SAN DIEGO, California – A former Navy SEAL who spent many years based in San Diego, and who came out as a transgender woman two years after retiring from the military in 2011, is the subject of a compelling documentary, “Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story.”
The CNN documentary has been playing the film festival circuit and will be shown Wednesday night, Aug. 20, at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas as part of FilmOut San Diego’s monthly screenings. The documentary will have its television premiere on CNN in September.
The film tells the story of Navy SEAL Christopher Beck, who served honorably for more than 20 years as a gung-ho member of SEAL Team 1 and SEAL Team 6, the latter a highly trained counterterrorism unit also known as the U.S. Special Warfare Development Group.
For many years, Beck felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body, and fought to understand those feelings and then to embrace them. She first came out on LinkedIn in 2013 as Kristin Beck and then on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” Her story went viral, and directors Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog began documenting her life and conducting interviews with her family and former SEAL brothers.
Beck’s brother was stunned by the coming out. “I had no clue … We’re brothers and I never saw a girl in him,” he says in the film.
And one of Beck’s SEAL team members says he is supportive. “I’m here for any team guy … or team girl,” he says.
Kristin Beck speaks with SDGLN
But all has not been peaches and cream for Beck, who spoke by cell phone late Monday with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News while on a road trip to San Francisco. Some anti-gay and anti-trans people have publicly criticized her, showing their ignorance and bigotry. The very patriotic Beck sees the sad irony in that some of the people she fought for during two decades of military service do not understand the basic guarantees of the Declaration of Independence.
“I have fought for 20 years for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and I want some happiness,” Beck says in the film.
During the telephone interview, Beck says it was a “tough decision” to come out and she admits that “I shot myself in the foot” during that difficult and challenging process. She made a few public-relations flubs that she sincerely regrets, such as not understanding the touchy issue of misgendering in the media. For that faux pas, Beck says she is a persona non grata in some quarters of the trans community.
“I’m happy,” Beck says. “But I wish I was better prepared when I came out.”
“How many out gay SEALS are there?” she asks. “Only two that I know about. Me and a guy who come out after I did and who told me my coming out gave him courage to come out, too.”
Showing her love for San Diego
Beck spent a majority of her SEAL career based in San Diego.
“San Diego … is my home,” she says. “I love it. I was based on Coronado Island. I lived in Imperial Beach. I love that place, and I hope one day to retire there. … Every time I see Coronado Bridge, my spirits are raised.”
In 2013, Beck was one of 16 veterans added to the Benjamin F. Dillingham and Bridget Wilson Veterans Wall of Honor during the annual ceremony at The Center in Hillcrest. That ceremony figures prominently in the movie, along with other scenes from San Diego.
Some things change, some things don’t
Since the documentary was filmed, some things have changed for the better for Beck. While her mother refused to be filmed for the documentary, she has since come around and is now supportive of her transgender daughter.
Some things haven’t changed. Beck still faces bigotry and prejudice … and sometimes within the LGBT community. “It’s appalling to me,” she says.
Beck advocates for trans rights anytime and anywhere.
“One trans person is murdered every week in the U.S.,” she says, her voice growing emotional and aggravated. “We need to bring awareness to these issues. We don’t deserve to be murdered! We don’t deserve to be fired from our jobs! We are humans just like everybody else. We should be treated equally!”
Being an ex-SEAL who is transgender has given Beck a media platform and she says she hopes to use the exposure to further the cause. “If I have all this media attention, then I’m going to use it.”
Like many other LGBT activists, Beck finds that Americans are very, very curious about gender issues. “People always wonder about gender,” she says. “We all cannot be football players, or Conan or Barbie. ... Most people live in the middle of the extremes and very few are either Conan or Barbie."
“I think people are slowly coming around. There are still a lot of misconceptions … that it’s a fetish … that’s it’s a costume … that it’s cross-dressing.”
Beck says the 30-and-younger crowd is amazing but that the 20-and-younger crowd “gets it!” Older Americans are the ones who are struggling to understand the issues about transgenderism.
How coming out as transgender has impacted Beck’s life
Coming out as a transgender ex-SEAL has cost Beck a few jobs but also opened up other avenues for employment and educational opportunities.
She still trains police SWAT teams, and as Kristin, not Chris. She says she gets “funny looks” from some SWAT members, until she starts shooting targets and they realize that she is damn good at what she does. She enjoys seeing the “dropped jaws” as the respect kicks in. “This allows me to expose them to the LGBT community and to transgender issues,” she says.
Beck is in demand as a speaker, too. She was lecturing at the FBI in Washington DC, a teaching session which was being broadcast to 10 FBI offices around the U.S., when she was confronted by a woman who came out of the audience and calmly approached her on the stage.
But then the woman pushed the microphone out of the way so the audience wouldn’t hear what she had to say, and she told Beck that “God doesn’t appreciate this” along with other transphobic nonsense. Beck pushed the mike back so the confused audience could figure out what was going on.
“I told her, ‘I love you anyway. God loves you too,” Beck recalls. “When I told her I love you, she got real wide-eyed and said ‘You are going to hell!' The audience became aware and a couple of guys in uniform approached her. She fled the auditorium, but was caught in the hallway of the FBI. They wanted to know if I wanted to press charges against her, but I declined. After all, she just killed her own career with the FBI. I’m sure she lost her job, lost everything, for being exposed.
“I don’t understand the dogma of hate! This is not God’s love.”
Beck says the FBI later told her that the training video had gotten 10,000 views in the first month, when a typical count would be 1,000. “It launched a huge internal debate within the FBI,” she says proudly.
Growing up with a religious family with longtime roots in the Lutheran Church, Beck at times sounds like a pastor with her passionate pleas for tolerance and acceptance. “I talk about what’s in my heart,” she says.
Transgender troops: The next frontier
Beck says she regularly talks with Pentagon officials about various issues, including transgender troops. She does not expect the military to embrace open service in the immediate future because of the troop drawdown resulting from the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She expects a transitional policy to come into place, a sort of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, and likely finds herself in a highly political position of not advocating for an immediate embrace of open service for transgender troops.
She recommends that transgender troops be allowed to freely talk to chaplains and psychologists within the military without fear of being drummed out of the armed forces. “We need to take away that DADT fear,” she says. “We don’t need to lose a lot of good soldiers – it’s male and it’s female.”
A problem with glam trans celebrities
Beck’s advocacy is genuine and passionate. She does, however, find herself somewhat at odds with some of the more glamorous members of the transgender community who have turned their natural beauty or plastic-surgery miracles into lucrative careers as trans celebrities.
“I feel a little disappointed,” Beck says of the trans celebrities. “I go on TV myself, but never for personal attention or the celebrity. I’m encouraging equality, dignity and respect for transgender people. Some of them are doing it for the publicity, celebrity and glamour things. … It’s disappointing that they are chosen to lead our parades when the true activists who are unsung heroes should be getting the recognition.”
Beck freely admits that she has had no surgery to look more like a woman. She is perfectly happy to be the trans woman that she is. And that pursuit of happiness is the noble principle that has guided her through her career as a Navy SEAL and now as a transgender activist.
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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN and GLBTNN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.
Watch the trailer