Identity is Priceless

Profile on Teresa Sparks, Woman of the Year

Sheli Yaskin

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Teresa Sparks walked through the State Assembly floor after accepting her Woman of the Year award. This award celebrates the achievements and leadership skills of women in America and the winners are greeted with roaring applause, but this year the audience was only half as loud. Some heads turned away, particularly on the right side of the hall, where the Republicans were seated.

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Teresa Sparks, one of the most famous transgender women from San Francisco, won the Woman of the Year award issued by the California Legislature in 2003 for her political work, and for creating a community and solutions for discriminated people. Today, she is the Executive Director at the Human Rights Commission in 2001.


The commission “picks a new fight every day” by enforcing all nondiscrimination ordinances and recommending policies for the mayors and supervisors around social justice issues. They focus on LGBT, anti-semitism, and islamophobia issues, among many others. Most of the transgender nondiscrimination ordinances around the country are patterned after the one that was developed at the SF agency in 1944.


“This is the organization where you can actually can impact people’s lives and make changes. We have done a lot of positive things here, especially for the transgender community. This organization really fits my profile,” Sparks said.
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Sparks focuses on the political rights for the transgender and LGBT community because of her personal experience. Sparks physically transitioned 20 years ago, but unfortunately it entailed a difficult time with her employment. She had a rich resume, but was unemployed for over two years because of her transition, and was turned down by over 150 companies. Sparks worked as a nightly taxi driver, a bank teller, and a local company and was CEO of her own company for 9 years before becoming politically active. Sparks says she become politically active mainly because of the struggles she faced during her transition.


Caitlyn Jenner, the famous transgender women whose transformation has been widely publicized, and Teresa Sparks are about the same age. According to Sparks, back when they started understanding their identity, there wasn’t much information available to help them understand it.  Sparks found out about transgender people and their transition in a college textbook, and it was the first textbook ever published about this issue. Today the youth has endless possibilities of receiving information, and this can help them with finding their true identity. The internet is also creating a clearer understanding of changing your gender identity. Once Caitlyn Jenner came out weeks ago, the understanding of transgender issues according to the CNN poll, went from 17 percent up to 55 percent, in a matter of 6 weeks.


Particularly with youth, the whole concept of gender nonconformity is evolving. Some are swaying away from the gender binary, and more and more people are coming out in the middle. This is a whole new social construct that society has never had to deal with. The internet is the easiest tool to share information and for the youth to build communities, find people who have similar problems, get solutions, and make sure they don’t feel alone while they are finding their identity.


The first problem for the youth and the finally unstable transgender communities, is the cost of transformation. Fred Ettner, a physician in Evanston, Ill., who specializes in transgender transformation, says that “a woman who chooses the full range of surgical procedures available would spend $75,000 or more to transition to a male. Switching from male to female might cost in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.”


However, according to Sparks, finding your gender identity doesn’t have to involve thousands of dollars, surgeries, a magazine cover, and a whole new look. Dr. Ettner estimated that only about 25 percent to 30 percent of transgender people have any kind of surgery.

“Emerging and coming into one’s identity, really has nothing to do with what they look like. It has to do with what they feel like, it has to do with who they perceive themselves to be, but not what other think. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, everyone need to understand themselves and live their lives expressing their identity as they feel themselves to be,” Sparks said.


Caitlyn Jenner spent almost 100,000 just on her face according to plastic surgeon Dr. David Alessi, and thousands more on other female features. However, the money she spent wasn’t to find her female identity, according to Sparks. She had a perception of femininity and a true women, and it was her wish to look like it.


“She transitioned, because she had that money, but very few people have that money. Good for her, if she had it (the money), fine. Now, her identity is a different thing, it was probably perceived when she was very young…and too realize her identity takes a long long time, and there’s many steps,” Sparks said.


“Transition has nothing to do with finding your identity,” Sparks said. ”



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