09.04.14 9:45 AM ET
The Woman Stuck in a Navy SEAL's Body
“Hi, I’m Kristin Beck,” a tall woman with feathered brown hair in a dress accessorized with war medals announces to a room of transgender veterans who’ve seen combat from Vietnam to Desert Storm. “That’s about it.”
They laugh, because they all know the 48-year-old former Navy SEAL sitting in their midst.
In the year since highly decorated Navy man Christopher Beck came out as Kristin in a memoir titled Warrior Princess and then a primetime interview with Anderson Cooper, Beck has emerged as one of the most high-profile faces of transgender activism in the U.S. armed forces. On Thursday, Beck’s story will air in Lady Valor, a new CNN documentary.
Her transformation into high-heeled, lipstick-wearing Kristin was all the more startling to the public, her family, and military buddies because of Beck’s service in one of the military’s most elite, hardcore clubs: SEAL Team Six. (Training alone is self-described as “the most physically and mentally demanding military training in existence.”) For 20 years, Beck served 13 deployments, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, picking up a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart along the way, all while suppressing an inner gender struggle.
“Everything I did for 20 years as a SEAL was for freedom and equality,” Beck says in a phone call shortly after landing in New York on Tuesday to do a follow-up interview with Cooper. Now, after retiring from the military and transitioning to female, she’s continuing that fight on a new battlefield: Capitol Hill.
As apparent by the number of transitioned veterans at the annual Southern Comfort Conference meeting in the opening scene of Lady Valor, the military employs an uncountable number of transgender service men and women. You just wouldn’t know it—despite the repeal of DOMA last year, which made it legal for gay and lesbians to enlist, it’s still not possible for a transgender person to serve legally in the U.S. military, yet an estimated 150,000 have served or are secretly currently serving.
Eighteen other countries have already legalized transgender military enlistment and Beck says she’s “100 percent” certain the U.S. will soon. “How about we start living what it said in the Bill of Rights and Constitution?” Beck asks, dictating the well-quoted pledge for equality. “Then America would be a great country, but we keep screwing up.”
Last week, a report (PDF) by a nonpartisan commission of the Palm Center outlined a way for the U.S. military to overturn this ban and adopt an inclusive policy. But right now, transgender service men and women are still hiding in the shadows, and to dire consequences. It’s been estimated that transgender citizens are twice as likely to enlist in the military, and 20 times more likely to exhibit suicidal behavior.
Discontent with life led to complete recklessness on the battlefield. Beck volunteered for extra deployments and ran straight toward fire without a thought. At that point, friends agree in the film, Beck was on the verge of suicide. She calls that alter ego “the angry bearded Viking.”
Even with a wife of nine years and two young sons waiting at home, Beck couldn’t wait to return abroad for new deployments. “I was looking at the life insurance for the boys and I just figured that maybe that was the best thing I could give them,” she says of the period.
Instead, Beck returned home and made a life-changing decision to bust out of the closet. Her coming out was stepping into a dress and walking into work at the Pentagon. “I don’t do anything halfway,” Beck laughs in the film.
Growing up in Wellsville, New York, Beck was the middle child in a gaggle of sisters and a brother. She was raised on a farm, went shooting with her father, and pleased the small town immensely by making it as a SEAL and raking in medals, starting with a deployment in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. “He was all boy,” her father says of Beck’s childhood.
But she clearly wasn’t. Beck recalls days where she’d fake being sick to be alone in the house to try on her sisters’ shoes and paint her nails. “It was like a reset…I could have my vacation away from Chris,” she says. “I don’t think anyone really knew me.”
One of the most touching evolutions of the movie is Beck’s father, who, just over the course of filming, came to accept his son as a daughter. At one point, her father corrects himself after referring to Beck as a “he.”
“‘She.’ Excuse me.”
“I think that’s the first time you ever said ‘she,’” Beck says excitedly. “Thanks, Dad.”
Beck’s mother, on the other hand, declined to partake in the film, but later, when she watched it, changed her mind. When it ended, she hugged Beck and said “Thank you.”
“It’s all about the mission for me, and the end result is just treat me as a human, dignity and respect,” Beck says in an interview. “I don’t want special treatment. I just want a chance. At least give me opportunity.”
Beck visibly struggles with her new identity in the film. She’s composed in formal interview scenes, clad in a purple dress, pearls, and a SEAL team pin. But at other points, trailed by cameras, it’s clear the wedge within her family and toll of the public spotlight are wearing on her—especially the disconnect with her two sons who don’t want to see her. “In some ways this is worse than what I did on a physical battlefield…it’s like that entire career didn’t mean anything,” Beck says in the film while sifting through her hate mail.
In full combat vest, Beck applies a fresh coat of lipstick and runs into the shooting range.
“I’ve known Chris for 20 years and that sister is my brother,” one military buddy of hers says the other SEALs have told him, observing Beck in her element and laughing at her heeled booties.
“I’m still the same person, that’s what they realize,” Beck says in an interview. But she’s also an improved version, a far cry from the sullen, bearded “Viking warrior” who took too many risks. “It’s hard to be a tough guy when you have a skirt on and high heels. I see myself as a better person because I like myself better.”
Beck has a tendency to compare her new life to a mission, and says she also treats it as such. Take the first time she ventured into a gay bar. “I had no backup,” she remembers in the film. “So there’s no Predator flying over, there’s no helicopters, no rescue team, there was nobody to help me, so I was 100 percent all alone and totally unprepared—that’s why it was worse than going into a mission in combat.”
It’s Beck’s background that made her story such a sensation but it also helps her to cope with the repercussions of sharing it with the world. She cites military tactics of isolating and compartmentalizing as a way to deal with the transition.
After the Anderson Cooper interview, Beck sold her posh house and moved into a small RV, traveling the country for speaking engagements and doing contractor projects for the Department of Defense. Since Lady Valor filmed, she’s moved in with a woman she’s been dating for six months on the outskirts of Washington D.C., so she can be ready to jump over to the Capitol whenever a meeting beckons. She wants, she says, to be “close to the people who make a difference.”
Before she sits back and takes stock of her life, Beck says she’s waiting for a sign from the younger generations that they’re willing to pick up the fight. Her generation screwed it up, she says, so she’s pinning her hope on millennials to correct past mistakes and she’s offering herself up as a tool to get the job done.
But she also laments that it ever had to be like this. “Every minute,” Beck replies, when asked if she wishes she wasn’t in the public eye. “Every minute of the day, every moment of the day I wish I wasn’t, but at the same time I have a mission to do.”
“If I didn’t do that I would not be a good American, and everything I did in the field fighting for liberty and justice, and fighting for people’s freedom, it doesn’t really mean anything,” she says. “Well, I want it to mean something.”