to expectations of what it means to be a leader risks confounding expectations about what it means to be a woman. Sparks, in her mutability, has managed to become both.
When I asked Veronese, who has worked as a reserve police officer in the city, what made him believe that people—including the SFPD—could accept a transgender leader, he chuckled. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. Two years ago, he happened to be at a dinner with several top-ranking generals. He didn't want to tell me their names, but he said they'd helped to officiate the first Gulf War, and one of them had been among the top generals in the Iraq War. “For the first half of the dinner, they wouldn't talk to me,” he said. “I finally asked if there was a problem, and one of them said, ‘We strongly disagree with your decision that a transgender should lead the Police Commission. It sends the wrong message.' And I said, ‘What do you know about Theresa Sparks?' ‘Well, she's transgender, and it just sends the wrong message.' And I asked them, ‘Did you know she served during the Vietnam War? Did you know she has a son serving in the Middle East? What about that sends the wrong message?' That unplugged their ears.”
Nathanael Johnson's next project is a book questioning the wisdom of the Bay Area's all-natural ethos. He lives in San Francisco.