Sex Machine

Dr. Stanley Biber has made 3,500 women--and 300 men.

How content are the thousands of other patients? Biber doesn't have a complete accounting, he says, because after surgery is performed, patients often disappear. "A lot of them get married and have families and don't want to remember their lives before," Biber explains. "They don't want me to put the finger on them and get lost."

Nevertheless, Biber has tracked more than 500 patients over a ten-year period. "Everything from their salary to how they accept themselves has been very good," he says. "We're changing their bodies to match their gender identities. We're helping them feel good about themselves. I find them to be excellent citizens. I know 3,500 people who would agree."

The earliest memory begins at age three, when John is still Joan. She walks to the bathroom, stands at the toilet and pees all over the floor. Her mom says, "No. No. You can't pee like your brothers." But Joan is just doing what comes naturally. Even at age three, that means being a boy.

But Joan tried. For 31 years she wore lipstick, dresses and high heels and did everything possible to fill the role of a woman and please her family. She even got engaged. Her fiance was flawless, perfect--but Joan knew she could never make him happy. So she broke it off six months before the wedding.

Absolutely no one understood. The pressure became incredible. Another person might have killed herself; Joan poured herself into her job as a vice president for an East Coast advertising agency. But at age 29, exhausted and confused, she quit.

Joan looked in the mirror and saw a clown staring back, a man in a dress. Even her father said she was the only woman he knew who could get dolled up and still look like a fullback. But Joan had no sense of humor about that. How angry would you be if you had to wear pantyhose and lipstick but felt like a man inside?

One night Joan called her mom, a nurse, who sensed something in Joan's voice. "I know what's wrong and I know why," her mother said. "You're not a woman. You've never been a woman. We have to do something. I don't want to lose you."

Joan went to Johns Hopkins. "This is how I feel," she told doctors there. "If I'm sick, then fix me. If it's all in my head, then send me to a doctor, because I can't take this anymore." Doctors found high levels of male chromosomes, a malformed ovary and a tiny malformed penis. Joan was a hermaphrodite.

At least she had an answer, and it felt like a mountain had been lifted from her shoulders. But relief was temporary. A hermaphrodite? What the hell was that? Joan traced the abnormality to her dad's side and decided she would not have children. She wouldn't pass on the condition to her worst enemy.

Joan had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy and began taking male hormones. Sometime in her mid-thirties, she began her life as John. But that wasn't exactly easy. John worried about getting into car wrecks and paramedics joking, "Okay. Now what have we got here?"

His first wife said he must have been a son of a bitch in a past life to deserve this. Their marriage lasted about a year, but the divorce had little to do with gender. She left John for a life in the Himalayas; John was not a Himalayas kind of guy.

When he met the woman who would become his second wife, John set his stack of medical records on the table. "Go ahead," he told her. "It's all there. Read it and decide for yourself, because I don't want to get hurt anymore." They've been married sixteen years, and it's been great. It's not a sexual relationship, but it's still great.

John has been celibate most of his life, and he didn't decide to have this surgery because of sex. He's not trying to attract women. Why would he go through all this trouble to look the way he does: bald, bearded, ruddy complexion, white chest hair curling over his collar? His doctors are the ones who started it. His primary-care physician and psychologist said he had no choice. The stress was killing him. He developed stress-related arthritis and suffered a breakdown.

When he and his wife made the decision for John to have the sex-change surgery, he drove nonstop to Trinidad from Arizona. His wife was so happy, she could hardly see. And his family said, "It's about time." The surgery cost $50,000 in retirement savings, but at age 56, John felt he deserved it. After all this time, he wants to be whole.

John doesn't know how he'll feel when he returns home. He knows he'll be different, but he doesn't know how. He'll probably take his wife to the best restaurant he can find. How do you say thank you to someone who has been so supportive?

Gene Lujan: "I've served with a number of commissioners in my time, and I can't think of a better one [than Biber]. His main goal was to entice industry into the county. I can't think of a thing he's done that's been underhanded."

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