By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
Behind every revolutionary symbol is a creator. Nearly 16 years ago, Monica Helms, a transgender woman, conceptualized the transgender pride flag which is now an established mainstay in today’s Pride events throughout the world.
This year, the San Francisco Pride board of directors selected Helms, 64, as the recipient of the Heritage of Pride, Pride Creativity Award to honor her contribution to the transgender and greater LGBT community.
“I’m just thrilled,” Helms told the Bay Area Reporter. “I would never have expected this. I wanted to come to San Francisco Pride one day just to say I went. And then being told about this award – I’m humbled.”
The idea for a transgender pride flag emerged in conversation between Helms and the creator of the bisexual pride flag, Michael Page, in 1999.
“Then one day,” Helms said, “I woke up with the image in my head. I drew it, came up with the colors, and it worked. No matter how you fly it, it’s always correct, which signifies finding correctness in our own lives.”
The flag’s blue stripes represent the traditional color for baby boys, the pink stripes for baby girls. The center white stripe represents intersex, transitioning, and genderqueer people.
“It’s important to note that the flag only represented how I felt about being trans,” Helms said. “But I told myself that if other people wanted to use it too, they could. And apparently, they did.”
The flag made its first public appearance a month later in the LGBT publication Echo magazine. Helms, who is also a Navy veteran, marched with the flag at its first LGBT event in the Color Guard contingent of a 2000 pride parade in Phoenix, Arizona, her hometown. Since then, it’s been carried at countless events.
“I’ve seen it in so many places,” Helms said, “even carried to the tallest mountain in Europe. Next I’m hoping that the first trans person to go to space holds it up at the International Space Station.”
Last year, Helms donated the original transgender pride flag to the Smithsonian. Slated for display later this year, the flag exhibit will also showcase items from Helms’ Navy career, activist history, and personal life.
Helms was stationed in Vallejo twice over her eight-year military service. It was during that time she began to express her identity, albeit quietly.
“The first time I went out in public as Monica was in 1976,” Helms said. “I went to a motel, got dressed, and drove from Vallejo to San Francisco. I knew no one could find out. At the time, I thought I just liked dressing as a woman and didn’t put a label on it until later. That first label wasn’t even correct.”
After being honorably discharged two years later, Helms relocated back to Arizona. Identifying as a “heterosexual crossdresser,” she married “the one,” had two children, and began working at Sprint. In 1997, she decided to “live full-time as Monica.”
“That realization happened in San Francisco,” Helms said. “I was dressed as Monica for the weekend and my friend started telling me her reasons for transitioning. Then, all the puzzle pieces came together. I needed to do that, too. My trans history has a lot of roots in San Francisco.”
She said that her two sons and three grandchildren are “very supportive” of her.
Staying employed with Sprint, Helms moved to Atlanta in 2000. Three years later, she co-founded the Transgender American Veterans Association where she was president until 2013.
In January, Helms retired from Sprint. Still residing in Atlanta, she lives with her partner of five and a half years, Darlene Wagner, who is also a trans woman.