Theresa Sparks has advocated for transgender rights and services for nearly two decades, from serving as San Francisco’s first transgender police commissioner to working as CEO of the sex toy shop Good Vibrations.
But the title she will assume for the cause in The City on July 1 is believed to be a nationwide first.
Sparks is poised to become Mayor Ed Lee’s senior adviser on transgender initiatives, to work with the mayor and City Administrator Naomi Kelly on LGBT policies as well as oversee the development of new transgender initiatives in The City.
“I’ve been involved in these issues for almost 20 years now,” said Sparks, who currently works as executive director of The City’s Human Rights Commission. “LGB — but with a primary focus on transgender equality and transgender discrimination.”
Though the details of her new position are still being ironed out, Sparks intends to continue overseeing The City’s transgender advocacy programs to “evaluate them for improvements, evaluate them for effectiveness and look for gaps,” she said.
Over the past two years, Sparks spearheaded grants of $1.5 million for transgender health care, transgender employment initiatives, violence prevention and community building as combined efforts of the Human Rights Council, Department of Health and Department of Human Services.
“Theresa has been a long-time leader of the community who tirelessly advocates for transgender rights,” said Cecilia Chung, a senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center, Department of Health commissioner and former Human Rights Commission chair.
“With the anti-trans sentiments in the conservative states, her appointment could not have come in a better time,” Chung added.
Sparks’ new appointment follows the mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando this month, as well as the national debates over bathroom access for transgender youths.
And Sparks is already looking out for new projects.
“One thing we’re finding out — we saw an illustration of it after the Orlando tragedy — is that there’s a lot of trauma in the community. The City needs to respond to that by making more trauma counseling available,” Sparks said, adding that negligence could cause long-term health impacts.
Sparks spent five years on the Police Commission — from 2004 to 2009 — and served the last two as the commission’s president. She was The City’s first transgender commissioner.
“Theresa Sparks is an icon in the community because she’s been doing trans advocacy work within the Police Department for 15 years,” said Mia Satya, the director of Transitional Age Youth (TAYSF), who counts Sparks as a mentor. They met in 2010 when Sparks ran for District 6 supervisor, but lost. At the time, Satya was new to San Francisco and homeless.
“I see this as a critical investment in our community. Theresa will hold the mayor accountable and she
should also be accountable to the community here and listen to our voices, which I trust that she will do,” Satya said.
Sparks’ appointment and the newly created transgender initiatives position are critical, but city agencies need more trans representation, said Satya, who is a former youth commissioner for Districts 6 and 11.
Satya noted that serving as the sole person representing the transgender community on any commission can be isolating and exhausting.
“We need more than one [transgender] person on each commission. One person whose full time position is to … eliminate trans homelessness, trans violence and HIV transmission,” Satya said.
Sparks served on the founding committee of the Transgender Day of Remembrance in the late 1990s and is a founding member of Pride weekend’s Trans March.
When Sparks was the CEO of the sex-positive sex toy shop Good Vibrations, she led its program of weekly educational outreach in all the chain’s retail stores, and the company funded the first two years of Trans March.
The new transgender initiatives advisor will introduce Mayor Lee at this year’s 13th annual Trans March on Friday. Neither Sparks nor the mayor have missed it once, she said.