In 2005, transgender U.S. Navy veteran Monica F. Helms started writing her autobiography, but eventually she set it aside, deciding that "my life was still continuing."
"Last year, something in my head told me I needed to finish the book, so I went to work on it again, editing and adding new things," said Helms. "This time I refocused it to cover all aspects of my life, not just my activist work."
The book, More Than Just a Flag, chronicles her journey to what she calls her her authentic self, focusing on time in the Navy, working for Sprint, co-founding the Trans American Veterans Association ( TAVA ) alongside Angela Brightfeather and creating the Trans Pride Flag in 1999.
When Helms was looking at her career plans after high school at the height of the Vietnam War. She had a low draft number and did not want to go to Vietnam, so she chose to join the Navy as a submariner. Her family has a long history of military service so she was carrying on that tradition by joining the Navy.
"I wanted to train in nuclear power because NASA was contemplating nuclear-powered space flight at the time and I am a big space and sci-fi fan," said Helms. "Also, they were not shooting submarines down over Vietnam. Besides, it sounded like an adventure I could not pass up."
Following her military career, Helms worked at Sprint for 25 years. While there, she tried to establish a union in the Arizona facility where she worked.
"After working at Sprint for seven years, I began my transition," said Helms. "Initially, human resources were supportive and said they would not tolerate any kind of harassment. I did not experience direct harassment; it was subtle bigotry. Nasty notes were put on my locker and at my terminal. When I transferred to Sprint's Atlanta location in 2000, I had no problems. I retired from Sprint in 2015 with a severance package and now get a pension from them."
Helms said that her journey toward her authentic self has been "one hell of a journey."
She explained that she has lived enough of a life for three people and fought every step of the way to live her life on her own terms.
Her mantra is "visibility equals credibility."
"Being a trans person is misunderstood," said Helms. "We need more trans people to run for political office and be visible in other professions."
While working at Sprint, Helms immersed herself in trans-focused activism, which included creating the Trans Pride Flag. She recalled that the colors and their placement came to her immediately after waking up one morning.
On the flag, blue and pink denote the traditional colors for a boy and girl, and white stands for anyone who does not feel they are a part of a binary system.
"The pattern is such that, no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our own lives," said Helms.
Helms donated the original flag to the Smithsonian in 2014. In 2013, Helms was looking at pictures of Pride celebrations from around the world and realized her flag had become a very popular symbol.
"I decided to start at the top, so I called the Smithsonian and it just so happened they had begun collecting items for a new LGBTQ wing," said Helms. "They asked me a lot of questions about the flag and my personal history, and then they said they would accept it. I was thrilled to donate it and several other personal items, exactly 15 years to the day when I created the flag."
In 2003, Helms co-founded TAVA and was the organization's president for 10 years. The following year, about 50 TAVA members participated in the first Transgender Veterans March to the Wall, where they went to the Vietnam Memorial to honor those who had died.
Helms said she and Brightfeather started hearing stories from other trans veterans about how they were treated by the Veterans Administration ( VA ) where some were refused any treatment at all, which is what inspired them to create TAVA. Eight years later, the VA came out with fair and consistent treatment for trans veterans due to the efforts of TAVA and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
"Two days after the directive came out, TAVA got emails from trans veterans telling us that all our efforts had worked," said Helms. "They were finally getting fair treatment. TAVA has literally saved lives."
Helms was also instrumental in bringing Trans Day of Remembrance ( TDOR ) to Atlanta in 2000 during its third year of existence. The first year 16 people showed up, but attendance has grown every year.
"Now my wife, Darlene Wagner oversees TDOR in Atlanta," said Helms. "It is a very moving but necessary tradition. Trans people of color are disproportionately the victims of violent crime, and the ceremonies help to honor those who paid the ultimate price for being their true selves, and they also act as a reminder, to the trans community and the world, that we need to be doing more to solve this problem."
Now that Helms is retired, she has more time to pursue other activities, including launching model rockets and recording nature videos, sending them to stock footage companies to make money.
Helms said when she dies, people will remember her for creating the Trans Pride Flag but she wanted to tell the rest of her life's story because she did many notable things. She hopes to visit Chicago soon and possibly do a book signing there.
"I hope readers will see [that] if you put your mind to something, you can get it done and make a difference," said Helms. "I wanted to show that even through bad times, you can survive."