Monica Helms was born in Sumpter, SC and grew up in Arizona. She lived in Germany for 3.5 years, Kansas for 2 years and graduated high school from Maryvale High in Phoenix, Arizona in 1969. Monica married 1980 and had two sons: Robert, who was born in 1982, and Bryan, who was born in 1984. From her two sons, she is the proud grandmother of three grandsons: Xavier, Alexander, and Logan. In 1990, she started working for Sprint and retired in 2015. Monica started her gender transition in 1997 and soon divorced from her wife of 18 years in 1998. Later in 2009, she found her life-long partner, Darlene Wagner, and they celebrated 10 years of love recently. Currently, Monica has started back to school and is working on her bachelor’s degree.
Monica has a General AA Degree and an AA in Industrial Television from Glendale Community College in Arizona, received in 1987 and graduated from Chattahoochee Technical College in 2018 with an AA Degree in Television Production Technology.
Monica served in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1978 and was assigned to two submarines: USS Francis Scott Key 1972-1976, USS Flasher 1976-1978. During her time in the Navy, she began dressing as a woman while based in Charleston, South Carolina and says in an interview it was the “deepest, darkest secret in [her] entire life.” She was reassigned to the Bay Area in 1976 and said she “felt like [she] could be out in public as [herself].”
Helms left the Navy in 1978, and in 1996, she joined her hometown’s chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans, Inc. After transitioning, she reapplied in 1998 to the Phoenix chapter of the veteran’s group with the name “Monica” and received considerable push-back, including being referred to a more generic veteran’s group for women rather than the submarine specific group. Monica eventually prevailed after a few months and claims to be the first woman to ever join the organization.
Monica Helms created the Transgender Pride Flag in 1999, and it was first flown in 2000 at a Pride Parade in Phoenix, Arizona. Monica donated the original Transgender Pride Flag at the first ceremony honoring the addition of a collection of LGBT historical items at the Smithsonian on August 19, 2014.
Monica founded the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) in 2003 and remained president until 2013. On May 1, 2004, TAVA sponsored the first ever Transgender Veterans March to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Fifty transgender veterans arrived in Washington DC and visited the Vietnam Memorial to honor people they knew whose names were on The Wall. They also made history when they became the first openly transgender people to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 2005, Monica led a group from TAVA and repeated the venture. Monica continues to advocate for transgender service members and veterans, as the end of the prolific Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of the United States military did not change the status of transgender military personnel.
Her political activism includes lobbying state legislators in Arizona and Georgia, and Congress on Capitol Hill. She made history when she was elected as a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first transgender person elected to a DNC Convention from Georgia and the South.
In June 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event widely considered a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Queerty named her one of the Pride50, “trailblazing individuals who actively ensure society remains moving towards equality, acceptance and dignity for all queer people.”