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Transblazer 

She just became the city's first transgender department head, but Theresa Sparks is already setting her sights on becoming the city's first transgender supervisor.

Wednesday, Oct 21 2009
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On a recent Saturday morning, Theresa Sparks strode into Rasselas Jazz Club in the Fillmore in her size 11 leopard-print flats, peeled off her sunglasses, and sized up a tough room. It had been just seven weeks since she had started her new job as the director of the Human Rights Commission, the agency that boosts the ability of small, locally owned businesses to compete for city contracts and subcontracts. She had been invited to speak by the African American Democratic Club to answer one main question: What did this mayor-appointed white lady raking in a $167,000 salary plan to do to get black folks jobs?

A dainty crucifix hanging around her neck, Sparks grabbed the microphone and spent 10 minutes trying to answer that question and announce her other plans for the commission. It's for appearances like these that she wishes she had worked on feminizing her baritone voice a bit more before getting into the public eye. More than a decade after she started her life's Act II as a woman, Sparks, now 60, still has the down-home Midwestern man's voice from Act I. It's the main feature that gives away her own minority status, belying the meticulous manicures and multiple surgeries that have coaxed her body into the gender she knows should have been hers at birth.

After Sparks finished outlining her plans, many in the room seemed unimpressed. The Human Rights Commission's perceived ineffectiveness helping African-American businesses has long been a sore spot in black San Francisco, and Sparks' speech didn't satisfy the commission's critics.

When Sparks took questions, 76-year-old events promoter James Pye grumbled that the people in the room had been sitting there for 50 years, "swallowing" promises of change. He looked directly at Sparks in her black knee-length skirt and cast a distinct shade of ugly over the proceedings: "Thank you, sir."

Sir. The pain of the word hit Sparks like a dart. She looked down, silent. After a few other angry speakers, Commissioner Julius Turman, who is African-American, stood to say that there was no reason to demonize Sparks and nearly got shouted down by Reverend Arnold Townsend for defending her.

Sparks then addressed Townsend directly, with some fight in her voice. "I don't pretend to understand what you've gone through ... just like you don't pretend to understand what I've gone through."

"No, I don't," he allowed.

"And I'm not suggesting I can be a leader in your community, because I can't be," Sparks continued. "What I'm suggesting, what I'm asking you, is for this club and other organizations in this city to come to me ... to determine how we're going to go forward together. Because we share a common goal, we've both shared discrimination, and if you don't believe I've had discrimination, then you haven't been watchin'."

Townsend backed off and said he didn't mean any offense, and Sparks said she didn't take any. She even earned a loud round of applause from the audience. Afterward, she walked up to Townsend and gave him a warm hug before sliding on her sunglasses and walking out onto Fillmore Street as if she'd just come from a cordial brunch.

If there was ever a test of how effective a politician Sparks can be, how effectively she can move past her own minority status to talk to others, the meeting was one such test — and Sparks had just aced it.

Theresa Sparks' story is the story of many transgender people in San Francisco. She moved here from more conservative locales in the Midwest and Southern California, seeking a place to come out and be accepted. But even in San Francisco, she hasn't always found total acceptance. However, she has found success as the most powerful transgender woman in town. In 2004, she became the city's first transgender police commissioner, and is now among the country's first openly transgender department heads. But Sparks is pondering a move that would be the biggest of all: becoming San Francisco's first openly transgender city supervisor.


It's hard to imagine that in June, Sparks was back where she was a decade ago: unemployed, with no savings and several maxed-out credit cards. Like many transgender people, she'd had trouble finding work — some 14 percent of transgender Californians were unemployed in 2008, twice the general population's rate during that period, according to a study by the San Francisco–based Transgender Law Center. Last fall, she left her job as CEO of Good Vibrations, a sex-toy retail chain, after a management shakeup and spent almost a year applying for positions around the country, including within the Obama administration.

In her former life, Sparks was a successful executive in the oil-recycling and environmental decontamination industries. Yet after a year of applications and interviews for private and public sector jobs, the only job offers came from San Francisco's progressive city government.

Sparks' acceptance of the Human Rights Commission post still created controversy, although not for the expected reasons. Soon after her appointment, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced legislation to prohibit city commissioners from taking city jobs for at least a year after stepping down from their volunteer posts, saying it could create a pay-to-play system. When Sparks took the job, she was still serving on the police commission, and some critics believed she let Mayor Gavin Newsom become too involved in the selection of new Chief George Gascón. (The commission presents a shortlist of candidates to the mayor, who makes the final pick.) Sparks insists she kept the mayor at arm's length during the selection process, and dubbed Mar's measure "Theresa's Law."

Newsom's spokesman, Nathan Ballard, said the mayor chose Sparks because he was impressed by her leadership and consensus-building skills on the police commission. "She's intelligent, hard-working, and thoughtful," Ballard wrote in an e-mail. "The mayor was convinced that she was the right choice for the job."

But what political insiders are whispering about most these days is the news that Sparks is "heavily leaning toward" running for supervisor in District 6, which includes SOMA and the Tenderloin. If she won, she wouldn't be the first openly transgender elected official: According to the database of the Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to getting LGBT people in office, there are transwomen serving as an elected alderwoman in tiny Centralia, Mo., and as a state school board member in Hawaii. Robert Haaland, a transgender man, is an elected member of San Francisco's Democratic County Central Committee.

Yet in a city as symbolic for LGBT people as San Francisco is, Sparks has the potential to become for transgender America what Harvey Milk became for gays.

Sparks scoffs at the comparison. "Harvey Milk was a real hero and groundbreaker; I don't see myself that way," she says. "If I ran for supervisor, I wouldn't be running under identity politics, but on issues, and because I love this city. I'd run in spite of being transgender, not because of it."

Don't cue the motion picture just yet. Sparks just moved into her new apartment at Van Ness and Turk in District 6 last weekend and, as of press time, still hadn't officially announced her candidacy.

The move meant leaving behind the Nob Hill flat that has been Sparks' home for the past decade. At first glance on a recent visit, it looked like the abode of a conservative spinster: dark wood, Persian rugs, doll collection, black-and-white photos of her grandparents from Missouri. But then there was the collection of vibrators arranged just so on the hallway shelves, a remnant from her days at Good Vibrations. On the wall, an SFPD jacket commemorating her time on the police commission hung next to a trucker's jacket she had re-embroidered from her former name to read "Theresa." The jacket is one of the only remaining possessions from Sparks' life as "he." (Sparks says she prefers to be called "he" for the years she lived as a man.)

So when did he know? Sparks always knew, but at first he didn't have the word to name it. Growing up in the post-WWII suburbs of Kansas City, Kan., the young Sparks realized secretly slipping into his mother's clothes didn't really fit into the delineated gender roles of his Leave It to Beaver upbringing with a salesman dad and stay-at-home mom.

Sparks read stories about Christine Jorgensen, the first widely publicized transsexual woman the press salivated over in the 1950s. But Sparks wouldn't actually recognize himself until he sneaked off to the University of Kansas branch library in high school to look up the word in the card catalog, which led him to a scientific volume from Johns Hopkins' gender clinic. His curiosity led him to thumb through porn magazines at an adult bookstore on Skid Row: "Shemale." "Chicks with dicks."

"I knew it wasn't right," Sparks says. "I knew it wasn't accepted. I knew I would be rebuked."

So Sparks convinced himself it would just go away if he attempted to lead a normal male life. He was a demolition worker in high school. He enlisted in the Navy, pushing papers on a boat in the Atlantic. In his early 20s, he got married (to a woman who, yes, he was attracted to) and raised two sons and a daughter. But his gender identity issues continued. He would wait until his wife left for work, then put on her clothes instead of heading to his engineering classes at Kansas State University.

Sparks' secret eventually became too big to hide. After nine years of marriage, he told his wife. "I just said I was cross-dressing, and I don't know what's going on, and I'm going to seek counseling. It was a six-hour discussion, a seven-hour discussion. It's literally like going in and telling people you're gay or you've got some serious disease." She kicked him out that day.

Months later, Sparks moved to California for a job overseeing construction at a refinery in Fontana he had designed as a recycling technology consultant in Kansas. He didn't come to California to come out. After seeing the disastrous results of revealing his confusion about his gender, his shame had only mounted. His resolve to "fight this thing" hardened. He twice drove to see a psychologist in Los Angeles he hoped would cure him, zapping him "I'd rather not say" where with electric shocks "because they thought [the problem] was sexual."

While Sparks' personal life fell apart, his professional life took off. He was promoted to president of the recycling division for a Netherlands-based company. When in Paris on business trips, he would visit the red-light district where the transwomen hung out and splurged on women's clothes that he'd wear in his hotel room, later shoving them into a plastic bag he'd drop in a public trash can before leaving. Binge and purge.

Sparks hid his other life well. Back in California, strutting into the local bar to meet friends, he was a clean-cut business guy with Midwestern manners, square shoulders, and a penchant for polo shirts, khaki pants, and loafers. "If you would have put 100 men in a room, [Sparks] would have been the last one you would have picked" to be secretly wearing women's clothing, says Vicki Storti, a friend from those days. "My mother would often say, 'Why don't you date [Sparks]?' He was the epitome of the perfect boy next door."

Sparks dated, and eventually fell in love again with a career woman. He wanted to marry her, and convinced himself that this time would be different. This time, his gender issue would go away. I'm older now, he told himself. I know myself better. He was promoted to CEO of a recycling consulting company named Greenfield Environmental, putting in 70-hour weeks on a $200,000-plus salary, jetting to see clients around the country on a company plane. He was appointed to a NAFTA committee on cross-border environmental business. The more he worked, the less he could think about the suitcase stuffed with women's clothes he hid above the garage, awaiting the next business trip.

Sparks now had a lot more to lose if his other life were revealed. He and his wife had moved into an estate in affluent Rancho Santa Fe, with a kidney-shaped pool in the courtyard. As he found his gender identity more and more oppressive, he stockpiled his life with the trappings of a macho male. He bought a Harley, and outfitted a Chevy truck with a souped-up motor. He traded in his 30-year cigarette habit for cigars. His two sons moved out to live with him, so Sparks coached the youngest's baseball and football teams.

Juggling two lives strained his health. A doctor took Sparks' blood pressure at 200/100, and said if he didn't slow down, in two years he'd be dead or in a wheelchair. Sparks took stock. He was a 45-year-old man with a heart condition and on blood pressure meds. The opportunity for change was closing.

Life gave him one last push. In 1995, Greenfield was bought out by another company, and Sparks walked away with $1.25 million from the sale. With his youngest son about to graduate high school, both his jobs — CEO and alpha dad — were ending. "All of a sudden, I went from 150 mph to nothing, and that opened the floodgates," he recalls. "I could only think about the gender issues."

In 1996, Sparks told his wife he needed to move to San Francisco to search for a job, which technically was the truth. The other truth was that the Bay Area was home to a slew of gender therapists he'd found on the Web. It was time to get help.


Sparks wasn't about to trust the opinion of just one doctor. He started with two, who both diagnosed him with gender identity disorder, the clinical condition of people whose perceived and biological genders are at odds. "They said, 'Okay, so what do you want to do? It's not going to go away.'" Upon being asked whether he wanted to transition to be a woman, he instantly felt the weight from 45 years of denial start to lift at the thought.

A third therapist, Gianna Israel, who kept an office in Hayes Valley, warned Sparks that he would probably lose his career and be abandoned by almost everyone he knew if he got a sex change. Sparks shrugged it off. His family's love seemed secure, his job credentials impeccable. "I thought that couldn't possibly happen to me," Sparks says. "I went forward with abandon."

Sparks consulted books about the most popular baby names from 1949, selecting one that preserved her first initial, T. (Sparks asked for her male name not to be printed, just as she refuses to show photos of herself pre-transition: "I don't want people particularly who know me here to have that visual.") She started with estrogen treatments and testosterone blockers to soften her body, and visited three support groups of transwomen. The shame started to erode. "I realized these aren't all sex maniacs, porn stars, or freaks," she says. "They're people like me."

Yet it's one thing to declare yourself a woman; it's another to actually convince the world you are one. Israel pushed Sparks to take the major first step: to come to her appointment in women's clothes. Sparks was terrified to step outside of her Marina apartment — cross-dressing was always something she did in private. Still, wanting to meet the challenge, she put on a business skirt suit, dark hose, and heels — "typical Theresa," Sparks says — and headed to therapy. Accomplishing that, her homework for the next appointment was to ride the bus: "It's kind of like you get on a Muni bus at 5 o'clock naked." Many people would stare. Sparks figured the fully transitioned transwomen at Divas bar in the Tenderloin assumed she was simply a cross-dresser by her "awkward" forays into women's clothing, a $300 wig pulled over her still-short hair.

Sparks told her second wife, and after attempting to work it out for a couple of months — Sparks admits she didn't know if it would work, "I guess I would have liked it to" — they divorced. Back visiting in Kansas City in 1997, Sparks met her adult children in a park and explained why she now had longer hair and looked more androgynous after a year of hormone treatments, and told them the real reason behind the divorce from their mother years before. Everyone ended up in tears. Though Sparks' daughter stayed in contact, her sons' calls tapered off to none over the next weeks.

Sparks sent her siblings books on transgender issues; only a dog-eared Bible came in return. "One of my brothers actually said that ... he would hire a bum, wino, homeless person, or drug addict before he would hire a transgender person," Sparks says. "He said, 'You're going to starve, and I'm not going to help you.'"

Sparks applied for more than 100 jobs and was called in for five interviews, only to be told she wasn't qualified, or she was overqualified. Meanwhile, her expenses were increasing. She was paying for three weekly therapist appointments, electrolysis, and voice training, as well as building her wardrobe from scratch. Her post-divorce savings plummeted, and she went into debt. To offset the damage, she sold off the totems of her former life: Cartier watch, Armani tux, 1969 Mercedes convertible.

Sparks eventually couldn't make rent, and moved in with two friends from her single Southern California days who had moved to Sonoma County. Storti was shocked by the transformation: For Sparks "to get into Theresa, he wanted to totally change. So, basically, he killed [the male Sparks] to create Theresa. And quite frankly, it was like a slow death — like watching an old friend die."

Sparks also found a spot on the couch of DeSoto cab driver and then–taxi commissioner Jane Bolig, whom she'd met at a transgender social group, and took her up on the idea of becoming a driver. Sparks calls the job "transsexual boot camp," in which she could try out a new voice and persona with each new customer. Yet the effort left little attention for the road. Her first day on the job, Sparks rear-ended a car on Van Ness, and a woman stepped out of the car and berated her with transgender epithets. The scene attracted people from a nearby bar to join the chorus of "faggot," "pervert," "sir," and "mister."

"I remember she came home that evening in tears," Bolig says. "And the next day she got up and went to work again. ... No matter what kind of hit she took, she just kept trying."

Eventually the company didn't renew Sparks' lease after, at her count, four fender-benders in a year. She found work as a Census taker, and was beginning to think she'd never be employed up to her credentials again.

Gradually, Sparks was able to save enough for the next step in her transition. While women who take testosterone can lower their voices within months, no amount of estrogen will raise a biological man's voice. A surgeon stretched her vocal cords to raise the pitch of her voice a full octave, but the surgery didn't take. After about a year, her voice once again descended to its original range.

While Sparks had assumed that she would have to save up for sex reassignment surgery, she inherited $25,000 after her mother's death in 1999 — enough to afford the procedure in Thailand, where surgeons charged half the price of those in the United States. Cost wasn't the only obstacle. Sparks underwent another two angioplasties in April 2000, in her legs this time, and her doctor advised her against major surgery. Sparks wasn't deterred. "I wasn't about to give up now," she says.

In 2000, at 51 years old, Sparks boarded a plane to Bangkok with a suitcase full of traveler's checks and Bolig in tow for support.

In Phuket, before the nine-hour surgery, Sparks awoke in the early morning, walked into the bathroom, stripped off her clothes, and stared at herself one last time in the mirror. "I was saying goodbye to what I had been my whole life, my persona, the appendages ... and making peace with this new person."

After years of anxiety, Sparks finally felt calm.


After returning to San Francisco as a woman, Sparks charged into San Francisco politics, a world that was still waiting for its introduction to Ms. Sparks. She had already made her mark as an activist by coordinating a vigil in front of the Castro Theatre in 1999 for murdered transgender people, the first Transgender Day of Remembrance now held annually around the globe.

But her first major break in politics came when she was hired as a field coordinator for then-Supervisor Mark Leno's re-election campaign in 2000. His victory galvanized Sparks' political career. Leno and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors later appointed her to a new city transgender task force. The group urged Leno to introduce an ordinance to provide medical coverage for transgender city employees' gender reassignment surgeries in 2001. The Board of Supervisors' approval of the measure pushed San Francisco to the forefront of the country's trans movement. Leno also urged Mayor Willie Brown to appoint Sparks as a human rights commissioner in 2001, upon which she pushed for transgender-sensitivity training for all police officers.

Yet serving on commissions or eventually as cochair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club didn't pay the bills. Sparks worked as a bank teller, and nabbed a seasonal gig packing sex toys at Good Vibrations during the 2001 Valentine's Day season. While there, she applied for a financial manager position. Upon seeing her business credentials, Good Vibrations' manager immediately hired Sparks to help expand the sex-positive cooperative into a profitable franchise.

Sparks overcame her reservations about putting a sex shop on her résumé and went to work slashing costs. Her ties to the neighborhood associations of upper Polk Street helped convince local businesses that the proposed store location would attract healthy retail traffic to the neighborhood, not trench-coated porn-shop habitués.

Sparks says Good Vibrations' sex-positive ethos helped her shed some of her own conservative attitudes and accept her changing sexuality. After her transition, "to my surprise, I started to be attracted to men." She began dating a male freelance journalist, a relationship that lasted five years. Sparks now says she is attracted to both sexes: "I don't know if that means I'm bisexual. I guess by pure definition, that's what that means, but I'm more attracted to the person, not to their sex."

Of course, the world outside Good Vibrations is still not so open-minded. In 2003, Mark Leno (who had since been elected to the state Assembly) presented Sparks with his district's Woman of the Year award. Tonight Show host Jay Leno couldn't resist using it as fodder in his late-night monologue: When Sparks accepted the award, Jay Leno riffed, "he said there was a part of him didn't want to accept it, but that's gone now." While transgender activists nationwide were outraged on her behalf, Sparks says no one bothered to call her to ask what she thought: "Quit taking yourself so damn seriously. Sure, I wasn't thrilled he was making a joke about me, but he's a comedian! He's on TV! ... What's the alternative? To be miserable? I sometimes may feel some embarrassment, but you know — life's too short."

There was no avoiding the scrutiny, especially since Sparks underwent the last steps of her transition while squarely in the public eye. In 2004, she was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the police commission, the body charged with creating department protocols and disciplining officers. Despite her high-visibility position, Sparks says she was so self-conscious about her masculine features that she forced the SFPD to take down her photos at police stations.

Around that time, she completed the last step of her physical transformation: facial feminizing surgery. "After her gender surgery, the next important thing to her was to feminize her face so that people would not look at her and point, basically," Bolig says. "I think that in itself has helped bring some peace to her." Sparks shed her frumpy bob for sophisticated auburn layers, lost 30 pounds, and agreed to sit for a new photo at the Hall of Justice to be hung in every police station.

Many cops and commissioners say Sparks has earned their respect as an independent-minded, pragmatic workhorse who served, as she says, in spite of being transgender, not as someone defined by it. Former commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese says Sparks could look beyond the identity politics that so often determine voting records in this city. He says progressives and the LGBT community had blasted his efforts to register sex offenders' residences because the label could include some gay people charged with sodomy crimes. To Veronese's surprise, Sparks still supported his resolution to get the state attorney general's clarification on whether offenders could register as homeless to avoid restrictions on where they could live. Under Sparks' leadership, the commission also required that police use interpreters for encounters with anyone with limited English.

Sparks had her share of detractors. Many grumbled about her stubborn defense of former Police Chief Heather Fong, and said that both of them were appointed only because of political correctness.

"My sense is [Sparks] tried to do the right thing by the cops," says Sergeant Carl Tennenbaum, who goes by Carl T. "There's the old puritanical Irish Catholic boys who have problems with a person being a transgender person. ... I could put you in contact with a bunch of guys that hate her because of what she is, [and say] she's a freak, but they would hate anyone who wasn't born in the Sunset and went to SI [St. Ignatius College Preparatory]."

Sparks has found the best way to defuse any discomfort about her transgender identity is to take the first, and funniest, jab herself. At a police commission meeting earlier this year, she complimented one sergeant on his knowledge of hazardous waste disposal — her former specialty. The officer responded, "Thank you, Madam President. I've been doing this for 15 years, and I had a full head of hair when I started."

Sparks shot back, "You know, I won't even go there and tell you what I had when I started." The meeting room erupted into laughter. Point Sparks.


On a recent morning, Sparks hopped in her Prius and zoomed over to the Human Rights Commission at 25 Van Ness, where she walked past the "Theresa Sparks, Executive Director" sign in the hallway and into her still-spartan office. As an experienced business executive accustomed to shaking things up, Sparks is planning big changes. She envisions expanding the commission's functions beyond its current role of investigating discrimination complaints and ensuring contractors comply with the city's equal benefits and nondiscrimination policies. She has already made moves to boost the number of certified small businesses eligible for discounts in contract bids.

Some City Hall insiders wonder whether Sparks will lose her established independence now that she is employed at the mayor's whim. Sparks' relationship with Newsom hasn't always been chummy. He was rumored to have been upset when Sparks, appointed by his rivals on the Board of Supervisors, was elected president of the police commission. Since then, however, the two have obviously settled their differences. Still, Sparks says not to count her as a mayoral lackey any time soon. After all, this is a woman who doesn't hesitate to call arguments she doesn't agree with "horseshit," and once returned an award to a nonprofit she thought had turned its back on transgender people. "I won't [lose my independence], because that's just who I am," she says. "If the disagreement is severe enough, I'll be looking for a new job."

Many have heard she already is: attempting to replace termed-out Chris Daly as District 6 supervisor in next year's election. For the past year, Sparks has been following doctor's orders to lay off heavy exercise, which she claims is the primary reason she'd been apartment searching in flatter parts of the city. She has told Democrats like party regional director August Longo that she is interested in running, and asking who would support her. Declared District 6 candidate Jim Meko noticed her at the recent Taste of South Beach event, where Jason Chan, the mayor's appointments secretary, introduced her to local leaders.

"I'm leaning heavily toward" running, she says. "I've been having a lot of meetings with a lot of people and gotten a really positive response. ... They're not too impressed with the current candidates." She says she'll announce her final decision in the next month.

While Meko says Sparks would be a carpetbagger in the district, David Villa-Lobos said he'd withdraw his candidacy and support her. Supervisor David Campos supports fellow Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club member Debra Walker in the race, but acknowledges that Sparks would offer a dose of independence to a politicized City Hall. "I don't think she fits in one camp or the other necessarily," he says. "So that's something that she brings to the table."

Sparks says her history in the district goes back to her early activism with transgender women in the Tenderloin, and speaks fervently every chance she gets about making the neighborhood safe for immigrant and low-income San Franciscans. She thinks she could probably make more of an impact as a supervisor than at her current post, yet still has to get over her remaining hesitancy about joining the "blood sport" of San Francisco politics. "Being a supervisor is a very hard task," she says. "It takes a toll on you personally, and [I] have to decide if that's where I want to go." At her age, Sparks says holding a supervisor's office would be her last job, not a stepping stone to higher office. It would also mean her salary would be cut nearly in half.

Political aspirations aside, Sparks' personal life is still absorbing the impact of her transition. The good news is that after a decade, her sons finally reconciled with her last year, one even moving in with her. Yet other problems persist: Her siblings still won't talk to her. And after what she estimates was $100,000 in surgeries and medical procedures, she has no savings and thus no choice but to continue working at an age when many people start to ponder retirement.

But not for an instant does Sparks ever regret the change. To the contrary: "I often wonder if I hadn't transitioned, if I would have made it these last 12 years," she says. She accepts that she's still "Dad" to her kids and "Madam Director" to her employees, and, most of the time, has stopped worrying about whether people identify her as a woman. However much San Francisco can look past Sparks being transgendered, there's no question that this is a city where identity politics matter. Sparks, who left behind all the advantages of being a white male in American society, acknowledges she would never have gotten the Human Rights Commission job if she were still "a straight white guy. But," she says, "I may have been mayor."

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Lauren Smiley

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