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CNN documentary examines journey of transgender Navy Seal from Wellsville

Images can be deceiving.

I’ve never been to Wellsville, but as is the case with many small, rural towns, I know it has a stereotypical image as a flag-waving, backwater small town with Repeal the Save Act signs on lawns and most likely residents with conservative, family values.

Fairly or unfairly, I also would bet many Western New Yorkers think of the Southern Tier town having residents that might not be the most enlightened in the world and who might have a little trouble dealing with people who are unusual or different.

I’ve also never met a Navy SEAL, but they have a stereotypical image as macho, flag-waving, brave patriots who would be the last candidates for becoming a transgendered person.

The stereotypical images about Wellsville and Navy SEALs are put to rest in a fascinating CNN documentary, “Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story,” that premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday and is repeated at 11 p.m.

Readers might have the image of a very serious film – which has played at several film festivals – about a subject that can be uncomfortable to some viewers. But as serious as the topic is, the film also has a decent amount of appropriate humor interspersed with file footage of Christopher Beck as a decorated SEAL who was so gung ho during dangerous operations that colleagues believed he might border on being suicidal.

And the film special suggests Christopher Beck might have been suicidal because since a very young age he was living with a secret about who he believed he really was and was unable to live the life he needed to live. Until now.

Wellsville residents can keep a secret, too. Normally, when a small town resident makes national news someone from the area – a friend, a relative, a high school teacher – will alert this newspaper. But I couldn’t find one mention of Beck either as Christopher Beck or Kristin Beck in this newspaper’s Internet library even though Beck received a lot of attention a year ago as the first transgendered former Navy SEAL on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.”

That appearance led to this film, produced by Mark Herzog and Christopher G. Cowen, which documents the likable, soft-spoken, friendly, highly decorated veteran’s fight for acceptance from family, friends and people who don’t know the story, told primarily through Beck’s own words.

Beck’s upbringing in Wellsville, where Christopher graduated from high school, is highlighted in the first 30 minutes as Beck jumps into her Winnebago with her dog Bo. Kristin heads back to the community where he was raised as Christopher playing football, hunting and hiding the fact that he used to dress in his sister’s clothes as a young child when he stayed home from school pretending to be sick.

During the often poignant film, Kristin bonds with a supportive sister, the supportive brother Christopher used to compete with growing up, and a father who is a little confused by the whole thing but never veers from loving his child.

There are many emotional scenes. One of the most tender scenes occurs during a spaghetti meal when Beck’s dad, Tord, a former high school football coach, finally calls Beck “she” instead of “he.”

Beck immediately notes that it is the first time he has done that.

“That was kind of nice, thanks dad,” Kristin says in the film.

“You’re welcome,” Tord Beck says.

It is a little difficult for several people to know how to address Beck, with a restaurant owner also quickly correcting himself after referring to Kristin as “he.” Heck, during the course of writing this story, I’ve had to correct the pronoun in multiple paragraphs.

The Wellsville restaurant owner and a female store owner are supportive of Beck, who was viewed as a hero by the small town after being awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart as Christopher.

Just about everyone on camera – including former Navy SEALs who served with Beck – is supportive and appears to be enlightened.

And that’s one of the few problems with the film, which intends to show that coming out “is harder than some of the missions” Beck went on in 13 tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the most part, the ugliness that the soft-spoken Beck has endured is pushed to the background, making it appear that the transition from macho man to crusading woman looking to finally live “the pursuit of happiness” is a lot easier than it likely has been.

Viewers don’t see the ugliness; they just hear Kristin read some disgusting emails and hear her talk about what she has had to deal with since announcing her transition and becoming an advocate for transgendered people in the military, who aren’t guaranteed the right to serve.

While viewers see two siblings support Kristin, they are told in a written title card briefly on the screen that Beck’s mother and two other siblings declined to be in the film. That leaves the impression that they are uncomfortable either with the film or with Beck’s transition, or just being on camera.

Similarly, we are told at the end of the film that Beck’s two young children are supportive of the transition but not ready to be with her because of other issues.

The closest anyone comes to criticizing Beck is when a former colleague questions why she had to go to the media with the story.

One barroom scene between Kristin and two supportive former SEALs best illustrates why the film has an imbalanced, positive point of view.

One friendly former SEAL notes that some colleagues feel they can’t support Beck publicly because of potential repercussions from half the community.

“If they don’t agree with it,” he adds, “they’ll come across as bigots and homophobes. Their perspective is there is no win in this situation.”

During the conversation, Beck also is told she did “a disservice” by not giving colleagues a “heads up” before making her announcement.

“I was at the breaking point,” Beck explains.

The pain she must have been feeling is unimaginable, especially when you consider she had to know many of the repercussions that would follow as she bravely battles for acceptance for herself and other transgender people. That’s what the colleague criticizing Beck for going to the media doesn’t understand. The media attention helps the cause.

Beck concedes the whole idea of being a transgender confuses people and adds that even she has trouble finding the words to explain things.

“It is like someone who has never had sight trying to explain the sunset,” said Beck at the end. “But this is still a beautiful journey.”

The film is as well, even if you wonder if it would have been stronger if more ugliness was shown to balance the beauty.


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