Last night, during my exciting deployment-evening-routine of skimming the tube for offerings, I came across the last few seconds of a documentary called Lady Valor. I found myself so immediately invested that I was scrambling for the remote to see if it would be on again. It was, so I sat down and watched as it started over.
Lady Valor profiles a highly accomplished, very decorated (Purple Heart, Bronze Star) Navy SEAL named Christopher Beck who, after a twenty-year military career that was even more intense than most, transitioned into life as a woman: pulling friends and family aside one by one to tell them of his decision, changing his name to Kristin, starting life completely over.
The story sounds sensational, but its portrait of Kristin Beck, by filmmakers Mark Herzog and Sandrine Orabona, is personal rather than political, quiet rather than flashy. It helps that Kristin Beck is hard not to like. She’s self-deprecating, good-humored, forgiving. She is, if you can imagine this, a woman in exactly the way a woman who had been a man who was a Navy SEAL would be. She’s a little embarrassed at her lack of skill in the feminine arts; forget false lashes and fancy manicures, she just wishes she knew how to put on mascara. She lives more simply than many women would enjoy: with her dog, Bo, in a small, slightly messy RV, with a handmade bookshelf she’s rigged at the back, one small box for her underwear. (Ladies, I repeat: one small box, not much bigger than a shoe box, for all her underwear!) When she’s not dressed up, she really looks somewhere between a man and a woman, maybe a little awkward for either.
Kristin’s life wasn’t easy when she was Chris, and it isn’t easy now. While her father — who, during her childhood, was a fairly strict man, a football coach, a hunter — has accepted her decision in a quietly puzzled sort of way, and Kristin’s actually strengthened her relationship with her youngest sister, who before only knew Chris as a rough-and-tumble decade-older brother — she has lost contact with her mother, endured a divorce, and, most devastatingly, is estranged from her two sons, who are eleven and thirteen. My heart sank when I heard those ages: those are tough ages, needy and judgmental ages, and it seemed like probably the worst time for those two boys to endure their father’s gender change.
But Kristin explains that, as Chris, she was not a good father, never comfortable in her skin, never able to relax and enjoy her children. That’s partly why she was such a good SEAL: she volunteered for every deployment, choosing to, in the end, double the time she spent away from her sons. Perhaps the most moving part of the film for me was watching the old footage of Kristin when he was Chris, with his sons: on holidays, at birthday parties. I couldn’t help thinking about the woman who was taking the footage, his wife, and where all this left her. There’s one clip where someone else is videotaping the family while one of the young sons prepares to blow out candles on a birthday cake. Chris lights the candles; his wife, a sweet-looking, attractive blonde, flicks her gaze to him for a moment. There’s tension in her face. “When I was home,” Kristin recalls, “no one was having a good time. They were on edge all the time, tiptoeing around me…One year, I was gone 320 days out of 365.”
Like all good documentaries, this one is simply about people; more specifically, the people to whom Kristin Beck matters. It almost takes your breath away to see any one person refracted through the gaze of the circle closest to them, because it so rarely happens when someone is still alive. So when you see Kristin visiting her dad and siblings, –the way they talk about her, reminiscing fondly about the boy who tangled with his brothers and got straight A’s and excelled at sports, and then they reach around the table and take each other’s hands to say grace, and after the first “amen” they do this goofy, singsongy “A-mennnn” that you know they have probably done for decades — it just reminds you that everything that matters is in the details. The little world of a family is bigger than most any change that can be thrown at it. But family is also in the everyday, and it was the everyday moments with her sons that Kristin, as Chris, was unable to sit through — for any number of reasons, but most obviously because she never felt like herself. (“There was an edge to Chris,” one of her fellow SEALs recalls. Candid videos they shot in downtime often show Chris off by himself, scowling, as if suspicious of the joke.)
“There’s a lot of freedom I’m defending by doing this,” Kristin says, which is about as close as she gets to a mission statement. “In many ways this is braver than many of the other things I’ve done.” (She’s still a redneck, a hunter; she still conducts weapons training for soldiers and law enforcement. She’s not even remotely effete, and has retained some of the roughness of warrior culture: the filmmaker points to one of her souvenirs from Saddam’s palace, wrapped in a red-and-white checkered Ghutrah. “Where did you get that?” the filmmaker asks, meaning the cloth. “Oh,” Kristin says, a little mischievously, hastily rewrapping, “It’s just from an Iraqi who didn’t need it any more.”)
Kristin is still in the middle of her story, so there’s no easy, triumphant ending, and I’m not sure this little review or even the trailer can do the story much justice. I just know that while watching it, I felt fondly for Chris Beck, the quiet, well-liked, burdened, frighteningly fearless Navy SEAL — and then I felt fondly for Kristin Beck, too, the wandering, worn, thoughtful woman living in an RV and trying to start a plant nursery employed by fellow veterans. There was, is, a lot to admire in both of those people, who just happen to be (once I got my mind around it) the same person.
“There is just so much more to all of us than just one thing,” Kristin says at the close of the film. “All of those things I was — a man, a Navy SEAL — I was those things. They are all a part of me.”