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SF's trans community - from then to now

by Theresa Sparks

For my entire life, two things have remained constant: confusion about my gender and a deeply held belief I could do nothing about it.

I sought professional help many times with disastrous results. It is in this context that I moved to San Francisco 20 years ago to confront these feelings and to resolve them one way or another.

After months of intense therapy, I came out to my business associates, friends, and family, and found little or no acceptance. With very few exceptions I lost every relationship I had had previously.

I had faith though, that with my successful background as an international business professional, I could move into my next professional challenge seamlessly, only this time as a woman. As I discovered, privilege due to race, education, or upbringing is readily obliterated by discrimination, fear, lack of understanding, and hate.

After months of unsuccessfully seeking employment my enthusiasm and spirits plummeted. I lost my apartment, ceased therapy, and started to think about unthinkable things.

Fortunately, at a community support group meeting, I met a transgender woman who was president of DeSoto Cab Company. With her urging, I applied and was hired as a full-time taxi driver on the night shift. This was the first of many jobs I took to survive, including a census taker, bank teller, and sex toy warehouse worker. I was also offered a job by the Leno for Supervisor campaign as a paid field worker. My friendship with Mark Leno bloomed during that time, changing the course of my life and ultimately impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of transgender people around the world. To this day I regard Leno as one of those angels that periodically enter a person's life. In many ways he saved mine.

Employment discrimination wasn't the only issue confronting transgender people in San Francisco during the late 1990s. Discrimination in the areas of housing, use of public facilities, and getting served in bars and restaurants, and harassment on public transportation were also prevalent.

Serious violence was not uncommon in the transgender community, of which the primary victims were transgender women of color. Also disturbing was the tepid response by law enforcement and the under-reporting by the media.

During this time, there were very few services for transgender people. The Tom Waddell Clinic was one of the only places where health care could be obtained. The Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center was one of the few safe havens for group counseling, food, and friendship.

It was not a particularly good time to be transgender in San Francisco.

Fast forward to 2018.

Many positive things have happened in the transgender community in San Francisco over the last 20 years. With the help of amazing allies, extraordinary public officials, robust national and regional advocacy groups, and many committed transgender community members, we are at a stage of our evolution I never thought I would see in my lifetime.

Let me list just a few of the more impactful advancements, in no particular order, that have occurred over the last two decades.

The transgender discrimination hearing and report occurred in the mid-1990s, quickly followed by one of the first transgender non-discrimination ordinances in the country. Then came the Transgender Civil Rights Implementation Task Force, addressing the recommendations of the original report that had not been implemented.

Then the impossible happened. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed, by a 9-2 vote, a resolution to add transgender health equality to the city's health plan for its employees. This historic action generated the necessary actuarial data that led to the adoption of transgender health care at public and private organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Nearly 15 years later the city implemented universal transgender health care for all people in the city, with or without insurance.

The city helped to fund the first Transgender Employment Initiative in the country, educating job seekers on how to prepare for, and employers on the value of, hiring transgender people resulting in hundreds of job placements.

The city implemented mandatory transgender awareness training for all officers and deputies of both the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. The current training being taught is not only the standard for the law enforcement in the entire state of California but also used to create the federal standard used by the U.S. Department of Justice. Statistics show that in San Francisco, violence and harassment against transgender people by law enforcement has decreased by more than 90 percent.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance and the first Transgender Pride March were both created in San Francisco.

The UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health was created and is now a nationally recognized thought leader in transgender health.

The Transgender Law Center, the leading national advocacy group for the transgender community, was founded in San Francisco.

El/La Para TransLatinas is successfully implementing violence and trauma reduction programs for primarily Spanish-speaking transgender immigrants in the Mission.
Transgender Intersex Justice Project has expanded services for current, and recently released inmates, in the areas of re-entry assistance, housing, employment, trauma counseling and legal services.

Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center not only provides medical and HIV services to the transgender community but also hosts Trans Thrive, a legacy support group welcoming all transgender people.

The late Mayor Ed Lee created the first of its kind Office of Transgender Initiatives, reporting directly to the mayor's office, led and staffed 100 percent by transgender people to ensure San Francisco remains at the forefront of innovations in the worldwide transgender community.

Most of these community nonprofit organizations are led and staffed by transgender people, thus providing critical leadership development and training to our next generations of leaders.

Most importantly, transgender and gender nonconforming people are seen all over San Francisco, in every neighborhood and community playing, socializing, and working at organizations of every size and nature of business.

In the last 20 years the San Francisco transgender community has come a very long way. We now not only find ourselves fighting to retain the rights we have so courageously won but continuing to create innovative new programs leading us into the 21st century. We still face serious and dangerous issues, but I believe we are much better suited and equipped to overcome them than any time in our recent history.

I am extremely proud to have had the opportunity to bear witness, and be a participant in a small measure, to the achievements we have attained during my 20 years living in this wonderful city and community. Thank you all for your support, kindness, and love.

Theresa Sparks was the late Mayor Ed Lee's first senior adviser for transgender initiatives and recently retired from that position.

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