If the words "transgender Navy SEAL" sound as plausible to you as "candy rainbow" or "microscopic elephant," you're in for a shock.
Meet Kristin Beck. A comely brunette with hair just below her shoulders and a warm smile, Beck is the author of a book about her 20 years as a member of the elite Navy SEAL squad. During her time as a Navy SEAL, Beck's resume grew to include seven warzone deployments, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a tour in SEAL Team Six -- the unit that later went on to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Of course, the Navy SEALs don't enlist women. But Kristin Beck wasn't a woman at the time -- at least not in the eyes of her fellow SEALs, who knew her as Chris Beck.
Beck is a transgender woman. Born anatomically male, she has struggled for most of her life to reconcile her physical sex with her internal identity as a female. In a new memoir, Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming out Transgender, Beck explains how her lifelong discomfort with living as a man led to her transition after her retirement from the service in 2011.
"While Chris was a little different, I had no idea what was lying under the surface," recalled another former SEAL who knew Beck, "as I'm sure a lot of people will have the same experience."
Kristin Beck isn't the only transgender soldier out there. A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce estimated that 20 percent of all transgender Americans serve in the military -- double the portion of the U.S. population at large. But Beck is the first to write a memoir about her experience transitioning to female after serving as a Navy SEAL.
Now the transgender Navy SEAL is hoping her story will help to break down some of the misconceptions and suspicious attitudes surrounding transgender people. Beck is a decorated "operator," as elite military troops are called, and she has all the experience and perspective of a 20-year veteran. On her Twitter, Beck's military grit is on full display as she criticizes warzone soldiers who neglect the battlefield to laze about the fast food outlets on base. And it must have taken a lot of grit to serve for so long as a SEAL while concealing her innate unease with her male identity.
"For Chris and the other SEALs were brothers," said Anne Speckhard, who helped Beck pen Warrior Princess. "And in the man's man warrior lifestyle, even if he had wanted to entertain sexual thoughts, there really was never any time to be thinking too much about sexuality."
While gays and lesbians have made forward strides in the military with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, transgender men and women are still barred from serving. Beck's memoir aims to challenge the status quo, urging Americans to ask why the military doesn't allow these able-bodied citizens to serve openly.
And progress may be on the horizon. Just last week, the Navy agreed to change a transgender veteran's sex on her permanent records -- an unprecedented move.
"I feel like we should be able to serve openly because we are physically able to serve openly," says veteran Autumn Sandeen. "It's not a disorder."