First Person - Monica Helms, transsexual Navy veteran

There were a lot of things that got in the way of me realizing what I was’

Editor’s note: First Person is a series of commentaries that give voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media.

After growing up a “typical boy,” marrying “the one” and fathering two children, Monica Helms finally acted on a lifelong desire to become a woman.

Sometime around the age of 4 or 5, I knew something was different about me. 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. I finally got to do it 41 years later, so I guess for God that’s like overnight delivery.

Several things slowed down my process of becoming a woman. I was the typical boy. I can honestly say that I was a tomboy in a boy’s body. I had loving parents and we always did things together, so I didn’t have time for a lot of introspective thinking. And I was the oldest child, so I didn’t have an older sister to emulate or to be jealous of. I was always attracted to women, so that was another part that didn’t clue me in. So there were a lot of things that got in the way of me realizing what I was.

I started cross-dressing in 1974, right smack-dab in the middle of my Navy career when I was based in Charleston. It was the deepest, darkest secret in my entire life. I would tell someone that I’d murdered someone before I’d tell someone I cross-dressed. It was scary, because I knew that if I got caught I would get kicked out. So all I did then was dress up at home. Then I got transferred to the Bay Area in 1976, and I had a little more accessibility to a community that was just ready to explode. Talk about stepping out of your boundaries into a whole new world! When I started cross-dressing and going to the gay clubs, I felt like I could be out in public as myself.

I got out of the Navy in 1978 and went to junior college, where I met my wife.  I just knew that she was “the one,” but I couldn’t ask her to marry me until I told her about my cross-dressing. So I told her, and I thought she understood. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t. Later on, she denied that I told her. When she caught me cross-dressing, she just went ballistic. We had two sons together.

It took me until 1987 to realize that not only was I a cross-dresser, but I was transsexual. When I told my parents that I wanted to transition, my mother looked at me and said, “I only wish you were just gay.” My father had diabetes and Alzheimer’s and he wasn’t in that great of shape. My mother insisted that I not see him ever again. So I lived five miles from the house that I grew up in and I couldn’t even go in the house. I’d drive by and I’d see my father out in the yard and my mother outside.

I didn’t start transitioning until 1992, when I started taking hormones. I started living full time as a woman in 1997. My wife and I separated and then got a legal divorce the next year. I moved from Arizona to Atlanta in 2000. I quickly got involved in activism and became the executive director of Trans=Action, Georgia’s trans advocacy organization, and became a member of the Pride Parade’s color guard. In 2003, I co-founded the Transgender American Veterans Association and later became the first transgender person from Georgia to be a delegate for the Democratic National Convention.

In 2004, my father was dying. I was waiting in an airport to take a flight out there and I got a call from my son saying that my father had just died. So I never got to look into his eyes and tell him that I loved him to his face.

My mother and I now have been much better. The relationship with my sons has been rocky and then good, then rocky and then good. When my oldest son joined the Marines and got out of boot camp, our relationship was a lot better because I was in the military, so that brought us closer together. My youngest son and I have always had some problems, but I think it’s a little better now. He’s the father of my only grandchild. 

Both of my sons are married to Hispanic women, which I find very cool. My wife and I were very good about accepting diversity, at least diversity in race. My wife wasn’t so good about diversity in gender identity issues. My sons had friends of all different races throughout the course of their lives, and that is one of the things that I’m very proud of.

There’s a lot of humor in this life — a heck of a lot of it that people don’t seem to understand. Last year I was in California for my oldest son’s wedding, so you can imagine what that was like. “Um, this is my dad, Monica.” We’ve got CNN on our television at work and stories about people like Chaz Bono might come up, and there’s all sorts of discussion — and they turn to me and ask me questions about this stuff. I find it interesting that I can help educate my co-workers. They treat me with respect.

There are quite a few misconceptions about transsexual people. A lot of people think that a person who wants to dress up as a woman is gay. That’s a big misconception. Gender identity has nothing to do with your sexual orientation. There are transsexuals who are homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual and asexual. There are drag queens who are not gay.

There is blatant discrimination against transgender people, especially in Georgia. Employers will tell you, “We’re not going to hire you, because you’re a freak.” And they can get away with it. The state of Georgia doesn’t care. That’s why we need a national law.

It’s been over 12 years that I’ve been living as Monica. When I finally accepted and believed that I was a woman, I became a lot more confident in myself, and it made a big difference in a lot of other things that I do. You just reach a point where you can live your life like you would want to, no matter what.