New Book Recalls Trinidad's Legacy as a Hub of Gender-Confirmation Surgery

Martin J. Smith is the author of Going to Trinidad.
Martin J. Smith is the author of Going to Trinidad. Courtesy of Martin J. Smith
Thirty years ago, journalist and novelist Martin J. Smith was at a family reunion with dozens of relatives at the YMCA in Estes Park. His cousin, whom the family knew as a man, came downstairs to breakfast one morning wearing a single earring. The next day, the cousin wore a pair. On the fourth day, the cousin explained to the family that she was a woman in the process of transitioning.

“This was 1991. There wasn’t a lot of that going on publicly,” Smith remembers, and not all of his relatives responded with open arms. “There was wailing and gnashing of teeth among the family, and intolerance and all that stuff. I thought, 'Well, that was interesting. That was brave.' I put that in a lockbox in my head for a few years.”

And then, speaking to his cousin, “I asked the dumb question that every cis-gender male would ask: ‘Are you going to have the surgery?’” he recalls.

“She said something that startled me: ‘I like having a penis.’ I was like, ‘I don’t understand this at all, but I’m fascinated by it.’ It was like opening a door into your house that you’ve never realized was there,” Smith explains. “I had all these prejudices and presumptions about how the world worked, and it wasn’t how the world worked at all.”

Flash forward to 2016: Smith moved from Los Angeles, where he was editor-in-chief of Orange Coast magazine, to Colorado, which he'd only visited before, and settled in Granby. There he began hearing about Trinidad, the old mining town near the New Mexico border that had earned a reputation as the epicenter of gender-confirmation surgeries in the United States.

Around 6,000 trans women and men had undergone the process under the care of Dr. Stanley Biber, the small-town physician who delivered locals' babies, mended broken legs, and stumbled into notoriety as one of the nation’s leading gender-confirmation surgeons after learning how to do the operation in 1969.

Over the years, Biber perfected his craft and educated the local clergy, greater Trinidad community and nation as a whole about the practice. The nuns who ran the hospital where he performed surgeries offered their support to the patients; the religious right damned them. And people about to undergo the procedure began referring to it as “going to Trinidad.”

The impoverished town started to benefit from related businesses — clothing shops, flower shops, bed-and-breakfasts — as well as plenty of national attention paid to what was dubbed by some reports as the "sex-change capital of the world."

Later, when Dr. Marci Bowers moved to town to study under Biber and eventually take over his practice (he died in 2006), she brought even more cameras to the tiny community, since she'd undergone the process herself before going to Trinidad. (She later closed down the decades-old practice and moved it to California.)

The more Smith learned about Trinidad, the more he became obsessed with the history of the place and the people whose lives were physically altered by the two doctors. He remembers thinking, “This might be a way to write a story about those questions that I have and those presumptions in a way that’s not abstract. It’s not queer theory. It’s a real place and a real drama.”

So he reached out to his agent and pitched the idea of his book, Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories From an Unlikely Gender Crossroads. But finding patients willing to share their stories proved tough.

“Most folks I talked to early on were like, ‘I don’t want to go back to that period in my life,’” Smith says. “I realized that was going to be an ongoing challenge for me as I wrote this book.”

So he decided to focus on the lives of two people who had very different experiences: Claudine Griggs and Walt Heyer.

“They had written memoirs about their time before, during and after, and were happy to talk about it,” Smith says. “They published contemporaneous accounts with all these great details. That was the solution for me. They are both still alive and willing to talk to me now. That was how they became the central characters.”

For the overwhelming majority of Biber’s and Bowers’s patients, including Griggs, the surgery was largely a boon to their lives. It helped people dealing with gender dysphoria — the sense that their bodies did not match their identity — fit into a world with an all-too-limited binary notion of how gender functions.

But for Heyer, who was misdiagnosed as gender dysphoric, the process was a nightmare — part of a lifelong struggle with dissociative identity disorder, addiction and self-destruction. 
click to enlarge Going to Trinidad tells the story of the former gender-confirmation capital of the United States. - BOWER HOUSE
Going to Trinidad tells the story of the former gender-confirmation capital of the United States.
Bower House
“I included [Heyer] with the understanding that that choice of mine was not going to be popular in the LGBTQ movement,” says Smith. “He’s now the leader of this Sex Change Regret movement, where he tries to make people think twice about this: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Because it could go really wrong.’ People in the community see this as anathema. He’s a heretic. He’s a different kind of critter.”

While statistically speaking, Heyer's story of regret is an anomaly, Smith's handling of Heyer — a Rush Limbaugh devotee prone to conspiracy theories who's an occasional guest on right-wing talk shows — is balanced enough that it offers some room for readers who are anti-trans to weigh multiple experiences.

In a salty afterword to the book, though, Bowers notes that the experiences of the two subjects Smith profiled are "unusual," writing: “Martin J. Smith’s Going to Trinidad, while beautifully written and well-researched, focuses narrowly on two individuals whose experiences may cast doubt on the validity and accuracy of the gender transition process. The described characters are atypical, expressing an unusual degree of uncertainty in their respective gender transitions, compared to most who transition, and the many who ‘go to Trinidad.’”

Bowers also accuses Smith of giving credence to anti-trans “junk science” from the late ’70s and spending too much time focusing on people’s misery rather than the transformative and healing practice that the doctors offered.

Susan Stryker, a masterful scholar of trans histories, wrote a blurb to promote the book. “Martin Smith brings this somewhat secret history to a wider audience in an expansive, entertaining narrative chock full of interesting people and previously untold stories,” she says. Yet Smith notes that Stryker, too, did not entirely agree with him including Heyer’s story, for fear that it would give readers the impression that his regret is a typical experience rather than an aberration.

Smith, who affirms transgender rights, acknowledges that his book is not activist writing. And he resists putting on a white wig and taking out the gavel when it comes to his depiction of both characters. “I was drawn to this story for the same reason I’m drawn to a specific novelistic story,” Smith says. The characters were at a crossroads in their lives and making a huge decision, he explains, and “great characters is where everything begins.”

As timely as the book is amid raging political debates about trans kids, athletes and rights, Smith had more than a few challenges finding a publisher. The New York publishing industry, with its long history of telling the stories of marginalized communities through outsider writers, has recently become enthralled with the notion that authors should be part of a community in order to write about it. As good as Smith's book was, publishers wondered if a cis man was really the best person to take on the history of gender-confirmation surgery in Trinidad. Wouldn’t a trans author be better suited to the task?

“I had no problem getting publishers interested in it. Everybody seemed to agree there was a great story,” Smith recalls. “But there was always a ‘but.’”

Though Smith finally got an offer from one East Coast publisher, he ultimately decided to release the book through Denver-based Bower House, a smaller outfit that offered less money but would give more attention to promoting the book, which comes out mid-April.

As Smith prepares to tour the project across the Front Range, he's ready to address questions about his right to tell this chapter of trans history. He's been dealing with criticism from the start of the project, when he launched a Kickstarter to fund it — which was an utter disaster.

People would tell him, “You should not be writing this book. This is not your story to tell," he remembers. "One person who objected recommended, ‘You need to partner with a trans writer if you want to pull this off.’”

At the time, Smith didn’t know any trans writers.

“I looked behind me, and the line was not very long for writing the Trinidad book,” he says. “I was the best thing that I could offer. There are going to be people who are going to quibble with that and have objections to me writing this book. I approached it as a journalist. It's a good story.”

Going to Trinidad will be available starting April 15. For more information, go to Martin J. Smith's website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris