If Donald Trump held the transgender flag upside down, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
That’s because Monica Helms, the transgender woman and Navy veteran who created the Transgender Pride flag in 1999, designed it so that looks the same no matter which way it’s flown: baby blue stripes on the top and bottom, pastel pink stripes in between, and a single white stripe in the middle.
In a phone interview, Helms tells me that the pattern—a play on gendered colors with a stripe for those outside the binary—just “came to [her]” one morning as she woke up.
“Not a dream,” she clarifies. “When you wake up and you’re still sort of groggy and everything but you’re starting to think and your mind is starting to fill with images—that’s when it came to me.”
With a laugh, she adds that it was a case of “divine intervention.”
As the transgender rights movement has gained more visibility, so too has Helms’ inspired design. Almost twenty years after it first leapt into her brain in Phoenix, Arizona, it now flies in Pride parades all over the world. Some LGBT-friendly municipalities—like San Francisco or Santa Clara County, California—have flown it on special occasions. You can find a heart-shaped version of it as a Facebook sticker.
The original flag was even acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2014 and displayed in the White House during Pride Month 2016. Last but not least, The Daily Beast’s photo department regularly uses it to illustrate articles on transgender issues—a practice Helms wishes more newsrooms would adopt instead of using the rainbow Pride flag as a catch-all.
“If you’re going to talk about LGBT people, fine,” says Helms. “But if you’re going to talk about trans people, use our colors, use our flag, use our symbol.”
Of course, they weren’t always our colors.
Helms was once, she says, a “one-woman advertisement” for the new design. Born in 1951 and raised in a military family, Helms ended up serving on two submarines during her Navy service including, fittingly, the USS Francis Scott Key—a vessel named after the attorney who was so inspired by the sight of the American flag during the War of 1812 that he penned our national anthem.
By the time Helms created her flag, she had already been married once, had two children, gotten divorced, and begun transitioning.
About two years into that process, she flew her very first flag in the color guard at the 2000 Phoenix pride parade.
As Helms recalls, someone asked her, “What’s that?”
“Well, that’s the Transgender Pride flag,” said Helms.
“Oh, I’ve never seen that before!”
“Yeah,” Helms replied. “Because it’s brand new.”
Helms was proud of her design back then, but she wasn’t expecting that she would see it flown in locales as distant as Antarctica sixteen years later.
“This was for me and if nobody had embraced it, it still would have been OK for me,” she says. “It would have been my flag. But then people started seeing it and they thought the pattern was great and they liked the reason for the colors and it just took off.”
These days, you can find the Transgender Pride flag design on almost anything: T-shirts, mugs, buttons, teddy bears, mouse pads, Christmas stockings. I was surprised to bump into a carousel of mini Transgender Pride flags at a Target last week—the reason, in fact, that I decided to finally give Helms a call: Her flag had literally become inescapable.
The flag’s ubiquity has not made Helms wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. The design isn’t copyrighted; it may be her “baby,” as Helms fondly calls it, but it belongs to a movement now. The same is true of the rainbow Pride flag, created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker, who died earlier this year.
Now living in Atlanta with her partner Darlene, she has been content to watch her creation crop up in new places, inspiring the same pride in others that she felt making it.
“It does please me but I am overtaken now, a little,” she told me of the flag’s spread over the years. “It’s overwhelming that something that I created is being used all over the world.”
But there is no Transgender Pride flag in the world more precious to her than the original, now housed in the Smithsonian archives.
In 2014, Helms decided that she wanted to donate the original Transgender Pride flag—the same one she had carried with her everywhere in the early aughts—to an institution that could protect and preserve it.
She reached out to the Smithsonian, thinking that she “might as well start at the top.”As it turns out, Smithsonian curators wanted her flag—and a wide array of other LGBT-related material, as the Associated Press reported, including Will & Grace scripts and a tennis racket donated by transgender tennis star Renée Richards—as part of an effort to document American LGBT history.
Helms was sad to part with her “baby”—“Oh gosh, yeah, I was depressed a little bit”—but she was humbled by the experience and by what the Smithsonian signifies.
“Our symbol is part of Americana,” she told me. “It’s treated as that.”
The existence of a separate transgender flag has not been entirely uncontroversial. Helms says that she still hears “all the time” that Baker’s rainbow Pride flag should be the symbol for everyone in the LGBT community.
Earlier this year, for example, there was a minor controversy in LGBT-friendly Wilton Manors, Florida over whether or not to fly both flags at once. The city council, as the Sun-Sentinel reported, ultimately decided to fly the Transgender Pride flag on significant days throughout the year.
Helms points out that there are many flags for each of the letters in the greater LGBTQIA community: an intersex flag, a leather flag, a bear flag, an asexual flag, and so on. It was Bisexual Pride flag creator Michael Page who Helms says encouraged her to come up with a transgender version back in 1999.
“I say the rainbow flag is like the American flag: everybody’s underneath that,” Helms says she tells critics of her symbol within the community. “But each group, like each state, has their own individual flag.”
These days, however, outside threats to the LGBT community seem more pressing. I ask Helms what she thinks the chances are that a Trump White House would display her flag as Obama did last year and she laughs, long and loud.
“I think the Confederate flag would get displayed sooner,” she jokes.
Helms is coping, in part, by focusing on her dream goal for the Transgender Pride flag: getting a small version of it onto the International Space Station for a photo op. It’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility, she tells me, citing a potential connection at NASA.
If that were to happen, Helms says she would have nothing left on her bucket list: “OK, Lord, you can take me now, I’ve seen it all.”
And when the Lord does take her one day, Helms has already ensured that her symbol will stay with us: a clause in her will will require her memorial service to be decked out in the transgender colors: pink, blue, and white.
“So, uh, at least I’ll go out in style,” she says. “You’ll get to see it when you’re in your nineties."