Meet the Navy veteran who created the trans Pride flag

Monica Helms, a trans Naval officer, talks about finding herself

Monica Helms
Monica Helms at her workshop in Cobb County

Photograph by Eley photography

I didn’t start to feel like a woman at a certain age—I started to feel like a girl. I was five years old, growing up in Arizona, and I prayed to God to turn me into a girl. You can’t tell me that this is a choice. What does a child in 1956, who’s five years old and can’t read, know about being a different gender? The only thing I knew was that, being raised as a Catholic, you pray to God for things that you want and he’s supposed to deliver, like Amazon. It wasn’t an overnight or same-day delivery because it took 41 years.

In the Navy, I was a nuclear-trained machinist mate. I worked on the mechanical stuff dealing with the submarine’s reactor: pumps, turbines, steam pipes, air conditioning. If I had been caught crossdressing, I would have been in big trouble. The scariest moment was in Vallejo, California, when I got transferred to the U.S.S. Flasher. One afternoon, [I was alone in my room and] I thought it would be cool to put on a bra and panties. I did, and then, I heard a knock. I heard a key going in the lock, and I jumped in my bed and pretended I was sleeping. It was the submarine’s executive officer and chief of the boat. They saw that I was sleeping and left. I was beyond scared. All during that time, from childhood and during my time in the Navy, I never had anyone to confide in or tell.

In the early 1980s, I thought I was a heterosexual crossdresser. I was married, and I liked women. In 1987, a friend of mine and I were with a group of other crossdressers in San Francisco on what was called a “holiday in femme.” We’d go to cities for one weekend once a year. My friend told me why she was starting to transition, and I [recognized] all the same reasons in my head. She put together the puzzle, and I realized I needed to do the same. My father was ill with diabetes and Alzheimer’s at the time, and my mother would not let me see him once I told her I was transgender. I started taking hormones in 1992. My kids were young, three and five. In 1997, I started living as a woman. The following year, my marriage ended. My mother decided I could come home when my father passed away. Today, I talk to my sons often. They became more and more comfortable. The process made me realize that kids come first.

In 2000, I moved to Atlanta. It was one of the best and worst decisions in my life. When my father passed away in Phoenix, I wasn’t nearby. I didn’t get to see my sons graduate high school or watch my oldest go into the Army. The good: I was close to D.C., so I could travel to advocate for trans people. And, of course, I met Darlene, my wife, here, at a contra dance. Six months later, she moved into my house in Marietta. We’re on a hill, in a cul-de-sac. Cobb was once considered a conservative county. Now, we’ve got a Democrat, Lucy McBath, in Congress. There are a lot of LGBTQ people living here. We have gone to all kinds of places, rural areas, and people treat us well. We were on a path to progress before Donald Trump was elected president. That changed when he took office. He banned trans people from the military, told doctors and landlords they could discriminate against trans people. If he wins another term, Darlene and I will likely leave the country.

In the 1990s, Mike Page, the person who created the bisexual Pride flag, encouraged me to make a flag for the trans community. One day, I woke up with the idea for the colors—the traditional color, light blue, for boys, pink for girls, and a single white stripe for those who are transitioning, gender neutral, or intersex. I took it to protests, marches, funerals, transgender days of remembrance. In 2013, I started seeing [my] trans Pride flags flying in other countries. On August 19, 2014, the anniversary of the day I created the flag, the Smithsonian accepted my donation of the original flag.

Our work has saved lives. What made me the proudest, even more than being the first trans delegate from Georgia at the Democratic National Convention [in 2004], was when the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs issued a directive showing how to treat trans veterans in the VA [in 2013]. Two days after the directive came out, we got emails from trans people saying our nearly nine years of advocacy worked. It’s amazing to be told you’re saving lives.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.