Transgender talk is all around these days, with I Am Cait, the reality series that debuted Sunday on E!, showing the former men’s decathlon Olympic gold-medal winner as the woman she always knew she was. But the first episode didn’t cause much fuss in Trinidad, despite the fact that for more than three decades, this small city in southern Colorado was known as the Sex-Change Capital of the World.
If the title seems unlikely, the story behind it is just as unusual. Stanley Biber, a hometown boy who became a general surgeon, thought he’d seen it all when he was a medic in Korea. But then one day in the late ’60s, he got a request he’d never considered: A social worker asked Biber if he could perform a sex-change operation. Biber talked to a doctor in New York who’d done the surgery, studied some plans from Johns Hopkins, and in 1969 did his first sex-assignment surgery at Mount San Rafael, Trinidad’s only hospital. Before Biber set aside his scalpel in 2003 — when the eighty-year-old doctor could no longer find insurance — he estimated that he’d performed some 6,000 sex-reassignment operations there. “I didn’t retire — I was forced to retire,” Biber told us at the time. “I’m in great shape. I work out every day; I out-lift the kids. But they wouldn’t insure me.”
By the time he left the field of operation, he’d given Trinidad not just a nickname, but the businesses to go with it. Bed-and-breakfasts, since people contemplating reassignment surgery had to live with their future identity for a year. Salons, clothing shops and florists. Even wine bars. And he left the town a successor, too.
Dr. Marci Bowers, an OB/GYN surgeon in Seattle who’d had sex-reassignment surgery herself in 1997, had met Biber in 2000, on the advice of a psychologist who’d had Biber do her own sex-change surgery. “Dr. Biber was my spiritual father. He was born on the same day as my mother,” says Bowers, who adds that her mother even had “an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Biber.” And a few years later, when Bowers was ready to move on from the Seattle clinic where she worked, she thought about Biber’s offer to have her take over his practice. That’s how she wound up in Trinidad, coming right around the time the town held Stanley Biber Day, and staying until October 2010.
The move was quite an adjustment. “What’s wonderful about a small town is you know everyone,” Bowers says. “You know what others are doing, but they know about you, too. That can also be the worst side.”
That became apparent when, after Biber passed away in 2006, Bowers got sideways with the hospital. Administrators had put up with all the attention that Biber, also a rancher and at one point county commissioner, had brought the place, but they didn’t like all the publicity that came with Bowers, didn’t like the Sex Change Hospital reality show she filmed there in 2008. “They didn’t want to be known as a sex-change hospital,” Bowers says, even if that paid the bills. Bowers was doing as many operations as Biber had, sometimes even more, but that wasn’t enough to make the hospital encourage her to stay. When she finally realized she wasn’t going to beat the bureaucrats and decided to move on, one local headline read: “Trinidad Slays the Golden Goose.”
Today Bowers has a practice in the Bay Area, a place that’s “very accepting and forward-thinking, an area with a lot of really bright people and a lot of professionals.” That’s all been positive, she admits, “but I have to say, I miss Trinidad a lot.”
She misses the dinner parties she’d go to every week, the friends she’d see on the street. She misses the people she was able to help there. “I’ve waxed poetic about my time in Trinidad over the years,” she says. “It has an almost unparalleled lore in the history of the transgender movement. More so, possibly, than any place other than Berlin.”
But while Berlin might have done some of the groundbreaking transgender procedures, Biber did a legendary number of the procedures in Trinidad, in the process changing thousands of lives. “Dr. Biber had magic, but in a way I also had more magic,” Bowers says. “I’m sure it would have just continued to grow. My influence there was so much larger than it is here…. Now I’m a teeny minnow in an ocean.” An ocean that’s getting larger all the time, with the Caitlyn Jenner story spreading from her interview with Diane Sawyer this spring to her cover on Vanity Fair to her own reality show.
From the beginning, Bowers recognized that media coverage of the issue was critical — whether the hospital wanted it or not.
“The reason the media is important,” she says, “is the media tells the story, paints the picture for the world to understand the transgender process.
"The media helps people understand what it’s all about. It’s important for the world to understand, because this is a global phenomenon, and Trinidad had center stage.”
Now the spotlight is out. “It was a spectacular place to be,” says Bowers, who’s been to some pretty spectacular places since she left Colorado, doing surgeries and speaking engagements around the globe. “There was an energy there…an energy I perhaps will not find again. There’s something really special about that community.”
What’s special about Trinidad these days? Pot. The old mining town may no longer be the sex-change capital of the world, but those storefronts that once held boutiques and florists are beginning to fill up again, this time with cannabis-related companies. A recent front-page story in the World Journal, which covers Las Animas County, noted that the pot business is now the "second-largest industry in the city," according to the city manager. "This dovetails with the city's near and longterm plans for economic development," Gabriel Engeland told the paper. "We've shifted away from coal and gas, but we've not yet shifted to something."
But if there's one thing Trinidad understands, it's an identity change.