She had no choice because she grew up in rural Florida which, along with Texas, are the two states where pretty much every bad thing in America happens. In the land of Stand Your Ground, she grew up Christopher Beck. Her family was highly conservative and she attended a Christian school under the watchful supervision of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. She joined the Navy Seals at 24 and embarked on a distinguished career that lasted 20+ years.
She’s a soldier. A highly disciplined soldier. In the most surface way, it’s difficult to imagine upon first meeting her: the fur she’s wearing, the makeup, the self-tanner that makes her vaguely orange and the new breasts she’s growing. She’s... well, very much a she. But she’s still becoming accustomed to her new physicality as a female, and after a minute or two you can see glimpses of the person she pretended to be for so long. The hormone therapy is making her a little tired. She’s never done a photo shoot and had to pose or look sexy. Maybe in a mirror privately, but certainly not like this. The cracks begin to surface, and you start to see the palimpsest; it’s like an old billboard that’s been whitewashed over but you can still see the writing underneath. And you realize, oh right, she’s kind of new at this.
“I look like one of those chicks we used to see in the Philippines,” she says as she hikes up a skirt. Someone makes a comment about sailors on leave, and the photographer says “Sailors? weren’t you a Seal?” Kristin replies, “Yeah, that’s the Navy.” The photographer shakes his head and says, “Oh my god, of course. Sailors. I’m so stupid.” And Kristin, still dressing, laughs and says, “Yeah, well, someone has to be.” We find an empty room and sit next to each other on swivel chairs in front of a large vanity. When she sits she still kind of splays her legs open. She doesn’t try to make her voice high and feminine—it’s a raspy mumble, somewhere between Nicolas Cage and Brody from Homeland. There’s surprisingly little affect there, and little to no camp. The trappings of Chris remain, and maybe they always will. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Or perhaps Beck is unwilling—or simply uninterested—in overcompensating for the female years that she lost.
I ask Kristin about any aspects of her old life she misses and she says, “The thing I miss most would be camaraderie. Last weekend we had our one-year Seal team reunion when everyone gathers from all around the world and we hang out and reminisce, tell stories, drink a few beers. Just seeing those guys brings back so many memories. One of the old timers, a very well-respected guy, walks right into the circle and looks right at me and says, ‘I don’t know if I should shake your hand or give you a kiss.’ He was like, ‘I’ve known Kris for 20 years and that sister is my brother.” And I took that as the greatest compliment. I’m never going to lose that brotherhood I had.”
Beck seems a little scattered. The attention she’s received since coming out as a woman eight months ago has come in a deluge and she’s still trying to find her footing. It’s been a non-stop media show: interviews, speeches, Anderson Cooper, Rolling Stone. She wants badly to make a difference; transgender men and women are still not allowed to serve openly in the military. She also wants to capitalize on her fame, as any human would, but you can tell she feels a little sheepish doing so. She asks for an honorarium for doing the photo shoot then quickly rescinds that demand. Her book, Warrior Princess, came out within months of her own coming out. Some reviewed it as being heartfelt but rushed and sloppy—Beck sees the whole situation as a learning experience. She mentions intentions to run for Congress in Florida but a few days later, on her Facebook page, says she has no intention of getting into politics because of the “haters.” She comes out with a fairly damning statement against the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning (again, on Facebook) and runs into a shitstorm of criticism for badmouthing a fellow transgender. The next day she issues a mea culpa and a more measured statement.
I ask her what she thinks about Manning (on the day his 35-year sentence is handed down) and she hesitates and asks, “You’re still recording?” I reply in the affirmative and she continues: “No, it’s fine...It’s upsetting to me. [Being transgender] doesn’t give you an excuse to behave badly. It doesn’t give you an excuse to be a jerk. It doesn’t give you an excuse to be a traitor. It doesn’t give you an excuse to do something you know is wrong.” Beck is referring to the tactic of using gender identity as a legal defense. It’s clear she’s pissed off. There’s some color appearing under the bronze on her cheeks and she sits up and leans forward. “He had clearances, he had access to things he said he would protect...He’s a thief. I think he’s a traitor. We’re at war right now...he didn’t have all the information. Do you think anyone in the military has all the information? It blows my mind that somebody had such a huge, huge ego. That they would think they could make all the decisions on their own and release all that information.”
Her problem with Manning is not personal; it’s professional. The soldier in Kristin is livid. Her anger is from one soldier (who was in the military for twenty years) to another (who was in it for two). She has a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and this little twerp comes along and leaks classified information? And a Private to boot? (Beck ended her career with an E-8 enlisted rate, the highest being E-9. Manning was E-1.) This betrayal and breaking of rank is infuriating and heartbreaking to a woman who dutifully toed the line for so long.
She remains an ardent defender of her former employer. Beck has no problem reconciling her philosophy of peace and tolerance (“we are all one” is something she says frequently) with having been a career soldier. “The military is an extension of the government. The military is the last resort…[war] means that two governments are at a point where nothing else is working and the military has to go. We don’t want to go to war in some other country. Why would I want to go over there and do something to another country? I want to stay home and farm and be with my family, make a good living and be secure and have food on the table...we’re living in holes and eating one meal a day...why would you want to do that? Anyone that’s ever been in the military, that’s ever fought in a war, or that’s been in that kind of situation, we’re the ones that are the most peaceful. Because we know what it’s like. True warriors...they are the best politician you can have. Because that guy is going to make sure he does everything he can to make sure we don’t go to war.”
I find the whole soldiers-are-non-violent argument a little dubious, and I think she can see that, but she, in the kindest and most nonjudgmental way, doesn’t give a shit. She’s very confident in that respect. By the same token, Kristin also very plainly and humbly lists her shortcomings. She says she’s gaining the emotional intelligence that she lacked for so long as a male and that “it’s humanizing me, it’s making me a more well-rounded person.” She looks to the ground when talk turns to her two children (she’s been married twice) and responds to my questions about her kids in a quiet voice, as if she were talking to herself. “I haven’t seen them in a little while…I want to get up there sometime maybe for Thanksgiving or something to see the boys… It’s been a whirlwind of me trying to work and I have a non-profit that I’m working on so my plate is a little too full.” She looks up at me and sort of sighs; I don’t ask anything else about her family.
Kristin’s underlying message is simple enough to make you wonder how something like gender can actually be open to debate: “It’s that transgender Americans are stand-up citizens of this country and we have done our duty and are good people. And it’s setting an example for everyone who doesn’t know that.” And with that we stand up, she looks at me directly in the eye and shakes my hand—a good, firm handshake.
She says, “Oh, do you want a picture?” and digs through her bag to produce this slightly cheesy and disarmingly sweet 8x10 glossy that reads “WARRIOR PRINCESS” with two side-by-side photos, one of Christopher the soldier in full gear and the other of Kristin in full makeup. And it’s very clear that they’re one and the same. Because while you can take the boy out of the military…the boy out of the girl?…wait. Okay, got it: while you can take the boy out of the military, you can’t take the soldier out of the girl.
Photographer: Jeff Olson at Olsonfoto.com. Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga at jimiurquiaga.com. Hair: Miho Suzuki at mihomakeup.com. Makeup: Billy B at Billybbeauty.com. Styling Assistant: Beau Reed. Location: Mack Sennett Studios at macksennettstudios.net.
Beauty Notes: Liquid Halo HD Foundation Broad Spectrum SPF 15 in Golden Beige by Smashbox Cosmetics, Bronzing Pressed Powder in Dune Bronze by Laura Mercier, and Mineralize Eye Shadow in Blue Flame and Sheen Supreme Lipstick in Blossom Culture by M.A.C Cosmetics. Mousse Bouffante by Kérastase Paris.