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Phoenix native Monica Helms created the transgender pride flag

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 4/8/2019 Garrett Mitchell
a person wearing a blue hat: Monica Helms, who created the Transgender Pride flag, signs books for fans during Phoenix Pride at Steele Indian School Park on Saturday, April 6, 2019. © Nick Oza/The Republic Monica Helms, who created the Transgender Pride flag, signs books for fans during Phoenix Pride at Steele Indian School Park on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

Monica Helms is more than just the brains behind an iconic Transgender Pride flag. 

The 68-year-old Phoenix native, known as the "transgender Betsy Ross," has lobbied lawmakers, founded the Transgender American Veterans Association and was elected as a delegate in the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

She's witnessed and made history as a leader during a time in which acceptance of transgender people evolves with greater visibility and understanding.

This year, she returned to her hometown as a grand marshal of the Phoenix Pride parade 20 years after designing a symbol of solidarity for her community.

"When I first started being an activist, I said, 'I'm not doing it for me — but for trans people who haven't been born yet,'" Helms told The Arizona Republic

"Now, they have been born, and they're thanking me for what I've done. It's a little embarrassing at times, but I'm glad to help. I hope to continue to help until my time's up."

Reclaiming blue and pink

Helms grew up in what is now Phoenix's Maryvale neighborhood. A proud veteran, she served in the Navy as a submariner from 1970 to 1978. Nearly a decade after her honorable discharge, she realized she was transgender and began her transition five years later. 

By 1999, Helms was living openly as a woman in the Valley and was an activist advocating for awareness of transgender issues at a time when the focus was on her cisgender peers.

That year, Phoenix hosted a Bi-Net USA conference, where Helms became acquainted with Michael Page, who crafted the bisexual pride flag. They agreed the transgender community needed its own symbol. Page's advice: Keep it simple.  

"I woke up one morning about two weeks later, and it hit me while I was lying in bed," Helms said. "The design just came to me."

The design features two pink and two blue stripes sandwiching a single white line. The traditionally-gendered pastel colors represent boys and girls. The middle stripe symbolizes those who are intersex, gender non-conforming or transitioning.

"I had it patterned in such a way that it's always correct no matter which way you fly it," Helms said. "It signifies how we're always trying to find correctness in our own lives."

a person holding a kite: Flag bearer Scott Young holds the transgender Pride flag prior to the start of the Equality March as part of the 2016 Greater Ozarks Pridefest in Springfield, Mo. on June 17, 2016. The flags represent different gender identities and sexual orientations within the greater LGBTQ Pride movement. © Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/News-Leader Flag bearer Scott Young holds the transgender Pride flag prior to the start of the Equality March as part of the 2016 Greater Ozarks Pridefest in Springfield, Mo. on June 17, 2016. The flags represent different gender identities and sexual orientations within the greater LGBTQ Pride movement.

While the late Gilbert Baker's rainbow flag remains a catch-all sign of LGBTQ pride, a comparable symbol for groups under the queer umbrella is a point of comfort for some.

"The rainbow flag is like the American flag. All of the flags that are out there under it are like state flags," Helmps said.

Helms debuted her flag at the Phoenix Pride parade in 2000.

"Everybody wanted to know what it was," she said. "Nowadays, people aren't so curious."

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A widespread symbol of pride

Like the rainbow flag, Helms' creation has become a symbol of solidarity to wave on occasions like Pride, International Transgender Day of Visibility and the Transgender Day of Remembrance.  

"Even today, I'm still amazed that it's seen all over the world," Helms said. "It's a symbol that will live on long after I'm gone. I want people to know that it's a part of our history and rally around it. ... I've gotten to see my baby mature."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among prominent U.S. lawmakers to display the flag outside their offices on March 31 for International Transgender Day of Visibility. 

"This was something I'd never guessed I'd see all over the world or even around Congress," Helms said. "I'm very happy to see it. ... Twenty years ago when I lobbied Congress, we were treated very badly. There's been a tectonic shift in such a short time."

a blue and white umbrella: Image of a transgender pride flag hanging outside Sen. Bernie Sander's Washington, D.C. office. © Courtesy Image of a transgender pride flag hanging outside Sen. Bernie Sander's Washington, D.C. office.

A piece of history preserved

Helms discovered the magnitude of her flag's impact around six years ago. She'd look at slideshows of various Prides throughout the globe and see that familiar pink, blue and white billowing in places such as Serbia, Finland, Japan, Taiwan and even Antarctica.

"I'm going, 'Oh my God. I have the original, and people are using this all over the world. I need to find a place where it's protected and cared for," she said.

Helms' original "baby" is now preserved in the Smithsonian as an LGBTQ artifact. Now, there's only one place Helms wants to see it next — orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station. 

"Why not? There's a whole row of flags from people who have been there — maybe the rainbow and trans flags should be there next."


Reach reporter Garrett Mitchell at gamitchell@gannett.com or 602-444-8280.

Follow him on Twitter at rettmitch.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix native Monica Helms created the transgender pride flag

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