By Emily Starbuck Gerson
You’ve seen the transgender pride flag everywhere, with its recognizable light blue, pink, and white stripes. But have you ever wondered where or when this design originated?
The now-ubiquitous trans flag was first created by Monica Helms, a transgender Navy veteran. She served in the closet in the 1970s, knowing she was different but unsure how to describe it. Once she came to understand her transness, she wanted to find a way to visually represent her identity. Her design eventually went mainstream, and she’s amazed how the symbol of pride she created for herself now represents her community around the world.
Modern Military Association of America: Could you share a little about your background?
Monica Helms: I feel I have lived the life of three people. I spent time in the Navy. I was a parent of two boys. I launched model rockets. I did video production. I was an activist for the trans community in different ways. Today, I live a nice life with my wife, Darlene. We love going camping.
MMAA: What was your time in the Navy like, and was it difficult not being able to live authentically?
MH: I served for eight years, from 1970 to 1978. I served on two submarines, and six different times, I was underwater 70 consecutive days. I discovered I like dressing as a woman when I was in the Navy. It was the 1970s; I didn’t know what I was, or that I wanted to live “authentically.” All I knew was that I liked to dress in women’s clothes, which I hid well from the Navy.
MMAA: Why did you feel is was important to create a transgender flag?
MH: I didn’t feel it was important to create it when I did create it. I made it the way it is because it was how I wanted to express my transness. Because I took it everywhere, it got seen and people started liking it. I now see how important the flag has become to many people. I’m overwhelmed at how popular it’s become.
MMAA: How did you come up with the design?
MH: I was talking to Mike Page, the creator of the Bisexual Pride Flag, and he said that the trans community also needed a flag. He told me to keep it simple, because the less amount of stitches, the cheaper it is to make and to sell.
Two weeks later, I woke up, and while lying in bed, the design came to me. I got up and drew it out and liked what I saw. I contacted the people who made the Bi Flag and they sent me some swatches. A week later, I had the first Trans Flag.
MMAA: What does it mean to you to see the flag so widely recognized now?
MH: I’m flabbergasted. Seeing it in different countries and different places, seeing the colors displayed in places, like the spiral on top of the One World Trade Center, or on top of tall mountains, still thrills me to no end. I have one bucket like goal on where I want to see the flag, and that’s in the International Space Station.
MMAA: What has it been like for you seeing transgender people now being allowed to serve openly in the military, and what are your hopes for the future of the trans community?
MH: I am thrilled to see this happen in my lifetime. This makes my past work with trans veterans and trans military all worth it.
I want to see us being treated like people who deserve to exist. I want to see the murders of trans women of color drop to zero. I want to see trans children welcomed at their schools, churches and sports centers. And, I want to see more trans actors getting roles of people who become role models to the rest of the community, and to cis people as well.