Courtesy Kristin Beck
June 25, 2015 12:00 PM

Kristin Beck knows the power of symbols.

Campaigning for Congress in Maryland’s 5th district, the Democrat wears the Purple Heart and Navy SEAL Trident from her 20 years in the military so that, she says, “voters can very quickly see some depth.”

But as a transgender woman, Beck – who, until just two years ago, walked the halls of the Pentagon in a suit and tie as Christopher Beck – also knows the allure of showing off in a short skirt.

Kristin Beck at a June 2014 marriage-equality rally in Salt Lake City, Utah
Jim Urquhart/Landov

“I have pretty long legs; I can’t help it,” she tells PEOPLE with a sly chuckle. “I mean, I was a swimmer for 20 years.”

So when she looks at the groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner in a bustier, it’s with mixed feelings and a sense of missed opportunity.

Bruce Jenner was my hero in the ’70s. I think I still have one of his Wheaties boxes in my parents’ old house,” Beck, 49, says in an interview from the campaign trail in southern Maryland. “And today, when I see Caitlyn Jenner, I’m rooting for her. I love the fact that there’s all this publicity and it’s making people ask a lot of questions. But I want them to ask the right questions.”

“Being on the cover like that – in her underwear – I just don’t really appreciate that image. That’s not what a hero should look like.”

Beck says the suicide rate for transgender youth is “somewhere between 40 and 60 percent” and, for those fragile, questioning kids, it’s important that the public discussion not center on surgically achieved magazine-cover perfection.

“Can you imagine half of a whole population looking at suicide as the only alternative? These kids need to see a lot more than just a model on the cover, and surgeries and outer shells. We can save lives.”

Part Conan the Barbarian, Part Barbie
And so Beck does not stump as “the transgender candidate” and, in fact, lists her top priorities as the economy and the environment, proud that voters can find on her campaign website a platform of no fewer than 70 issues. “I’m digging into the weeds, getting granular about things I want to do if I’m elected.” (It’s a long shot. Hers is a Democratic primary challenge of Rep. Steny Hoyer, who’s held the seat for more than 30 years and is the second most powerful Democrat in the U.S. House.)

Not that she’s shy about who she used to be: a farm boy from western Pennsylvania who, despite being drawn to his sister’s clothes for as long as she can remember, followed a decidedly macho path into the Virginia Military Institute, then the Navy, then the SEALs and their elite SEAL Team Six. Beck deployed overseas 13 times and, on her tattooed arm, bears the scars of a Taliban rocket attack from seven years ago.

“Conan the Barbarian is a huge part of who I am,” Beck says today. “But there’s also some of the Barbie.”

After retiring from the military, Beck continued working at the Pentagon as a civilian in technology research and development. Over dinner one night early in the first weeks of 2013, Beck’s sister called her out.

Beck as Navy SEAL Christopher Beck
Courtesy Kristin Beck

“She said, ‘All they see at the Pentagon is the Conan. You’re just a liar.’ I thought about it all night and, the next day, I walked into the Pentagon wearing a dress,” Beck recalls.

She says her Defense Department co-workers did double-takes, thinking they’d missed a memo about a costume party. “I had to answer a lot of emails from a lot of people who had questions,” she says. “From that day forward, I’ve not worn a suit and tie. I’m always in dresses. I still am Conan. I’m still working on the Barbie.”

Kristin Beck outside the FBI
Courtesy Kristin Beck

At her side through it all is fiancée Heather Stott, who is in the Air Force. They met a year and a half ago at the Pentagon and began dating right away. With Stott set to deploy, the couple have not yet set a wedding date, Beck says.

Kristin Beck with fiancamp#233;e Heather Stott (left)
Courtesy Kristin Beck

Beck’s transition was the subject of a 2014 CNN documentary called Lady Valor, and her congressional campaign has gotten more national and international attention than your average small-state underdog could hope to get, with The Washington Post recently trailing the candidate as she campaigned door-to-door.

Beck knows that even in the age of Jenner and Laverne Cox, her transition is still something of a novelty and an attention-getter.

“I appreciate that my name is out there,” Beck says. “But if you’re voting for me just based on being transgender, that’s not what I want.”

Kristin Beck
Courtesy Kristin Beck

“Vote for me based on my platform, my honesty, my loyalty to country and my passion to try to fix things.”

As for Jenner and the other high-profile women slowly opening minds to the transgender experience, Beck says, “I just want Caitlyn Jenner to show the world the depth of who we are – more than the physical changes and all this junk. I want it to be a bigger message because there’s too much ignorance out there and society’s just so mean.”

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