November is the month for transgender pride and awareness events. In some communities, it’s one day in November: One of the most widespread observations is Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), which is held every November 20. In others, TDOR is part of a longer observation, Transgender Awareness Week. Elsewhere, the whole month is devoted to the theme. Noteworthy, too, have been grassroots efforts organized at TransParentDay.org to make the first Sunday in November a celebration of transgender parents.
Phoenix, Arizona, is the birthplace of the Transgender Pride Flag.
However they’re timed, these events share common themes. They are occasions for transgender people and their allies to remember victims of transphobic violence. They are opportunities to assert rights, dignity, and a place in society — to demand the visibility and respect that transgender people are too often denied.
Transgender visibility has also been strengthened by a powerful symbol that first made its appearance at the Phoenix Pride Parade in 2000. Since the creation in the 1970s of the rainbow flag, a symbol shared broadly by LGBTQ people, several newer flags have appeared, each representing sexual and gender identity groups within the LGBTQ community. In 1999, Michael Page, the creator of the Bisexual Pride Flag, suggested to longtime Phoenix resident Monica Helms that she create a similar flag for the transgender community.
An idea for a design came to Helms quickly; “it was almost like waking up from a dream and seeing it,” she recollected later. She requested swatches from a flag and banner company, and about a week after giving them her color and design specifications, she had the first Transgender Pride Flag. Five stripes of equal width were arranged to be horizontally symmetrical, meaning that “no matter which way you fly it, it is always correct, signifying us finding correctness in our lives.” Two outer stripes were light blue to match the color traditionally associated with baby boys, and two more stripes were light pink, the color traditionally associated with baby girls. A white stripe in the middle represented “those who are intersex, transitioning, or consider themselves having a neutral or undefined gender.”
The Transgender Pride Flag made its public debut the next year when Helms flew it at the Phoenix Pride Parade. After that, she used it “everywhere and anywhere,” and before long, “People caught on and decided that they wanted one.” Just two years after it flew at that first parade, the flag flew in Harvey Milk Plaza in San Francisco’s famed Castro District, on the eve of that year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.
The flag’s ascendancy has made it not only a national symbol of transgender visibility but a global one as well. It has been seen as far and wide as the United Kingdom, Croatia, Honduras, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, Australia, Slovakia, Japan, and Peru — and a variation of it, with another transgender symbol superimposed over its stripes, recently flew in Turkey.
It should be no surprise, then, that the flag was on the radar of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., when it decided to curate artifacts of LGBTQ history, part of a broader mission “to document contemporary issues and cover the diversity of the American experience,” in the words of curator Katherine Ott. The Transgender Pride Flag was acquired along with numerous other artifacts, which Ott described on the Smithsonian’s blog O Say Can You See?:
Scripts and publicity material from the late 1990s NBC sit-com Will and Grace, that featured the friendship of two gay men; the personal objects of tennis player Renee Richards, who was first known as Richard Raskin; Pride-related photographs by Patsy Lynch and Silvia Ros … and the diplomatic passports of Ambassador David Huebner and his husband.
Helms, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, donated the original flag she made on August 19, 1999. The Smithsonian officially received the flag exactly 15 years after its creation, on August 19, 2014. “I’m totally amazed,” Helms commented on the donation. “I get to be someone who has created history and get to watch that history being saved. I think the trans community needs to be proud that we have something in the Smithsonian for them.”
In a speech she delivered at a donation ceremony, Helms proclaimed, “We have always been part of America’s history since the beginning, yet we have also been marginalized the entire time. Now, the Smithsonian and the American government are saying that our history is worthy of being displayed, along with that of our fellow Americans.”
In addition to the Transgender Pride Flag, Helms donated a button from the Transgender American Veterans Association, an organization she helped found, and a rubber wrist bracelet promoting TransParentDay.org.
At the time the donations were officially being accepted into the Smithsonian, museum director John Gray remarked, “The pursuit of civil rights in America is a story line woven throughout our history. It is a tale of struggle and accomplishment as the nation strives to fulfill its ideals. We believe that if we express the one story of America — inclusive, dynamic, and complex — the American public can be more responsible for and more engaged in our nation.”
The rights and visibility of transgender people are a cause that will long require the efforts of advocates, allies, and activists, but this year there are milestones to celebrate.