From 'Secret Life' To Public Service

Theresa Sparks i i

Theresa Sparks is running for a spot on San Francisco's board of supervisors — and if elected, she will become the city's first transgender supervisor. Today, Sparks is open about her background — but for many years, she had a secret life. Courtesy Frank Gaglione/frankgaglione.com hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Frank Gaglione/frankgaglione.com
Theresa Sparks

Theresa Sparks is running for a spot on San Francisco's board of supervisors — and if elected, she will become the city's first transgender supervisor. Today, Sparks is open about her background — but for many years, she had a secret life.

Courtesy Frank Gaglione/frankgaglione.com

Theresa Sparks may make history in November.

The executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission is running for a spot on the city's board of supervisors — and if elected, she will become the city's first transgender supervisor.

Today, Sparks, 61, is open about her background — but for many years, she had a secret life.

Sparks grew up a boy outside of Kansas City.

"It was kind of a Beaver Cleaver childhood," Sparks says. "I was always a good student, a Midwestern kid."

Then Sparks began dressing in women's clothes: As a teenager, often venturing out after dark to a neighboring town to shop at Kmart and find an out-of-the-way service station to change — then driving alone for hours wearing the clothes, then returning to the gas station, throwing the clothes away and going home.

Sparks thought marriage and a great relationship might make the urge to dress in women's clothes disappear.

Two Failed Marriages

A first wife was born in the same hospital as Sparks, six days apart. They grew up next door to one another. They eventually married and had three kids.

Sparks' youngest son, Adam, says they had a pretty traditional family, "except for the obvious stuff, obviously."

Adam says his dad was a "guy's guy." Sparks wore snakeskin boots, had a Harley and a muscle truck. Adam and his dad would tinker in the garage together and around the house — and each Saturday they'd venture to the hardware store for the tool of the week. Sparks coached kids' soccer and baseball teams, was in the Navy, had a beard, smoked cigars.

But Sparks' interest in dressing as a woman never waned. As time went on, he ascended in the recycling business and he engineered and built refineries all over the world. On business trips, he began traveling with two suitcases, one with his business attire, another full of women's clothes. He would rent two hotel rooms, one for the man there on business, a second for the woman in him. He would dress and sit alone in the room, just in the relief of feeling in the right skin.

Eventually, he disclosed his secret life to his wife, who divorced him. He remarried, but this marriage failed too.

"I remember both my wives saying, 'You know, do you want to be a woman?'" Sparks says. "I would always tell them the same answer: 'I have no idea.'"

And he kept his secret well hidden from his children.

"There weren't really any signs," Adam says.

But after his oldest son's graduation from boot camp, Sparks took his two sons and daughter to the cemetery in Kansas City where his father and brother were buried and told his kids that inside he was a woman and had been coming to terms with it for years. His children all started crying. His oldest son spit on the ground before they got into their car and drove away, leaving Sparks alone in the cemetery. Adam and his brother did not speak to their dad for a decade.

"I kind of dealt with it like my father had just passed away," Adam says.

Sparks' Second Life

Sparks went to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery. When she came back to the U.S., she settled in San Francisco, with no relationship with anybody from her former life. She struggled to find a job — unemployment in the transgender community hovers around 70 percent. She eventually found work in the mail room at Good Vibrations, one of the best known female sex toy companies in the country. Sparks, who always had a good head for business, went from packer/shipper to CEO and ran the company for several years.

"When I think of her, I think about almost a literary character, like Orlando," says comedian Margaret Cho, who served on Good Vibrations' board of directors with Sparks. "Somebody who lives for a period as a man, and then lives as a woman. She has this incredible business mind. She is a businesswoman, but she also has a lifetime where she was a businessman."

In 2003, Theresa Sparks was selected as California's 13th Assembly District's "Woman of the Year."

In 2003, Theresa Sparks was selected as California's 13th Assembly District's "Woman of the Year." Steve Yeater/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Yeater/AP

Sparks got involved in community political activities because of violence against transgender people and quickly was thrust into San Francisco politics. She was appointed by Mayor Willie Brown to serve on the Human Rights Commission, and was subsequently appointed to become a police commissioner, and eventually elected president of the police commission.

In 2003, California State Sen. Mark Leno, who then served on the California Assembly, named her the 13th Assembly District's Woman of the Year and brought Sparks to Sacramento for a ceremony.  A few nights later, Jay Leno (no relation to the senator) made note of this in his monologue on The Tonight Show.

"The joke line was something like, 'Leave it to California to choose a man as Woman of the Year,'" Mark Leno says. "But Theresa rose above it. She's seen it all."

Lt. Lea Militello of the San Francisco Police Department remembers the first time Sparks rode in the gay pride parade as a police commissioner with the LGBT officers.

"We now have about 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered police officers in our department," Militello says

Sparks says that most people don't realize she is transgender until she speaks. She's worked hard on changing the pitch of her voice. "I've taken voice lessons," she says. "I had surgery on my vocal chords, which could have left me without a voice. Finally at some point, you just kind of give up. You know, it is what it is."

It was 10 years before Adam saw his father after the surgery.

"My dad still talked the same," he says. "Still wearing jeans, they were just tight. Still had shoes on, they just happened to have three-inch heels. Same hands, just with fingernail polish. It was almost like my dad was walking around in the wrong suit for 50-some years. And then finally was wearing the right suit."

Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, says he and Sparks had some difficult times when Sparks first became president of the police commission.

"We butted heads a lot in the first year," he says. "She wouldn't take any of my crap and I wouldn't take any of hers."

But now Delagnes considers Sparks an ally, and the police union has endorsed her.

"My dad's always been a good leader," Adam says. "To be successful in one life is hard enough. To be successful in two is certainly harder. My dad is very driven in whatever world she is in at the time. Hidden or not, she'll get it done."

Produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva). Mixed by Jeremiah Moore.

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