While gays and lesbians celebrated the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell two years ago, freedom of personal expression in the military still has its limits: Transgender men and women still can't serve in the ranks.
That might change after America gets to know Kristin Beck.
For 20 years, Beck served as an enlisted petty officer in the elite Navy Seals, amassing seven warzone deployments, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart -- as well as a tour in Seal Team Six, the secretive unit that went on to kill Osama bin Laden. Born and raised as Chris Beck, she was a man's man -- a football player, avid motorcyclist, and war hero.
But Beck never felt entirely comfortable as a man. Shortly after retiring from the service in early 2011, she began to transition -- "working toward my own peace as a woman," as she recently put it on Twitter. It's a story she's telling publicly for the first time in a new memoir, "Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender." As another former SEAL who knows Beck said on his own blog: "While Chris was always a little different I had no idea what was lying under the surface, as I'm sure a lot of people will have the same experience."
On one hand, maybe Kristin's revelation is not all that remarkable. After all, plenty of hardened vets get out of the service and let their hair down, whether literally or figuratively. On the other hand, her experience could leave many Americans asking: Why *doesn't* the military permit transgender folks to serve openly?
The truth is that the armed forces like neat, easy categories -- it's naturally hard to get millions of uniformed service members organized for battle, or anything else -- and so commanders don't deal well with individuals whose answer to "sex" on a checkbox form reads like a Facebook relationship-status update: "It's complicated." Then there are the ethical and personal hang-ups of critics who think anyone outside of typical gender norms is mentally ill or morally depraved. As The Atlantic put it last year, when discussing the status of transgenders, "[M]any military members are afraid of what they don't understand."
Beck is hoping her story will help break down some of the suspicions and misconceptions surrounding transgender people; she's active on Twitter, and sounds like a typical "operator," as the military's elite troops are called -- criticizing warzone soldiers who stay off the battlefield and frequent on-base Burger Kings and movie theaters. And she arguably had it harder than her all-male colleagues in the Seals, waiting until after retirement to come out and transition, even though she states she had feelings of unease with her male identity since she "was a little boy." Imagine trying to keep those feelings inside while working for two decades in a community of warriors whose unofficial motto is "The only easy day was yesterday."
Clearly, she's not alone in her desire to serve her country and still be her own person. A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce estimated that 20 percent of all transgender Americans serve in the military -- a rate that's double that of the "traditional" U.S. population at large. And just last week, the Navy agreed to change another transgender veteran's sex on her permanent records -- an unprecedented move.
"They're acknowledging that transgender people exist and not completely off their rockers," vet, Autumn Sandeen, told local reporters.
Between her experience and Beck's, it may simply be a matter of time until the armed forces remove this barrier to service.
"I feel like we should be able to serve openly because we are physically able to serve openly," Sandeen said. "It's not a disorder."
(h/t Business Insider)