[Note: After this story came out I was informed that the proper assignation for a Navy SEAL is “sailor,” not “soldier.” In a nod to respect and accuracy, that has now been reflected in the text of the article below, though I cannot change the title at this point. My apologies as a civilian. LDW]
Think you know what a real man is? A strong, macho, GI Joe kind of all-American m-a-n man? Certainly they are in all the places and professions you’d imagine – tinker, tailor, soldier, spy – but let’s look for a moment at the “soldier” assignation. Or, more accurately in this case, sailor. Nothing could be more macho than a military man and no military man could be more vaunted, respected or fitting of the stereotype of MAN than a special ops Navy SEAL. This story is about one such man: a 20-year veteran who was a member of the elite SEAL Team 6 (the same one that took out Osama bin Laden), who came out as transgender and began the transition in 2011 to evolve from male to female, from Chris Beck to, now, Kristen Beck.
While gender transition can be fraught with emotional and societal challenges for anyone in any field, for a Navy SEAL, one of the most entrenched categories of the male identity, the conflict of dealing with gender issues while bound by both military culture and policy were particularly excruciating. Though the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended official discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, it did not end the ban on transgender service members, which means transgender men or women are at risk of discharge if their status is discovered. For Beck, that meant hiding not only the external trappings of her femininity (panty hose were tucked way back in the drawer), but keeping any indication of her true gender from public view. And as a SEAL, that meant maintaining a look and performance that was in keeping with the “macho” man she was… and she did.
In her new memoir published just this week, Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender, Beck talks about the struggles of living with a dual gender, as well as the ultimate decision to retire and start facing the reality of who she was. It was shortly before her team took on the bin Laden mission in 2011 that Beck retired and began hormonal therapy as the initial step in her transition. From PolicyMic:
In what has been called “one of the smartest and most important books of the year,” the retired Navy SEAL explains that her journey hasn’t been painless. Kristin Beck, formerly known as Chris Beck, served her country for than 20 years but she was never able to share her secret with anyone within the military. She was deployed 13 times and fought in seven combat deployments being honored with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for her outstanding work.
Beck’s book tells the “journey of a girl in a man’s body and her road to self-actualization as a woman amidst the PTSD of war, family rejection and our society’s strict gender rules and perceptions. It is about a fight to be free inside one’s own body, a fight that requires the strength of a Warrior Princess.”
As befits the age of social media, Beck came out to many of her friends and colleagues by posting a picture of herself fully realized as a woman on LinkedIn, with her new name, Kristen Beck, and the simple note:
“I am now taking off all my disguises and letting the world know my true identity as a woman.”
It was a powerful and risky move, particularly since the former sailor had no idea how friends and SEAL teammates would deal with her stunning news, so there was both gratitude and surprise when she was greeted with a tremendous show of support and love after her announcement:
“Soon, the responses from SEALs stationed all around the world suddenly started pouring in: ‘Brother, I am with you … being a SEAL is hard, this looks harder. Peace’ * ‘I can’t say I understand the decision but I respect the courage. Peace and happiness be upon you…Jim’ * ‘ … I just wanted to drop you a note and tell you that Kris has all the support and respect from me that Chris had … and quite possibly more. While I’m definitely surprised, I’m also in amazement at the strength you possess and the courage necessary to combat the strangers and ‘friends’ that I’m guessing have reared their ugly heads prior to and since your announcement. …'”[Source]
Beck is currently promoting her book while working with the Secretary of Defense to develop technology used by active-duty soldiers. There are many who see her very public discussion of her journey as hopeful illumination of both the struggles of transgender personnel in the military, as well as the general challenge of dealing with the stigma, discrimination, and perverse curiosity expressed by a certain segment of society who finds any LGBT issue – even homosexuality – difficult to understand or embrace (see, for example, Top 10 Myths And Misunderstandings About Homosexuality And Why They’re Wrong). For those still in the military dealing with what’s left in the wake of DADT’s repeal, the hope is that Beck’s memoir will offer perspective and insight toward eradicating this remaining point of discrimination in the service.
For American culture at large, however, the hope is that a candid, heartfelt story about a very macho man who did his job with the exemplary standards of the military’s best and brightest, and who transitioned into a female who continues to work at that same standard of excellence, will shatter stereotypes about what gender means or doesn’t mean, emboldening the belief that we are who we are, what we are, beyond the shape and position of our body parts. Certainly Kristen Beck makes an excellent case for that.