Theresa Sparks is the president of the San Francisco Police Commission, the CEO of a multimillion-dollar sex toy retailer, and a transgender woman.

A member of the Emeritus Board of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, Sparks is also a Vietnam veteran and a trained engineer.[1][2][3] She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Horizons Foundation, a community-based LGBT philanthropic organization.[4]

Early life

Theresa Sparks was born on April 8, 1949 in Kansas City, Kansas, where she grew up.[2][5][6][7][3][8] Born male, Sparks expressed her gender identity at an early age by cross-dressing in women's clothing, though she later resisted these impulses in adolescence.[2]

Sparks went to Kansas State University and graduated with a degree in engineering.[3] She served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War.[9] Later she managed several waste management and recycling companies, and even patented two recycling techniques.[7]

She 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 too ended in divorce.[2]

Sparks underwent "intense therapy and an electric shock treatment" to try to suppress her femininity, before deciding at last to embrace her gender identity. "It's an unusual condition, but it's not unnatural," she said later. "You discover that the only way to live with it is to transition physically so your physical appearance matches how you feel about yourself."[7]


By 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.[2][3] All three of her children reportedly supported her decision to transition.[3]

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.[10] 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.[2][11] Sparks eventually picked up some sporadic work as a cab driver, bank teller, and census taker to narrowly avoid becoming homeless.[2][7]

One 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 experience.[12]

In 2000, Sparks traveled to Thailand to undergo sex reassignment surgery.[2] 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.[13][14] In April 2001, Sparks reported she had spent about $30,000 since 1997 to finance her transition.[13]


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.[15][16]

Sparks 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.[17] 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.[18][19][20]

Public Service

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.[15][21] A year later, Sparks and Leno helped to establish broader medical benefits for municipal employees diagnosed with gender dysphoria.[7][22] 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.[22]

Mayor 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.[3] 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.[12] She served on the commission for two four-year terms.[23]

Police Commission

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.[24] 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.[25]

On 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.[6][26][27] 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.[28]

"Theresa 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 members."[27]

Good Vibrations

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. Over the coming years, Sparks proved herself to be a valuable asset to the Good Vibrations team.[9]

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.[9]

At 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."[29]

Woman 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.[30] 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.[31][32]

Jay 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."[33]

The 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.[34]

The 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".[35]

Personal life

Theresa Sparks is a friend of sex columnist and Forbes magazine "Web Celeb", Violet Blue, who refers to Sparks as her "adopted mother".[36][37]

Sparks self-identifies as straight, meaning she is predominantly attracted to men.[17] The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2004 Sparks was in "a three-year relationship with a freelance journalist"; her partner's name and gender were not specified in the article.[2]

Awards and Honors


  1. 2007 Board of Directors, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club website. Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Delgado, Ray. Theresa Sparks: Transgender San Franciscan Makes History as Woman of the Year, San Francisco Chronicle (April 4, 2003), pp. WB - 3. Retrieved on May 13, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender san franciscan" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender san franciscan" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender san franciscan" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender san franciscan" defined multiple times with different content
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Heredia, Christopher. Transgender Woman Joins Rights Board: Appointment is a San Francisco First, San Francisco Chronicle (February 3, 2001), pp. A - 13. Retrieved on May 13, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender woman joins" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Board, Staff, and Advisors, Horizons Foundation website. Retrieved on September 21, 2007.
  5. Blue, Violet. Happy Birthday, Mom!, (April 8, 2007). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Selna, Robert; Sward, Susan; Vega, Cecilia M. Renne Quits Police Commission, San Francisco Chronicle (May 11, 2007), pp. B - 9. Retrieved on May 13, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Renne quits" defined multiple times with different content
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Vega, Cecilia M. Transgender Pioneer Rises to Powerful Spot, San Francisco Chronicle (May 12, 2007), pp. A - 1. Retrieved on May 13, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender pioneer rises" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "transgender pioneer rises" defined multiple times with different content
  8. Multiple sources (Delgado; Selna, Sward, Vega; and Vega) corroborate Sparks' birth year as 1949. The San Francisco Chronicle article by Heretia, however, mistakenly attributes Sparks' birth in 1950 or 1951.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Anderson, Lessley. A Sex Toy Story, Business 2.0 Magazine Vol. 7 No. 4 (May 1, 2006). Retrieved on May 13, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "a sex toy story" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "a sex toy story" defined multiple times with different content
  10. Gordon, Rachel. Transgender Study Finds Bias: But S.F. Still Found to Provide More Protections than Any U.S. City, San Francisco Chronicle (November 5, 2002), pp. A - 15. Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  11. Nieves, Evelyn. Another Minority Flexes Its Muscle in San Francisco, New York Times (February 24, 2001). Retrieved on May 13 2007.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Gordon, Rachel. S.F. Transgender Sensitivity Classes: Police Training is Response to Complaints About Lack of Respect, San Francisco Chronicle (August 10, 2001), pp. A - 21. Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Associated Press. San Francisco Mulling Historic Sex-Change Benefits for Workers, The Houston Chronicle (April 23, 2001), pp. A - 11. Retrieved on May 17, 2007.
  14. Mason, Margie. Thailand's Sex-Change Industry, The Seattle Times (September 3, 2006). Retrieved on May 13 2007.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Sparks, Theresa. The Transgender Community Needs to Reestablish Its Voice, Alice Reports: Monthly Newsletter of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club (September 2005). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Theresa Sparks, Horizons Foundation website. Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Cassell, Heather. Vote is on for SF Pride Marshals, Bay Area Reporter (March 1, 2007). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  18. Smith, Gwendolyn Ann. I Never Expected a Movement, Michigan Independent Media Center (November 19, 2004). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  19. Smith, Gwendolyn Ann. About the Day of Remembrance, Gender Education and Advocacy (2005). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  20. Smith, Gwendolyn Ann. Where is the Day of Remembrance?, Gender Education and Advocacy (2005). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  21. Hartnagel, Bob. Assemblyman Leno Honors Theresa Sparks As California Woman Of The Year: Human Rights Commissioner Will Be The First Transgender Woman Of The Year Honored By The State, 13th Assembly District News press release (March 19, 2003). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Associated Press. S.F. Will Pay for Sex Changes, Wired News, (May 5, 2001). Retrieved on May 17, 2007.
  23. McMillan, Dennis. Theresa Sparks Sworn in Again as Police Commissioner, San Francisco Bay Times (May 3, 2007). Retrieved on September 21, 2007.
  24. Gordon, Rachel. New Police Panel Almost Ready to Go, San Francisco Chronicle (May 1, 2004), pp. B - 4. Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  25. Sward, Susan. Commissioner Slams Police Panel: Sparks Describes Numerous Failures, Quits Key Position, San Francisco Chronicle (May 26, 2006), pp. B - 2. Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  26. SF Police Commission Makes History, KCBS (May 10, 2007). Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  27. 27.0 27.1 McMillan, Dennis. Sparks Is First Trans Person to Lead Major Commission San Francisco Bay Times (May 17, 2007). Retrieved on October 15, 2007.
  28. Matier, Phillip; Ross, Andrew. Police Panel Slap Leaves Mayor Spinning San Francisco Chronicle (May 13, 2007), pp. B - 1. Retrieved on May 13, 2007.
  29. Van Iquity, Sister Dana. Before Stonewall, There Was a Riot in SF, San Francisco Bay Times (March 23, 2006). Retrieved on September 21, 2007.
  30. California Assemblyman Selects Transgendered Woman for Honor, The Advocate (March 22, 2003). Retrieved on May 17, 2007.
  31. Martin, Mark. Davis Signs Ban on Bias Against Transgenders: Leno Bill Makes State 4th in U.S. to Provide Them with Protected Status, San Francisco Chronicle (August 5, 2003), pp. A - 12. Retrieved on May 18, 2007
  32. Salladay, Robert. Assembly OKs New Bill on Sex Bias: Civil Rights Protections Broadened to Apply to 'Perceived Gender', San Francisco Chronicle (April 22, 2003), pp. A - 17. Retrieved on May 18, 2007.
  33. Goebel, Mark. Transgender Group Decries Jay Leno, NBC, Advocate News on, (April 2, 2003). Retrieved on May 18, 2007.
  34. Fleming, Mike. Leno, NBC Under Fire: Trans Activists up in Arms over 'Tonight Show' Joke, Houston Voice (April 11, 2003). Retrieved on May 18, 2007.
  35. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Advisory Committee: Minutes of the April 15, 2003 Meeting, Official San Francisco City and County Website (April 15, 2003). Retrieved on May 18, 2007.
  36. Ewalt, David M. The Web Celeb 25, Forbes (January 23, 2007). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  37. Blue, Violet. A Tourist In A Tranny Bar: Not Your Ordinary 'Girls' Night Out' Lands Violet Blue in Legendary Tenderloin Establishment, (May 10, 2007). Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Alice Awardees at the Annual Reception, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club website. Retrieved on May 15, 2007.
  39. Grand and Honorary Marshals: Grand Marshals -- Five Individuals and One Group -- are Elected in a Series of Communitywide Ballots, San Francisco Chronicle (June 22, 2001), pp. SP - 9. Retrieved on May 13 2007.
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