Coming Out

Kristin Beck, the SEALs’ Warrior Princess Who Came Out as Transgender

Anne Speckhard tells Lloyd Grove about the book she wrote with ex-SEAL Kristin Beck, formerly Chris.

Kristin Beck

Washington-area psychologist Anne Speckhard, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, was running late for her appointment with Chris Beck one night in early February when she arrived at Freddie’s in Crystal City, Va.

The 46-year-old Beck—a Pentagon consultant who’d been wounded repeatedly and much-decorated during 13 deployments to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL—had agreed to participate in her study of “resilience.” That is, how do soldiers draw upon coping mechanisms to integrate the stresses and exhilarations of combat with their workaday lives back home? A few days earlier Beck, a strapping 6-footer with a flat belly and broad, well-muscled shoulders, had impressed Speckhard with his commanding presence and charismatic speaking style during a Defense Department conference on irregular warfare.

“I didn’t realize Freddie’s was a gay bar, and I was late so I was looking around for him frantically among all these men,” Speckhard tells me. “Then I spotted a quite nice-looking woman at the bar—very elegant, not a drag-queen kind of thing. She wore a padded bra, and I would say nice clothes with good labels probably bought at a discount store, and a really good wig—brown hair.”

That was Speckhard’s first meeting with Kristin Beck—Chris Beck’s feminine and, as it turned out, authentic persona. During a five-hour conversation over crab cakes, wine, and mixed drinks, Beck persuaded the good doctor to help her—her, not him—write the story of her life. The result—after more than 100 hours of interviews that often resembled psychotherapy, and a solid month at Speckhard’s computer keyboard from 9 a.m. to midnight—is Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming Out Transgender.

It is, to state the obvious, an unusual autobiography, mixing hair-raising firefights against Taliban thugs with hair extensions, pantyhose, sundresses, and high heels. Speckhard recalls that when she and Kristin were toiling on the book in Tampa, Fla., where the former SEAL lives in a beautifully landscaped home she calls “Misfit Mansion,” they would occasionally be out on the town. “Whenever I would walk behind her and she was wearing a dress, I would think, ‘Those are great legs!’”

Since Warrior Princess was released digitally a few days ago by Advances Press, Speckard’s mom-and-pop publishing house that she runs from her home in McLean, Va., reporters, cable television bookers, and other sensation-seekers have been calling nonstop. The book, also out in hardcover, has been selling briskly. Apparently overwhelmed by all the hoopla and worried about the impact on her two teenage sons from the first of two failed marriages, Kristin has been notably press-shy. Clearly, this bungee-jump into the media circus is more terrifying to a warrior princess than dropping from a chopper into a hot LZ.

Written in third person, the memoir tells a riveting story that cries out for a movie star—Brad Pitt, are you listening?—to bring it to a studio and turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster. From the age of 5, Chris Beck knew something was out of whack—he was irresistibly drawn to his sisters’ feminine clothes and toys—but his socially conservative, dogmatically religious parents, farmers who sent him to a Christian school operated by Jerry Falwell, pushed him into traditionally masculine roles. Whenever Chris faltered, forgetting to feed the horses or slop the pigs, his hard-drinking yet pious father beat him without mercy.

Cut to a decade and half later, when Chris Beck found his calling as a member of an elite band of brothers who are trained to kill bad guys on behalf of American freedom. (That, anyway, is what they’re led to believe.) Beck developed deep bonds with the other young daredevils who joined him in facing death and proved himself to be a courageous, and much respected, fighter. All the while he suppressed an overpowering urge to live as a woman. Once in a while he couldn’t help donning feminine attire, as when one of his SEAL buddies, bringing beers for a night of partying, surprised Chris as he chilled out on a boat. “Nice dress,” the buddy said without batting an eye, and despite the initial awkwardness, the two men spent the night drinking and philosophizing, as though nothing were amiss.

Kristin stayed in the SEALs for 20 years and has the pain of shrapnel and broken bones to prove it, to say nothing of a lingering case of post traumatic stress disorder, for which she sees a social worker at Tampa’s Veterans Administration complex. “She was in a lot pain, not just physical pain, but emotional and psychic pain,” Speckhard says. “As a clinician, I recognized that if you tell somebody’s life story, you turn a lot of disjointed incidents into a flowing narrative. That’s a lot of the same things as what you do in therapy.”

Speckhard says Kristin, who has spent thousands of dollars to laser off what used to be a bushy beard and other body hair, has only recently begun a regimen of hormone therapy that is usually the prelude to radical surgery—the metamorphosis from male to female genitalia.

A mother of three and grandmother in her early 50s, and the wife of career diplomat Daniel Speckhard—who retired from the State Department in 2010 after three years in Athens as U.S. ambassador to Greece—Speckhard is steeped in military culture, having mixed with soldiers and brass ranging from Gen. David Petraeus (whom she met when her husband was deputy chief of mission in Iraq) to Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command. Her academic concentration is the psychology of terrorism—and she interviewed hundreds of practitioners for her previous book, Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & Martyrs.

But perhaps her most attention-getting accomplishment, at least until Warrior Princess, was serving on the successful defense team of Lorena Bobbitt. Speckhard’s expert testimony at the 1994 trial helped persuade the jury that Lorena was not guilty by reason of insanity in the severing of her husband John Bobbitt’s picnic appendage.

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“I had talked the defense into portraying her act under the ‘battered woman syndrome,’” Speckhard recalls. “That’s where there’s a weapon and the woman picks up the weapon that he has been using on her. In this case, the weapon was John Bobbitt's penis and he was using it on her all the time to rape her—and so she took it from him.”

Speckhard adds with a laugh, “I would like to write that book one of these days. But guys still cross their legs if I talk about it.”