A Brief History of the Transgender Pride Flag

In response to Donald J. Trump’s decision to ban transgender Americans from the armed services via tweet.

Monica Helms was proud to serve her country in the United States Navy, but she was harboring, in her words, “a deep, dark secret.” “Sometime around the age of 4 or 5, I knew something was different about me,” she said. “I was raised Catholic and you’re supposed to pray to God for things. So I prayed to God to turn me into a girl.” Helms enlisted in 1970 and served on the submarine the U.S.S. Francis Scott Key from 1972–1976. She was reassigned to the U.S.S. Flasher and stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1976, where she served until 1978. Like many LGBTQ members of the U.S. Military, the social atmosphere of San Francisco helped Helms to find herself, and she began to explore her identity as a transgender woman, dressing as a woman in public and going to gay clubs. While Helms initially thought she might be a “cross-dresser,” it took her until 1987 to fully realize she was transgender. She began her medical transition in 1992 and started living as a woman full time in 1997.

In 2000, Helms moved from Arizona to Atlanta, Georgia and got involved in activism, becoming the executive director of the Georgia transgender advocacy organization Trans=Action. She also co-founded the Transgender American Veterans Association in 2003. As someone who had loyally and bravely served her country under the American flag, Helms was inspired to create a transgender flag in 1999 as a representation of transgender legitimacy and pride. The flag consists of five stripes: a light blue stripe followed by a light pink stripe at the top and bottom, with a white stripe in the middle. Helms describes her design as follows:

“The stripes at the top and bottom are light blue, the traditional color for baby boys. The stripes next to them are pink, the traditional color for baby girls. The stripe in the middle is white, for those who are intersex, transitioning, or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives.”
Image via Wikipedia.

While the activist Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag in 1978 to encompass the diversity of what was then referred to simply as the “gay community,” Helms thought it necessary to have a flag that represented the particular struggles of transgender people. She beautifully describes the necessity of a transgender-specific flag with this comparison:

“I say the rainbow flag is like the American flag: everybody’s underneath that, but each group, like each state, has their own individual flag.”

The transgender pride flag made it’s debut in 2000 at a Phoenix, Arizona Pride parade, with Helms acting as a “one-woman advertisement” for her fledgling design. The original flag was donated to the Smithsonian in August of 2014 as part of the museum’s special LGBT collection. Helms’ “baby,” as she calls it, has become an American symbol and a piece of American History. Reproductions of the flag now fly at Pride marches and protests through the country, with activists also adopting Helms’ blue, pink, and white color scheme on signs, banners, buttons, t-shirts, and other items as a representation of transgender equality.

Protestors rally in Times Square in response to Trump’s tweet banning transgender military service. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner via AM New York.

Helms has given much to her country, both through her military service and her contributions to the contemporary transgender rights movement. The writer and activist Jenny Boylan has referred to her as the “transgender Betsy Ross.” So there was a certain irony when Helms woke up on the morning of July 26th, 2017 to see that Donald Trump, attempting to use Twitter as a space of policy making, had hastily announced a ban on transgender Americans in the armed services in “any capacity.” The president went on to tweet that transgender Americans were a “burden” on the military and counterproductive to military readiness. Trump apparently made this decision without consulting the Pentagon, legal experts, or the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, immediately issued a statement denouncing the ban:

“This morning transgender service members put on their uniform and showed up for their military duties to be told by their Commander in Chief via Twitter that he doesn’t want them in ‘any capacity.’ These service members are willing to die for their country, and this is an insult to their brave and honorable service. This new directive is harmful, misguided, and weakens — not strengthens — our military. I will introduce legislation and will fight to overturn this discriminatory decision.”

In television interviews, Gillibrand went on to caution that the president was essentially attempting to create a transgender version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” via tweet. Beyond the impact of these tweets on the transgender community, Trump’s actions are further evidence of his increasingly authoritarian behavior and his belief he can create and implement policy on a whim without following established protocols.

In the wake of the fear and chaos left by the president’s tweets, we must question if the ban, due to the haste with which it was announced, is, in essence, a “shiny object” to distract from Trump’s falling approval ratings, an Executive Branch mired in scandal as the probe into Russian election interference and collusion intensifies, and attempts by the GOP to repeal the Affordable Care Act and effectively strip healthcare from millions of Americans. Journalist Rachel Maddow astutely observed that attacking the transgender community is a way for Trump to pacify his base supporters given his recent criticisms of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a favored politician among far-right conservatives.

Trump’s transgender military ban is yet another example, in addition to anti-transgender bathroom legislation and rescinding Title IX guidance for transgender students, of the current administration and the GOP using transgender people as political tools, demonstrating the extent to which many do not see transgender people as valid, or even fully human. But people are just that — people — not political playthings.

Like Helms’ flag as it flies in the wind, no matter which way we turn the issue, the fact remains that transgender Americans are real, valid, and have been serving their country for years without burden or issue. According to a 2016 RAND study, the cost of medical care for transgender service members is minimal and no more burdensome than other forms of medical care. The study also found that, contrary to Trump’s tweets, transgender service members have no significant impact on unit readiness.

Monica Helms is right: there is nothing wrong or incorrect about being transgender. Military service is a complex issue — there is a long history of the military functioning as an oppressive state institution at home and abroad — but enlisting in the armed services often provides individuals and their families access to necessary resources and social mobility. We can, however, critique the military as an institution while simultaneously supporting those who serve.

If transgender Americans possess the desire and fitness to serve in the U.S. Military, they should have the right — like all other Americans — to do so.