Twenty years ago, a transgender Navy veteran named Monica Helms woke up with an idea for a flag. It would have five stripes—two blue, two pink, and one white—and it would look the same upside down as it would right-side up.
But the story of the woman behind the flag hasn’t been told in full until now. Helms’ new autobiography, More Than Just a Flag, fills that gap with alternately rollicking and sobering stories about her Arizona childhood, her service on the submarine USS Francis Scott Key, and her transgender activism.
The book (pictured below) is timely not just because of the 20th anniversary of the Transgender Pride Flag, but also because of the recently implemented transgender military ban in the United States, which has proven to be unpopular with the general public.
Helms, who also co-founded the Transgender American Veterans Association in 2003, explains in her memoir that transgender veterans and service members are in a “unique position” to combat “right-wing attacks.”
“Americans find all kinds of hateful ways to vilify trans people and other minorities,” she writes. “But, when people in those minorities have served in the military, it becomes a useful tool with which to counter their hate.”
Helms’ work on behalf of transgender veterans is just one of many lesser-known ventures that the activist, now 68, recounts with refreshing honesty in More Than Just a Flag. Born in 1951 into a military family, Helms spent her childhood in Arizona, Germany, and Kansas, coming of age in the Vietnam era. When her draft number came up low, a still-closeted Helms joined the Navy, serving aboard nuclear submarines in the 1970s.
Exploring her gender identity while in the Navy was a risky endeavor, as the book’s most heart-pounding moments prove: Once while Helms was living on base, an officer almost caught her wearing a bra during a random room inspection. As Helms tells it, she jumped under the sheets when she heard the knock at the door and pretended to be asleep. “I had dodged a big bullet—a cannonball in fact,” she writes.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Helms (pictured below) married and had two sons, but silently struggled to reconcile her growing awareness of her transgender identity—which she refers to as the “Woman in the Shadows”—with the man she was expected to be. Ultimately, she got divorced and began transitioning in 1992 while working for Sprint in Arizona.
This was before large companies like Sprint began adopting transgender-inclusive policies, so she had to walk up or down a flight of stairs each time she wanted to use the restroom “to avoid unnecessary drama with [her] colleagues,” as Helms writes.
Those are the sort of details that will make younger transgender readers like myself appreciative of their elders, whose stories have too often gone unrecorded.
In More Than Just a Flag, Helms writes with devastating understatement about her struggles with workplace harassment and familial rejection. After relating the story of coming out to her parents and subsequently being told that she was “out of the will,” for example, she writes: “I would never get the chance to look into my father’s eyes ever again, because he would end up dying a few years later,” before moving on.
But Helms doesn’t dwell too long on her pain. This is not a “woe is me” memoir about the transgender equivalent of walking uphill to school in the snow both ways; rather, the book is deeply funny, full of amusing anecdotes about sunbathing with sea lions on a submarine, dancing in LGBTQ nightclubs, and driving all over the country in a 1966 Ford Van that seems to break down every year. (“Evil still lurked in the heart of my van,” Helms foreshadows after one repair.)
Long stretches of More Than Just a Flag are as enjoyable listening to the tall, tale-telling parent in Tim Burton’s Big Fish—except the parent is a transgender woman who devours science fiction books and launches model rockets in her spare time. After one pivotal story, Helms admits, “Had I read [that] in another trans autobiography, I might be skeptical too, but since this is my story, I couldn’t tell it any other way than the way it happened.”
Readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of transgender advocacy might get a bit lost amid all of the acronyms and organization named in the book’s later chapters, which follow the author’s deepening involvement in national activism after her move to Georgia in 2000. Nonetheless, this is important information to put down in print because too much LGBTQ history is passed down orally before dying with those who made it.
True to the book’s title, Helms only devotes a few pages to her signature accomplishment, briefly detailing how she spread the Transgender Pride Flag by marching with it in parades until it caught on. (Creating a flag that literally could not be waved upside-down, Helms writes, was a way to signify “the underlying correctness of trans people’s true self, regardless of the road they take to get there.”)
But by the book’s end, the Transgender Pride Flag will be one of the least interesting things about a lifelong activist who is funny, bracingly forthright, and not shy about admitting her own faults. At its most powerful, More Than Just a Flag is a simple testament to the fact that forerunners like Helms spent decades looking for love and building community before the current level of public awareness around transgender issues.
In a passage made all the more moving by the time period it describes, Helms writes beautifully and powerfully about dancing in a Phoenix nightclub with another transgender woman at the turn of the 21st century:
We flowed as one and the rest of the world seemed to disappear. Then, she leaned in and kissed me. A tingle traveled up and then down my spine. For a moment, my legs felt weak and almost weightless.
It’s a touching reminder that transgender elders paved the way for the next generation not just by enduring injustices, but by finding joy.
More Than Just a Flag is available now.