Sparks shakes up police panel

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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Lifetime achievement grand marshal Theresa Sparks stands<br>by the Good Vibrations' "Pleasure" banner in her office. Photo: Rick<br>Gerharter
Lifetime achievement grand marshal Theresa Sparks stands
by the Good Vibrations' "Pleasure" banner in her office. Photo: Rick

She's president of the high-profile San Francisco Police Commission, and her elevation to that position last year by her fellow commissioners sent a tremble through City Hall. After all, Theresa Sparks was appointed to the panel not by Mayor Gavin Newsom, but by the Board of Supervisors. In the long-running battle for power between the mayor and the supervisors, electing a board-appointed member to head a panel with a majority of mayoral appointees was almost unheard of. To top it off, it was one of Newsom's appointees, Joseph Alioto Veronese, who cast the deciding vote for Sparks.

To say Sparks's ascension to commission president didn't rock the boat would be inaccurate: then-President Louise Renne abruptly quit one day after the May 9, 2007 vote, telling the San Francisco Examiner that she "would not serve on a commission under Theresa Sparks."

Renne didn't really elaborate, except to tell the Bay Area Reporter at the time that "When I was on the commission, Theresa regularly took pot shots at me. I didn't respond in kind at the time and I'm not going to respond in kind now."

To which Sparks replied, "It's really too bad she has to go there."

Throughout those first days after she was elected commission president, Sparks had to endure an element of sensational media coverage �" "the panel was playing politics," was a phrase used by some, including Renne, who previously served as a supervisor and city attorney. To which Sparks wryly responded, "This woman has been in politics for what, 35-40 years, and she's leaving because [she says] it's being political?"

Then there was the fact that Sparks is a transgender woman and a successful business executive �" she is currently president of Good Vibrations, the long-running adult sex toy emporium. That made for some backhanded observations: "Not that Sparks's sex change is an issue �" nor is it an issue that she's the CEO of an adult novelty company that specializes in vibrators, although you can bet those points will make for jokes and headlines elsewhere," wrote San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross, even as they were planting the seeds for such coverage. That column followed by a day the largely positive article about Sparks in the Chronicle .

But through it all, Sparks kept her focus on the larger issue �" that she wanted more transparency in the police department. Specifically, she told the B.A.R. at the time, more transparency around the city's violent crime statistics.

This Sunday, her sense of community also will come into focus for Sparks �" she will help lead the LGBT Pride Parade as the lifetime achievement grand marshal.

"It means I'm done," joked Sparks about the "lifetime achievement" moniker. "I'm kind of relieved."

Seriously, Sparks, 59, said she is deeply honored, but noted that the recognition is primarily for the work she has done in that last decade or so.

"Lifetime achievement is referring to my lifetime as a transgender woman, the last 12 years of a substantially longer life," she said. "I feel like a bit of a poser."

"Pat Norman truly has had a lifetime of activism," Sparks added, referring to last year's recipient of the honor. Coincidentally, Norman also served on the Police Commission several years ago, and was the first African American lesbian to do so.

Sparks's presence on the Police Commission, and especially her leadership now as president, speaks volumes of the progress that has been made in terms of the department's relations with the transgender community. It's long past the days of harassment and confrontation during the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot that took place in San Francisco three years before New York's Stonewall riots.

"I do see Theresa's leadership on the San Francisco Police Commission as a positive for the transgender community," longtime transgender advocate Jamison Green told the B.A.R. "Trans people as a category have always had a contentious, if not downright adversarial, relationship with law enforcement agencies. Police personnel have been known to engage in vicious behavior toward trans people. Having an entire major city's police department accountable to a citizen body headed by a trans woman has a certain poetic justice to it."

David Campos, an openly gay man who also serves on the Police Commission, said that as president, Sparks has been able to bring people together. She has "earned the respect of all members of the commission, irrespective of whether they were appointed by the mayor or the Board of Supervisors," Campos said. "A testament to her leadership is the fact that she was unanimously re-elected president just recently."

Campos also noted that the presence of a gay man and a transgender woman on the panel has given the LGBT community a voice on important issues facing the SFPD.

"We cannot have meaningful discussion of police reform without an understanding and consideration of the needs of the LGBT community," he noted.

Nightmare no more

Sparks reflected on the changes since her arrival on the commission in 2004, after the passage of Proposition H led to the Board of Supervisors appointing three members. The police department's command staff did not know what to expect.

"I was their worst nightmare," Sparks said. "I was a 'trans activist' and have now evolved to be their biggest ally in some areas."

And that brings up another point: the "trans activist" label. It was used regularly to describe Sparks during her first year on the commission. "Somewhere along the line they stopped doing that," she said. "I like to think people came to the conclusion that people didn't care. I never get referred to as that anymore in San Francisco."

It is her feeling that most of the SFPD's rank and file don't really care that openly gay and transgender people serve on the force. And she credits former Commissioner Wayne Friday, a gay man who served for many years on the Police Commission and who used to work in the district attorney's office and was the B.A.R.'s political editor, for that change.

"I think Wayne set that in motion. I think we've been able to continue that and I extend that into transgender issues," she said.

There are transgender people currently working in the department, most notably Sergeant Stephan Thorne. And Sparks said that she is aware of others who are in the application process.


It's not only the SFPD that consumes much of Sparks's time. For the last several months Sparks has also been outspoken in her criticism of the national Human Rights Campaign for its decision to abandon a version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that included gender identity protections. HRC had previously committed to supporting only a version of ENDA that included workplace protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. But last fall, Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) and other lawmakers on Capitol Hill determined there were not enough votes for the inclusive ENDA to pass out of the House of Representatives.

HRC then shifted its earlier position and did not oppose the trans-exclusive bill, which passed the House.

Members of the transgender community were outraged, as were many local, state, and national LGBT organizations �" over 300 formed the United ENDA coalition that remains active. Protests sprung up at HRC dinners on the East Coast last year, and a picket is planned for San Francisco's gala next month.

In an effort to mend fences, HRC President Joe Solmonese visited San Francisco in early January and met with about 30-40 transgender leaders and allies. Sparks was one of those in the room.

The meeting did not go well.

Sparks returned the Equality Award she received from HRC in 2004, telling the B.A.R. at the time, "It no longer symbolized equality to me."

Green gave Sparks high marks for her decision to return the award.

"Her action exposed the hollow promise of HRC, whose leadership seems to believe that if they flatter a few visible people they've done their duty by the transgender community."

At the time of the meeting, Solmonese told the B.A.R. that it was a "hard meeting."

"There were some heated exchanges, and some thoughtful and substantive exchanges," he added.

At the meeting, Solmonese apologized for the way the ENDA journey began and for the lack of clarity regarding HRC's position. But the organization has not changed its current stance of supporting the sexual orientation-only version of the bill that was already voted on.

"I would like to see HRC come together and make a commitment they stand behind," Sparks said during an interview earlier this month. "It's clear that HRC was out on a limb by themselves �" with 300-plus [groups] in United ENDA, I think it's to HRC's benefit to commit to an inclusive bill."

Sparks didn't have praise for Frank, long viewed with suspicion by many in the transgender community. "We need another LGB or T representative," she said. "I think that's something the community should strive for."

The only other out member of Congress, Wisconsin Representative Tammy Baldwin (D), led the fight for an inclusive ENDA last year, but she was going up against Frank, who was pushing for the version that passed.

Family time

Sparks, who was married and divorced twice before her transition and has three grown children, said that her daughter Karie Keeney will ride with her in the parade, along with comedian Margaret Cho. Sparks is very close to her daughter, who she speaks with by phone every day.

"I'm thrilled to death that she's coming out," Sparks said.

Sparks also has two sons, with whom she has been estranged. However, she said that her youngest son called her earlier this year, and they have spoken a few times. Her eldest son also has called her recently; it was the first time they have spoken since the late 1990s. She has three grandchildren, including one she has never met.

Sparks said that there can be as many as 100 people in her parade contingent; she said trans people are welcome to join and walk with her.

"We'll celebrate inclusion," she said. "What a wonderful year for Pride."