Kristin Beck served for over 20 years as a member of the elite special forces Navy SEALs on SEAL Team One as well as the United States Special Warfare Development Group—what many in the public refer to as SEAL Team Six. She retired in 2011 with the rank of Senior Chief and continued high-level clearance work for the United States government and the Pentagon. But Kristin hid her true identity throughout and after her service, knowing she would lose it all if anyone were to know her secret.
In 2013, a year and a half after retirement, Kristin came out publicly as a transgender woman. Her story was first told in a CNN Anderson Cooper 360° exclusive. It is now featured in a new documentary directed by Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog, distributed by CNN Films, titled Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story. The film is screening as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Diplomatic Courier spoke with Kristin about Lady Valor and her journey.
Diplomatic Courier: You fought for 20 years for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Have you found happiness, and do you think Americans who criticize you appreciate what these freedoms mean?
Kristin Beck: I understand that happiness is fleeting. It’s one of those things you think you can have, but sometimes it can be elusive—like grasping for that golden ring. As for being generally happy, though, I am. I’ve had a girlfriend now for over a year. I have a dog, food on the table, and security. So in that sense I am very happy. As far as life fulfillment and making an impact go—I’m almost talking about the spiritual things, and about finding equality—it is still a struggle. Some people don’t really understand what I fought for, and still fight for. They don’t understand true equality and how to treat each other with dignity and respect. There are still a lot of people who misunderstand what my journey is all about. I’m still struggling with that, trying to make people understand this is about more than just make-up and putting on a dress. It’s about more than gender. It’s about equality and who we are as human beings—about being truly equal as we are. And that’s the biggest part of the message because we don’t treat each other as equal. We separate each other based on race, on color, and on gender. We separate based on religion, and we even separate based on different countries. We have borders and separations between every little aspect of life—and these borders need to go away.
DC: When you came out in 2013, you said reaction from your fellow SEALs was mixed, about fifty-fifty. Has that changed at all since then?
KB: Yes, quite a bit. I’d say it’s probably more like 90 percent acceptance right now. I was just at a large event and met up with about a hundred SEALs from different teams. Pretty much everybody was saying “Hey, welcome back brother!” And they were showing huge respect. They’re beginning to understand me as they start to figure out what I’m doing—that what I’m doing is about America and what we fight for: freedom and equality and liberty. They’re beginning to understand what my fight is really about, and they have a huge respect for that. Some of them are still a little confused, but they accept it and they respect my journey and my fight for Civil Rights.
DC: At this point in your life’s journey, what would you say to people who don’t understand you?
KB: I’d say, “It’s okay to not understand me or what I am doing, just try to have an open mind and try to recognize that deep down inside all of us really are the same.” I would say, “Just look past all of this, all of these coverings, and try to see who that person really is down to their soul.” We can try to do this with everybody. There are so many things we fight about that we shouldn’t be fighting about because in the end it really doesn’t mean anything.
DC: People talk a lot about your transition to a woman but not a whole lot about your transition to civilian life after 13 deployments, many of them in combat. Has it been difficult for you to adjust on that front?
KB: Yeah, going from the military (for pretty much my whole adult life) to being a civilian, and dealing with everything I’ve been through, especially all the combat. The war and the fighting was very, very ugly, and a very difficult thing to do. I’m still subject to that, and it might take me the rest of my life to deal with my military life and come to peace with myself. So that’s definitely been difficult.
DC: You’re now planning a whole new kind of campaign—to run for Congress in 2016. Do you think Americans are ready for a transgender woman in Congress?
KB: No, not at all. But I think that’s one of the things that can help make it happen—to see somebody step up and show that we are equal, we are capable. I’m professional about it, and also a lot of my colleagues are professional about it. So I could go to Congress or to the Pentagon right now and meet with my colleagues and it’s okay. They are very professional about my gender and me as a person and want to deal with me because I’m also professional and an asset to the team, and I think that will continue. I think most people will understand. I’m hoping they’ll understand and open their minds and their hearts.
DC: What are your thoughts on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival?
KB: Human Rights Watch is an amazing organization and I definitely appreciate them and what they’re doing around the world. I support them fully and always will. The film Lady Valor was made for that purpose—to open peoples’ minds, to let them see who we are. There is a very high suicide rate amongst LGBT youth. Many of them are bullied and confused. Hopefully, this film can help to get rid of some of the ignorance and some of the bullying that goes on. Hopefully, we can help some of these kids to not kill themselves over something that isn’t quite as drastic as they think it is. And maybe this film can help us all grow and live beautiful lives together, male and female, black and white, Christian and Muslim—grow together as part of the human race. That was the biggest reason behind making this film.
DC: What is your favorite scene from the film?
KB: My favorite scene was when I was in my RV. One of my legs is pretty bad and it’s hard for me to take off my boot. My father helps me take off my boot, and he’s kind of laughing. He looks up at the camera with that laugh and a smile, as father to daughter. It’s the smile of a parent’s love for their kid. I just wanted to stop it on that frame. It brings a tear to my eye knowing that my dad has grown that far—from total misunderstanding and confusion about the whole thing, to that smile, to him just saying, okay, well if you’re my daughter now, I’ll still love you. That smile said it all. That’s my favorite scene out of the whole movie.
DC: In the film your father refers to you as “she” for the first time.
KB: Yeah, it was an hour later, after that scene with the smile, when we sat down for dinner together. It was a breakthrough that he came to on his own time. You can’t force people to respect you; it must be earned by your actions. Sometimes you have to be patient and let them mature on their own schedule.
DC: How is your dog Bo doing?
KB: He’s good. He’s a crazy little dog and I miss him. There was a gentleman with cancer who was friends with us, and we weren’t too sure how long he was going to live. His son really loved my dog Bo. The dad wanted to have Bo for his son so that when he passed away his son would still have a connection. So I ended up giving Bo to rescue another family. And now I have another rescue dog—I’m always rescuing something.