On August 19, 1999, transgender activist Monica Helms had a dream. When she woke up, she had with a design in mind clear as the day. Half-asleep, she sketched out the idea for the transgender flag a note pad, encouraged by its simplicity and its symmetry.
“The palindromic design meant that no matter which way you flew the flag, it would always be correct, which to me signified the underlying correctness of trans peoples’ true self, regardless of the road they take to get there,” Helms writes in her newly released autobiography, “More Than Just a Flag.”
The title is an apt description of both the text and Helm’s life story to date: She has fought employment discrimination, served in the U.S. Navy as a submariner, and rallied transgender activists to new heights starting in the 1990s.
She’s still active today, too: after the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, railed against the transgender flag being present in front of several congressional offices for Transgender Visibility Week, Helms took it open herself to send him 1,500 transgender flags as a “gift.” Her gift message attached to the box read, “Your shout out helps our cause.”
Queerty sat down with Helms during around Trans Awareness Day to discuss the book and her life.
It feels that there are a lot of transgender biographies out in the world, perhaps going all the way back to Christine Jorgensen’s in 1967 and even Lile Elbe’s in 1931. With such a large field, what tempted you to tell your own story?
The short answer is that, for many years now, people in the trans community have been urging me to write an autobiography. Every transgender story is different and gives us a perspective of what each person has gone through as well as a perspective from the time they lived in. Each journey helps the next generation of trans people to live their lives in a better-informed, authentic manner. I have gone through many events in my life that have shaped who I am. I hope people can learn from and be inspired by my story.
What sets your story apart?
Principally, that life doesn’t begin or end with a trip to the surgeon’s table, and it doesn’t end even if you don’t have surgery. I want readers, trans people, in particular, to realize that they can accomplish almost anything they want if they put their mind to it.
Reading through the book, I noted how key your time in the military has been, even starting with an imagined pre-birth assignment from St. Christopher. How does your military experience continue to inform you?
There is a long history of military service within my family. All of my uncles and one aunt served in WWII. My grandfather was in the Navy. My father served in three branches of the service and during three wars. My brother served, and one of his sons and my son also served.
My time in the Navy helped shape my way of thinking and gave me a sense of independence. I am proud of my service and it still affects me even as I grow older. Military service isn’t for everyone, but it’s uncanny how many transgender men and women I come across who have served. It gave me structure, discipline, enabled me to see parts of the world I might otherwise not have seen, and challenged me to be a better person.
You created the transgender pride flag. How has it felt to see it go from your original notion to something that is recognized worldwide, including, this week being seen throughout the halls of Congress for Trans Awareness Week?
I am still amazed when I see the flag show up, time again, in new places. I never set out to create a worldwide icon, but that is something it has become. I just wanted a symbol, something that I felt reflected my pride in being transgender, something that might help bring out community together or unite us. It humbles me to see the flag carried by others in the world. It transcends ages, nationalities, and gender. Part of the flag’s success has been that there are as many reasons why it is loved as there are trans people. I’m ok with that. Over the years people have told me what it means to them and it fills me with pride. I hope it continues to make others proud as well.
Do you ever feel a bit overwhelmed by it all? Does it ever feel like something that slipped its bounds and has become something so much larger than you may have ever expected or intended? Or is this what you’d hoped to see happen?
Yes. Completely. Overwhelmed is the right word. The flag will celebrate its 20th birthday this year, and the speed with which it has spread and been accepted amazes me. I’m thankful that I have lived to see it grow into the phenomenon that it is. The flag’s importance was made clear to me a few years back when the Smithsonian accepted my original, the first ever trans flag, into their permanent LGBT collection.
Sometimes I feel like Dr. Frankenstein: “It’s alive!” Seeing a picture of someone opening it up on Antarctica was a huge moment for me. I never expected any of this, but I am very thankful and very proud. It never crossed my mind this would happen until 2013. I was blissfully unaware, going about enjoying my life when I start seeing the flag at prides across the world. Since then the flag’s use has ballooned. And to think it all started twenty years ago when still half asleep, the original design came to me.
Are there any specific moments that really stand out for you, where you spotted your flag design somewhere that really took you back?
Seeing it on top of some of the tallest peaks on different continents was amazing. Trans climber Erin Parisi is trying to take it to the tallest peaks on every continent, ending with Mt. Everest. Like I said, seeing it on Antarctica was great, as well as in front of all the Congressional offices this week. The biggest thrill for me so far was seeing the original flag displayed in the White House in 2016. I do have one goal with the flag. One wish. I’d love to see it on the International Space Station. I’ve always been a Sci-Fi fan, I’ve loved space since I was a child, and have launched model rockets my entire life. So, if I had one last wish for the flag, it would be that.
Of course, you’ve done a lot more than simply being the “Betsy Ross” of the trans world. If there was one thing you’ve been involved with that you’d most want to be remembered about, other than creating the flag, what might it be?
Forming the Transgender American Veterans Association getting the VA to treat all trans veterans with the respect they deserve. I’m very proud of that. That saved lives. I’m proud that TAVA is still doing a great job, especially in the face of adversity from the current administration.
You speak in your book about some of the challenges in trans activism in the 1990s and 2000s, and trying to work within some of the nascent rights organizations. What do you feel were some of the bigger challenges in seeing transgender activism really take off — and are there lessons you took from those days that you hope activists today understand?
In the early years, and still today, I feel that we are a misunderstood community. We need to do a better job of being proud and visible if we want the rest of the world to accept us. Writing “More Than Just A Flag” was an attempt to put my life out there and explain who I am. Not everyone can write a book, but we need more trans people to openly stand for political office, to lead companies and charities, and to contribute positively to their communities.
On a practical level, one of the core lessons I took away from my years in activism was to take what non-trans organizations say with a grain of salt. They don’t always have our best interest at heart. Also, if you talk the talk, then prepare to walk the walk. If you say you will do something, then do it, no matter how hard it might be. The only thing an activist owns is their integrity. You lose that and you are no longer an activist.
You’ve done an impressive amount of work, both in activism and otherwise. What’s next for you?
I resigned from a lot of my activism roles a few years ago. I’m 68 years old now and I’m concentrating on leading a more “normal” life with my wife. She’s younger than I am and we are in the process of adopting a child, since she hasn’t previously had children.
I am also in the process of being elected to the board of the Georgia ACLU. I figure the next step for me is to take what I have learned over all these years and help a wonderful organization like the ACLU on trans issues. I’m hoping that by doing so I will be able to bring trans issues further into the mainstream.
I hope I can make a difference.
Helms’ autobiography is now available on Amazon.