If you are local to the D.C. area, you may have recently read an article in the Washington Post about Kristen Beck. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this name, Kristen Beck is the first transgender Navy Seal to share her story via film. Previously known as Christopher, completing 13 deployments and earning commendations, including a Bronze Star, as well as a Purple Heart, Christopher was a force to be reckoned with. This powerful documentary describes her life as Christopher and how she came to be known as Kristen.
As the film opens, we are placed at a Southern Comfort meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The room is filled with women, professionally dressed, in an informal setting, perhaps someone’s home. As we look around the room, a number of Veterans stand individually to introduce themselves. This is a scene we are all familiar with as Veterans stand to state their name, their branch of service, the number of deployments and perhaps medals that were earned in combat. As the women introduce themselves, they stand with clear military bearing and the room is quiet as each one takes her turn. Finally, Kristen introduces herself and we begin to grasp an inkling of what she has endured.
Anderson Cooper, formally announces the purpose of this documentary, Lady Valor. Although many elements bear resemblance to other films on Veteran, this one stands apart as we learn of Kristen’s transition. I am struck by scenes of Kristen traveling in her RV, accompanied by her faithful dog, driving miles of highway. This seems to be an appropriate metaphor, as she travels alone, helping others along the way. Clips of news coverage, headlines, deployments and current footage of Kristen combine to paint a picture of her new battle to be a woman treated with respect.
As the film goes on, we come to know who Kristen was before, seemingly in a previous life, as Christopher. Christopher was a straight A student with an exceptional work ethic from a small town in New York. He grew up with several siblings and seemed to always be aware of a desire to dress differently, but was also keenly aware that such desires should be kept private, at least for the time being.
Life in the Military
After high school, Christopher joined the military and went on to become a Navy Seal. As you may already know, only one-third of those who attempt it, actually complete the 25-week Seal training. While in uniform, Christopher served with two elite units and served a leadership role within the Navy Seals. We see photos and footage of him during this time, and admittedly the description “angry, bearded Viking” seems appropriate. We also learn that between deployments, Christopher married and had children.
We learn more about life in her family of origin. Through the film, we meet Kristen’s father and siblings. As we watch this family, whether at a family dinner or at the shooting range, it is clear that family is family. Mr. Beck describes young Christopher as being “all boy” and very active in traditionally masculine activities. This is common among transgender women, often excelling in particularly masculine activities as they contemplate their gender. Kristen’s brother tells stories typical of a sibling rivalry between brothers. Despite their unfamiliarity with the issues of being transgender, the family moves forward together.
As the documentary moves on, we learn of the extended family that is a small town. We meet childhood friends who can hardly contain the pride they feel towards their long-time friend. We wander through the small town, where everyone seems to be aware of Kristen’s past and the affection is nearly palpable. We also see friends and family caution Kristen to find a balance between her own needs and her efforts to help others. It seems that she has a long-standing habit of courageous self-sacrifice. Kristen is clearly a role model for other transgender women, regardless of whether she set out to be.
Life as a veteran
In the film, it is clear that Kristen’s commitment to service has not waned. We see her involvement with other Veterans, including a number of long-time friends. The filmmaker spends time having frank discussions with these friends and we learn of their reactions when Christopher revealed his plans to transition to being Kristen. Several reveal their concerns and the complexities of supporting a friend through this unchartered territory. A few even voice the potential political implications of their public support of her journey.
In short, this documentary serves to give viewers the opportunity to know more about Kristen Beck. It gives a sense of her accomplishments, her struggles and her efforts to find her way through this journey. I recommend this film and encourage others to view and discuss it with friends, remembering to treat everyone with compassion and respect.
Kristen Beck has served her country well through commitment, courage and self-sacrifice. I admire her willingness to share her story with others with hopes to increase understanding and acceptance. I hope that people will greet her and all transgender veterans with compassion, dignity and respect.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality there are over 134,000 American transgender Veterans and over 15,000 trans people who are currently serving in the U.S. military. These numbers are not surprising given what we know about trans people and their chosen occupations. In short, a number of transgender people use their occupations to project, portray, construct or affirm a (gender) identity (Kivel & Kleiber, 2000). Additionally, many are in various stages of transition and will choose gendered occupations (e.g., mechanic, law enforcement) long before consideration of gender reassignment surgery. For clinicians wanting to know more about work with transgender clients, please consider the Handbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Clients.
Resources for Transgender Service members and Veterans
Transgender American Veterans Association
The Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) was formed to address the growing concerns of fair and equal treatment of Transgender Military Veterans and Active Duty service members. TAVA serves as an educational organization that has helped the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense to better understand the Service members in their charge that identify as gender-variant.
National Center for Transgender Equality
The National Center for Transgender Equality NCTE was founded in 2003 by transgender activists who recognized the urgent need for policy change to advance transgender equality. The NCTE is a transgender advocacy presence which advocates for Service members and military Veterans among other issues of concern.
Where to find: Lady Valor is available for rental via Netflix or Amazon prime. Also available for purchase at Amazon.com
Holly N. O’Reilly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Lead on Traumatic Stress and Sexual Assault at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. O’Reilly earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a minor in Women’s Studies from Northern Illinois University. While completing her dissertation on posttraumatic stress disorder, she served as a project manager at the National Center for PTSD, Women’s Health Sciences Division. Dr. O’Reilly completed her trauma track residency at the Charleston Consortium and completed rotations at the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. She also was a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Traumatic Stress.