Sparks Fly

The Human Rights Campaign hears from a transgender activist they honored

The cavernous hall on the third floor of San Francisco’s shining new Moscone Convention Center expansion was emptying out when Theresa Sparks stood up to speak to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) annual fund raising dinner on a windy Saturday night. The darkened room had been only about three-quarters full to begin with, but by the time Sparks, who is transgendered and a new member of the city’s Police Commission, got up to the podium, most of the 1,100 chocolate mousse cake desserts had been fiddled with but not eaten, empty wine bottles littered the tables next to napkins tossed by the attendees, who for the most part had either gone outside into the lobby—you could hear laughing echoing into the big room as the DJ was setting up—or gone home.

Just before she stood up to speak, Sparks pulled the carefully prepared text of her talk out of her sequined purse, fiddled with it, and turned to the few who remained at her center table. Sparks was one of the HRC’s three “equality award” winners who included San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, and “L Word” producer Ilene Chaiken. The other two were already gone.

Sparks looked around the table. She later would recall that when she first heard she was to get the award, she said she talked to San Francisco’s gay assemblymember and her old friend, Mark Leno, and asked his advice about whether she should simply refuse it. HRC, the gay and lesbian community’s main lobbying group in Washington, has been under fire for years from transgender groups for failing to advocate sufficiently for gender rights.

“The HRC has jettisoned transgenders in both of their major pieces of legislation,” Sparks said, just before she stood up.

The HRC has pushed for both a federal Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) and a federal hate crimes statute that would include protections based on sexual orientation in this session of Congress. But transgenders aren’t specifically provided for in either. While the hate crimes bill cleared the Senate a few weeks ago—the HRC is trumpeting its 68-32 passage as a major victory—it is doomed, most Capitol observers say, in the House where the Republican leadership has refused to bring it up. ENDA is a similar story.

Leno had counseled Sparks to use her time in the limelight to tell the HRC, and the hundreds who had paid at least $200 each to attend, that the group is falling down on transgender rights.

“I can’t understand how our lives are worth less than anyone else’s lives,” Sparks said in an interview after the dinner. “For Christ’s sake, they don’t have a chance of passage anyway. Why not introduce an inclusive bill rather than one that only covers part of the community?”

During her acceptance speech, Sparks talked about how in California the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) lobby, Equality California, pushed for hate crimes and non-discrimination laws that include transgenders—and won.

“We’ve done it by sticking together, being one with one another, truly being brothers and sisters on the barricades together,” she said from the podium.

Equality California will soon start a subsidiary organization, “Transgender California,” to advocate for trans rights.

Sparks said she thinks the hate crimes legislation will be stronger because of the inclusion of transgenders, who are murdered in the U.S. at a rate of about one per month.

Sparks’ talk received a lot of blank stares from the HRC audience

“Nice speech, thanks for the remarks, we should talk in the next few weeks,” Sparks said new HRC director Cheryl Jacques told her after she got down from the stage.

But separately, Jacques said that it’s not HRC that’s setting the agenda for transgender rights in Washington—it’s the sponsors of the bills.

“You can’t find a senator who will file with transgender language,” Jacques said.

She may be right about that.

“I oppose discrimination of all kinds and my office policy prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity and expression. I believe that we should focus efforts on getting ENDA passed and signed into law, and I am concerned that adding gender identity and expression to the ENDA legislation is likely to significantly hinder that effort,” senator, presidential candidate, and ENDA sponsor John Kerry told HRC in a questionnaire.

Kerry went on to say that he thinks the federal hate crimes bill, S 966, does cover actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender as protected categories. Jacques acknowledged that the measure may well fall short.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “but we’re 85 to 90 percent there.”

“That’s bullshit,” countered Sparks in a later interview. “If that’s true then why not just say it?”

The bill text is inconsistent and talks about “perceived gender” in its preamble—but Sparks insisted that the key words are “gender identity” which are in California’s legislation, but not in the federal bill.

Sparks said that much of the rationale for leaving transgenders out of the language has to do with political expediency.

“I had a discussion with the HRC about a year ago,” she said, explaining that the resistance of gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was consistently used to counter her arguments.

“It’s Barney Frank this and Barney Frank that,” she recalled.

“HRC needs to exert their independence. Equality California has done it,” Sparks insisted. “They need to just do it.”

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