Lady Valor screening at Time Warner Center in New York, with CNN moderator Miguel Marquez and panelists: psychotherapist Ken Page, Senior Chief Petty Officer (ret.) Kristen Beck, psychiatrist Jack Drescher and Prodigal Sons filmmaker Kimberly Reed
Seals are remarkable creatures. Bewhiskered, toothy and chubby, as avuncular as they may appear, they are powerful predators, mammalian but able to function with precision and speed both above and below the surface of the seas. Their strengths and skills for hunting are only truly made manifest where land-lubbing eyes cannot apprehend them.
Senior Chief Petty Officer (Ret.) Kristin Beck, 47, served for two decades in our Navy as one of the elite SEALs (short for Sea, Air and Land Teams), in 13 deployments, over half of them combat missions, and by all accounts she did so honorably and with intelligent gusto. She worked as part of highly sensitive counterterrorism efforts and received, among many honors, both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
She also did so as Christopher T. Beck. Last year, following her retirement from the Navy in 2011, she came out publicly as a transgender woman. She announced her transition to the world with a mighty splash (forgive the pun), arising from the publication of Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender, co-written with Anne Speckhard, author, psychologist, and Georgetown University adjunct associate professor of psychiatry. Although the collaboration with Dr. Speckhard seems to have soured (Beck makes a careful disavowal of the work on her professional webpage, ladyvalor.com), she has found new bedfellows at CNN, which will air a powerful documentary about her life and transition on Thursday, Sept. 4 at 9 p.m. EDT.
What is now Lady Valor: The Kristen Beck Story was initially told by CNN on Anderson Cooper 360 and then commissioned by CNN Films and directed by Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog (who also executive produced CNN's Emmy-nominated, 10-part documentary series The Sixties) and is being screened to invited audiences at several locations across the country prior to its premiere as the opener of their second season of feature-length documentary subjects. I watched it last week sitting next to Ms. Beck on enveloping, burgundy Barcaloungers at the back of a screening room at the Time Warner offices on Columbus Circle as part of an event co-sponsored with Psychology Today magazine, which organized a Q-and-A panel following the film.
Ms. Beck is golden-skinned, athletic and attractively relaxed, with a disarming and polite intensity, a self-effacing military drawl and a sort-of-Beavis-and-Butthead, sort-of-naughty "heh-heh-heh" laugh. She looks like the sort of woman one might admire as she smashes a tennis ball without mercy over her opponent's side of the net at the U.S. Open and then crowed in victory with infectious delight. She was wearing a smart version of a classic Manhattan little black dress with several of her military medals pinned at her left clavicle.
We were able to talk for a little while before the screening started, and Ms. Beck spoke with passion about what she referred to as her "mission" for the film: to encourage the military toward incremental analysis and eventual acceptance of an armed forces with openly serving transgender personnel. Conveniently enough, this week the Palm Center, a think tank on sexual minorities in the military that's housed at San Francisco State University's Department of Political Science, announced publication of a feasibility report on this subject with a press release trumpeting the opinion of "[t]hree retired US military general officers, including the former chief medical officer of the US Army" that integration could proceed in a "straightforward manner that is consistent with military readiness and core values."
Although CNN is a news organization taking the documentary as part of a coordinated effort to impact national military rules and regulations, the narrative presented in Lady Valor will likely be seen by both its staunchest supporters and its most rabid opponents as an enormously adept piece of agitprop in the "hero's journey," back-from-the-Trojan-Wars mold. The non-advocating audience will likely be moved by the portrayal of Ms. Beck's challenges and perseverance as she seeks to distance herself from the brutal internal and external policy of containment she practiced as part of the "war on terror" and her attempts to suppress her own gender identity.
The most affecting scenes are ones that show Ms. Beck and her family and closest friends interacting (skillfully shooting skeet with her pained older brother and her querulous yet proud father, delivering her "special spaghetti" to the dinner table, hanging out with other retired military colleagues and friends over beers), especially as they attempt to grapple with the meaning of this change in someone they've known seemingly so intimately for so long, who is now presenting herself to them in a different gender.
Kristen Beck (credit: Jesse McClung, Herzog & Co. for CNN)
The most chilling scenes are of two kinds.
First, those scenes (largely personal footage that Ms. Beck provided to the filmmakers) from her time in active duty where one bears witness to a sensitive young man's pilgrim's progress into the calloused priesthood of state-directed killing, and those where she handles memento mori of various campaigns, like an Iraqi soldier's helmet pressed into duty as a flowerpot, or a red-and-white keffiyeh headscarf that the original wearer "didn't need anymore."
The second set of scenes depicts an isolated, remorseful and psychologically scarred Ms. Beck on the road in a small RV between speaking gigs with her dog Bo, lamenting her estrangement from her two adolescent sons from a previous marriage and hoping for a future with a more integrated sense of self and more domestic commitment and happiness, one that her advocacy for transgender people in the military seems to stand for as expiation.
All these scenes foster a strongly visceral sense of sympathy for Ms. Beck's struggles and wounds, and well as for her profound strength, discipline and humanity, which she shares with thousands upon thousands of military and non-military gender-nonconforming individuals, as well as thousands upon thousands of trans and non-trans veterans traumatized by their service to their country.
In the Q-and-A following the screening, Ms. Beck stated that "we need a fundamental change in compassion in this country." And so we do. As long as oppressive violence to body, mind, spirit and community is called into service to protect dominating and cherished cultural values, we will all share the responsibility for and risks of that violence as it acts upon ourselves, our loved ones and our world.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, Kristin Beck was referred to as Chief Officer. Beck's title is Senior Chief Petty Officer (ret.).