By Laura Latzko, April 2019 Issue.
In creating the pink, blue and white transgender flag, activist, author, and speaker Monica Helms made her mark on LGBTQ history and culture.
During the 20th anniversary of the transgender flag, Helms will serve as the Community Grand Marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade.
Helms has also been a grand marshal for pride parades in San Francisco, Charlotte and Atlanta.
She marched with the original flag, which has since been donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, at the Phoenix Pride parade in 2000.
Helms was inspired to create a transgender pride flag by Michael Page, who created the bisexual pride flag.
Helms, who had some experience with graphic art, drew up the design herself and had it made by the same company as the bisexual pride flag. She tried to create a flag that represented the transgender experience.
“I wanted to be able to point out the historical colors for baby boys and baby girls but then also have a white stripe in the middle to show those people who are gender neutral, bi-gender, the people who don’t feel that their gender is correct, anybody who might be transitioning, anybody else who doesn’t fit into the binary of male or female,” Helms said. “And then I put it in a pattern in such a way that no matter which way you fly it, it’s not upside down. That’s signifying correctness and us looking for correctness in our lives.”
Around the world, people have adopted the transgender flag to show their pride or support for the transgender community. Helms often finds herself in awe of the international support of the flag.
“I was never expecting to see it all over the world. I’m still amazed when I see it in a country that I just never thought it would be there. They are proud to have something to march behind, to display at their house or their business,” Helms said.
Helms takes pride in the fact that the flag has been hung outside of office doors at Congress and has been represented on popular TV shows. She still continues to think of it as her flag, despite others adapting and using it.
“It’s everybody’s flag, and people use the colors for all kinds of things. I’m happy about that. I put a little dent in the world. I call it ‘my flag.’ It’s my baby,” Helms said.
Originally from South Carolina, Helms spent most of her life in the Valley before moving away in 2000. During her childhood, she also lived in Germany when her father, who was in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed overseas.
She now lives in Georgia with her wife Darlene Darlington Wagner, a transgender woman who works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Helms regularly returns to Phoenix to visit her mother and son, who still live in the Valley.
She said serving as a grand marshal in the Phoenix Pride Parade on such a momentous year is a great honor for her.
While she is known for the flag, Helms has also brought change through her activism.
Throughout her career as an activist, Helms has lobbied legislators in the Arizona and Georgia legislatures and in Congress. She also served as the first transgender delegate from Georgia during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
A filmmaker, Helms has created her own YouTube channel with videos on different transgender issues.
Helms said having a voice, especially with the recent transgender ban, has become even more important in this day and age.
“I’m horrified at all of the things that Trump is doing to try to backtrack and throw us back into the ‘50s. All that stuff that we accomplished during the Obama administration, we are going to have to fight for all over again. That’s not just limited to trans people. LGB people are being screwed over too. So, we are all in this fight together,” Helms said.
Helms is the author of the science fiction books Valhalla, The Straits of Hell, Time Hostages, and The Wayward Star. She recently has been working on an autobiography of her life, entitled More than Just the Flag.
The military has been a big part of Helms’ life.
She served in the U.S. Navy from 1970 to 1978 as a submariner. It was during this time period that she began to dress in women’s clothes in secret.
She first realized she was transgender in 1987, began her transition in the early 1990s and started living as a woman in 1997.
Helms first became involved in activism in the 1990s when she reapplied for membership to a local chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans Inc. under the name “Monica.” At the time, there were no women in the organization.
Helms went on to be a co-founder of the Transgender American Veterans Association.
Helms and her good friend Amanda Schrader first got involved in activism because they wanted to bring more of a focus to transgender issues.
“At the time in the late ‘90s, everything was gay and lesbian. They didn’t think trans people were helpful. Amanda and I, we showed them different,” Helms said.
Helms also wanted to help and inspire the next generation.
“When I first started activism in the late ‘90s, I said, ‘I’m not doing this for myself … I’m doing this for trans people who haven’t been born yet.’ And now those people that have been born since then are taking over, and I’m glad to see that. I hope I helped a little bit along the way,” Helms told Echo.
With all of her achievements, family has always been the most important aspect of Helms’ life. She has two sons and three grandchildren.
She said her two sons, whom she had with her first wife, are her greatest accomplishment in life.
“I was there at their birth, holding them in my hands. That’s probably the most amazing thing. If nothing else was to happen in my life, I’d be proud of that … I’m proud of them as adults today,” Helms said.