Picture it: Phoenix, AZ. August 1999.
It was during this period that Navy Veteran Monica Helms would create a symbol, a flag to represent her community: the transgender community.
Encouraged by the creator of the bisexual flag, Michael Page, Helms put together a flag comprised of five stripes: two light blue, two pink, and a single, centered white stripe.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Helms would say that the pattern for the flag just “came to her” one morning upon waking. It wasn’t a dream per say but a vision among the first thoughts of the day; in Helms’ words: “you’re starting to think and your mind is starting to fill with images.” From within this parade of pictures, she saw it, the flag, patterned as a play on gendered colors with a stripe for those living outside the binary.
A case of “divine intervention” was what Helms credited with a laugh.
At this point, it is vital to the story of Monica Helms though what most remember will be the symbol she created.
The Story of Monica Helms, Creator & Veteran
Monica Helms was born in 1951 in Sumter, South Carolina and grew up in the sunny state of Arizona. In 1969, she graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970.
From 1970 to 1978, Helms would serve as a nuclear-trained machinist mate on two submarines: the USS Francis Scott Key and the USS Flasher. It was four years into her enlistment that she began dressing as a woman and kept it secret for fear of being kicked out of the Navy. “It was the deepest, darkest secret in my entire life,” she wrote, “I would tell someone that I’d murdered someone before I’d tell someone I cross-dressed.” Her exploration took place while she was based in Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1976, Helms was assigned to the San Francisco area where she found the LGBT community and started to come out to more people publicly but kept herself closed off in the military. After eight years of service, she left the Navy to start her life as an activist in 1978.
It would be about 19 years before Helms began her transition in 1997. A year later, she reapplied for membership at the Phoenix chapter of the U.S. Submarines Veterans, Inc. under her name but faced pushback. Eventually, she was able to rejoin as Monica Helms and became one of the first women to join the organization.
The Birth of a Symbol
In August 1999, the Transgender Pride flag was born with its colors: light blue for boys, pink for girls, and the middle white stripe for those transitioning, the gender neutral, or the intersex. In the many years that followed, the flag would encompass more of the community as society progressed and gender became less confined to simply male and female.
Although the Transgender Pride flag was birthed in August 1999, the flag would not make its debut to the world until the following year during Phoenix’s 2000 Pride Parade. The theme that year was “One Heart, One Mind, One Vision, Take Pride, Take Joy, Take Action.”
The Lead Up to Transgender Flag Day
Following its unveiling, Monica Helms’ creation was picked up by the transgender community and was incorporated into the LGBTQ collective, even becoming an emoji on mobile phones.
“It does please me but I am overtaken now, a little,” she said of the flag’s spread across the world over the years, “It’s overwhelming that something I created is being used all over the world.”
As for Helms, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be close to Washington, D.C., where she worked to advocate for transgender people and Veterans. In 2003, her activism led to the founding of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) where she was president until 2013. TAVA continues to this day as an active Veteran Service Organization for transgender Veterans.
In 2014, Monica Helms decided to donate the original Transgender Pride flag to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., as part of a special LGBTQ collection. That day was August 19, 2014.
Today, Transgender Flag Day serves to commemorate the day the original Transgender Pride flag was added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection which documents the story of the LGBTQ community in America.
When parted with the Transgender Pride flag, Helms’ was sad but humbled. Humbled that her “baby” was now a part of the nation’s story housed in an institution the will protect and preserve it.
“Our symbol,” Helms said, “is part of Americana. It’s treated as that.”
She currently resides in Atlanta, GA, and has published her memoir, “More Than Just A Flag.”
The SITREP thanks Monica Helms for her contribution to LGBTQ history and the LGBTQ community. The Transgender Pride flag serves as a beacon and symbol for the transgender-plus community worldwide. It also goes without saying that we thank her for her service in the U.S. Navy and out in the world of activism and advocacy.
Monica Helms, Wikipedia
Monica Helms: Creator of the Transgender Flag, VAntage Point, 10 June 2021
Here’s the Meaning Behind the Colors of the Trans Flag, Seventeen, 03 June 2021
The Designer Of The Transgender Flag Is A Navy Veteran, Fast Company, 28 July 2017
‘Divine Intervention’ Helped Monica Helms Create The Transgender Pride Flag, The Daily Beast, 30 June 2017
The History of the Transgender Flag, Point of Pride, 23 April 2015
A Proud Day at American History Museum as LGBT Artifacts Enter the Collections, Smithsonian Magazine, 19 August 2014
1. What is the VA’s policy regarding health care for transgender Veterans?
The VA is committed to ensuring that, as an integrated service and benefits delivery system, is welcoming of all Veterans, including those with minority gender identities and expressions. As part of this commitment, the VA provides all medically necessary gender affirming care to transgender Veterans with the exception of gender affirming surgical interventions due to an exclusion in the VA’s medical benefits package.
2. Is the VA planning to remove this exclusion from its benefits package?
Yes. The VA wants all eligible Veterans to have access to clinically appropriate, inclusive health care services. In 2016, the VA received a Petition for Rulemaking (PFR) to remove the “gender alterations” exclusion that prevented and continues to prevent the VA from performing medically necessary gender-affirming surgeries. This petition argued that the exclusion was discriminatory. Revising the medical benefits package would enable a safe, coordinated continuum of care that is Veteran-centric.
3. What is the VA doing to ensure transgender Veterans are not facing discrimination?
The VA is currently reviewing its policies to ensure that transgender Veterans do not face discrimination based on their gender identity or expression. This review includes an evaluation of statutory and regulatory requirements to build out a continuum of care that provides all medically necessary services for transgender and gender diverse Veterans.
4. What are the steps involved to permanently remove the exclusion?
The VA would formally grant the PFR and initiate rulemaking to remove the exclusion. The entire rulemaking process, itself, can take two years and includes a period of public comment.
Rulemaking is the term used when a federal government agency creates, modifies, or removes rules published by the Code of Federal Regulations (also known as the CFR). Rulemaking to remove this exclusion is recommended to align the VA with current Administration priorities, best medical practice, research, and professional health organizations. Revising the medical benefits package would enable a safe, coordinated continuum of care that is Veteran-centric.
5. What about transgender Veteran care during the rulemaking process?
During the rulemaking process, the VA will continue to provide or pay for the services it currently offers, including corrective procedures after gender-affirming surgeries a Veteran obtains outside the VA, hormone therapy, and other gender-affirming care.
Today, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced plans that the offer will start offering gender confirmation surgery to transgender Veterans. The announcement was made at a Pride event at the Orlando Vet Center in Florida.
In prepared remarks, Secretary McDonough said, “We are taking the first necessary steps to expand VA’s care to include gender confirmation surgery — thereby allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA at their side.”
The decision to make changes in the VA health care system was based on what McDonough said was the “recommendation of our clinicians, so this is a health care based decision that has very real physical health care impacts as well as significant mental health impacts.”
To date, the VA offers mental health services and hormone therapy for transgender Veterans but has not included gender confirmation surgery and today’s announcement indicates a substantial shift in VA policy.
“There are several steps to take, and that will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the service made available to Veteran meet VA’s rigorous standards of quality health care,” said McDonough.
McDonough also stated that members of Congress are aware of the move and that the process will be carried out transparently and with Congress’ full coordination. As with anything federally-related, this will take time as the process of creating a new federal regulation can take years.
That said, transgender Veterans seeking gender confirmation surgery today will need to standby while the VA begins the mechanizations of altering a years-old policy that excluded the surgery from the benefits package. If a transgender Veteran goes to the VA on Monday morning seeking the surgery, they will not be able to as the process for change has not yet started. McDonough’s announcement today was just that: an announcement.
Today’s announcement falls in line with the Biden Administration’s efforts to make diversity and inclusion a priority. Secretary McDonough said that the decision ultimately would be President Biden’s.
“It’s the President’s decision, and we’ve just announced today that we’re executing that decision. That decision will care out now over many, many months, but at the end of the day this is in the President’s authority to do. He’s made clear it’s time to do it and that’s precisely what we’ll do.”
The SITREP will be following the progression of this change in the days/months/years ahead.
Transgender people have served in all branches of the U.S. military and are a rich part of history. Here are some notable Veterans:
Beck served 20 years in the U.S. Navy Seals where she was a member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and the special counter-terrorism unit SEAL Team Six. For her service, Beck was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Service, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and the Purple Heart. She co-wrote the book Warrior Princess, and was the subject of the documentary Lady Valor.
Robinson graduate West Point with a degree in physics in 1994. She served in the U.S. Army until 1999, after which she became an ordained Baptist minister. She has held prominent leadership positions in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and OutServe-SLDN.
Helms served in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1978. She is the creator of the Transgender Pride Flag, and is the founder of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA). In 2004, she was elected as a delegate in the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston Massachusetts, making her the first trans person from Georgia to be elected to a DNC Convention.
Ortega served in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines. He is often credited as the first openly transgender service member. He served in 3 hostile fire combat tours, and executed over 400 combat missions.
Shupe served in the U.S. Army as a tank mechanic. Shaupe, who in the press has stated a preference for they/them pronouns, was the first person in the U.S. to win the right to list a non-binary gender on their driver’s license, obtained through the state of Oregon.
Jorgensen served in the U.S. Army and is credited as being the first person in the U.S. to become widely known for having gender affirming surgery. She worked as an actress and nightclub singer, and remained a spokesperson for transgender people throughout much of her life.
Richards served in the U.S. Navy after completing a degree at Yale University and earning a medical degree from the Rochester School of Medicine. While in the Navy, Richards won both the singles and doubles at the All Navy Championship. After transition, Richards famously won a case against the United States Tennis Association, which was found to have discriminated against her by not allowing her to play in the U.S. Open as a woman. Richards went on to have a successful tennis career before retiring to return to medical practice.
Fox served in the U.S. Navy as an operations specialist on the USS Enterprise. She later became a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, and after two professional fights, came out publicly as transgender in 2013. In coming out, she became the first openly transgender athlete in MMA history.
Janae served in the U.S. Marines from 1991-1995 during which she was selected for Presidential Security duty under President Bill Clinton, She provided security for some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and officers at the Pentagon from 1992-1994. From 2004-2005, she was assigned to the security force at the Presidential retreat at Camp David. Kroc began power lifting in 1991 after joining the Marines, and went on to win a world championship and become a world record holder in powerlifting.
Simpson served at the Pentagon as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy. While Simpson is a civilian employee, her position in the Pentagon equate to that of a two-star general. Simpson was the first openly transgender person to hold a leadership role in the Pentagon.
Did You Know
- Over 134,000 U.S. Veterans are estimated to be transgender and, before the transgender military ban was lifted in 2021, there were over 15,000 transgender people serving in the U.S. military
- Transgender people are at least two to three times more likely to have served in the U.S. military; motivated by patriotism, life direction, and family history of service, transgender people may have also joined the military to escape family rejection or violence.
- In 2017, it was estimated that more than 5,000 Veterans were receiving transition-related care in the VA healthcare system though this number is likely lower than the actual number as not all transgender Veterans meet criteria for diagnosis and may have chosen not to discloser their gender identity to their providers.
TDOV and Transgender Veterans
Today is the International Day of Transgender Visibility (TDOV) and is a time for nations across the world to celebrate the accomplishments of transgender people, raise awareness of the issues transgender people face, and advocate for the transgender community.
For transgender Veterans, being visible may not be an issue when it comes to the community; however, when it comes to engaging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for health care, visibility may not be so easy to obtain.
For one, though the VA is inclusive of LGBT Veterans, coming out to an individual’s provider may not be so easy. This may be because the Veteran feels the provider is not going to be receptive to their disclosure or some other reason. For another, coming out to one’s provider outside the VA may be somewhat easier than within because healthcare tends to evolve faster in communities than within the VA, a government-run healthcare system.
TDOV could serve as a reminder to transgender Veterans as to the importance of coming out to a healthcare provider, VA or not, because doing so will give the provider a better understanding in providing care.
The VA acknowledges that the transgender Veteran population has higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, PTSD, tobacco use, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), high blood pressure, and heart and kidney disease. Coming out to a provider will give them the opportunity to learn and provide appropriate care. As Veterans, we know that the government won’t do anything unless we say something; it’s so much more applicable with the VA.
That said, if you are a transgender Veteran, and are anxious about coming out to your VA provider, check out these resources:
- Coming Out to Your Health Care Provider
- VA Health Care for Transgender Men
- VA Health Care for Transgender Women
- VHA Directive 1341: Providing Health Care for Transgender and Intersex Veterans
If after viewing these resources and you still have questions on how the VA can provide appropriate care, check out the VA’s Patient Care Services page for LGBT Veterans. You can also look up your nearest VA facility’s LGBT Veteran Care Coordinator (VCC) here.
It being TDOV, take a moment to thank the transgender+ Veteran in your life for their service and for representing the transgender community. Of course, transgender visibility isn’t confined to just one day, transgender visibility is something to strive for every single day because each one of you matters.
Earlier this week, President Biden signed an executive order reversing the U.S military’s ban on transgender people serving.
Sacramento’s FOX 40 interviewed Joanna Michaels, a local transgender Veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, on the news of the reversal. If the video doesn’t play, check out the link above.
It’s been one day since President Joe Biden has removed a ban on transgender people joining and serving in the military.
The new policy prohibits any service member from being forced out of the military based on gender identity. The military must also re-examine the records of service members who were discharged or denied reenlistment due to gender identity under the previous policy.
The move is a weight lifted for more than one million Americans who identify as transgender, some of whom feel an intense calling to pledge themselves to this country and protect it.
Joanna Michaels was one of those Americans back when the Vietnam War raged. She served as a survival instructor for the Air Force from 1967 to 1974.
Sonseeahray spoke to Joanna about her story and what the new policy means to the LGBTQ+ community.