He Loved Everyone in Trinidad: On Martin J. Smith’s “Going to Trinidad”

April 15, 2021   •   By Tom Zoellner

Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads

Martin J. Smith

I FOLLOWED THE Santa Fe Trail on foot into the town of Trinidad, Colorado, back in the 1990s and — through a referral — stayed in the home of an older couple who lived in one of the rambling gingerbread houses that overlooked downtown. They were part of the town’s elite crust, plugged in to the nonprofit organizations that helped put the face on this small mining and ranching town.

A few hours into our visit, I asked them about Dr. Stanley Biber, the physician who had made Trinidad famous in trans circles as a mecca for gender reassignment surgery. He had been the subject of a profile in GQ magazine, which is where I had read about him.

The woman paused and then offered a pinched and diplomatic acknowledgment of Biber’s existence that invited no further questions, signaling that this was not a business she wanted advertised by her chamber of commerce.

Local disapproval notwithstanding, the trade was thriving. Biber continued to perform more gender confirmation surgeries than any other single doctor in the country before his death in 2006. And Trinidad is still wishing this part of its legacy would go down the memory hole. Fortunately, we now have an expert account of Biber’s work and life from the former Los Angeles journalist and editor Martin J. Smith.

Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads functions as a biography on multiple levels: of Biber, of Trinidad, and of those who arrived to receive the surgery, primarily male to female. All of them are complicated subjects that defy easy categorization. And all of them live up to Smith’s opening words: “The best stories are about people who find themselves at a crossroads. They face a critical choice, and the choice they make in that crucible moment tells us who they are.”

First, Biber. He was a plug-shaped Jewish veteran of the intelligence services in World War II, described as “a cannonball with glasses.” A native of Iowa, Biber had been a bodybuilder and amateur boxer before he set out in the medical field without any particular ideology beyond the Hippocratic Oath. “What’s that?” he asked in 1969 when he first heard the term transsexual. His sartorial style tended toward Stetson hats and cowboy boots; his office on the fourth floor of a bank building was a shabby mess.

Before discovering the work that would make him famous, he worked as a doctor for the coal mines near Trinidad and then as a workaholic small-town physician. “He delivered so many babies, did everybody’s surgery, and everybody trusted him tremendously,” said one of his four ex-wives. “He loved everyone in Trinidad.”

Then came that moment in 1969 when he learned of the pioneering work in gender surgery at Johns Hopkins University. Biber studied crude drawings of “simple penectomies” and became a self-taught expert in its attendant procedures: rhinoplasty, breast implants, and the tracheal shave that reduces the Adam’s apple. The total cost came to $10,000, not including travel. Candidates received a four-page brochure outlining “The Trinidad Experience,” and word spread of his certainty with the scalpel. As an observer put it: “Solid. Affordable. Get you in and get you out. No fuss no muss.” One of his patients also spoke vividly, if ambivalently, about his bedside manner. “He was a mixture of Genghis Khan and Huck Finn — he had the decency and honesty of Huck Finn, but he also had that imperious confidence, which is probably something I needed more than anything else at that time.”

Biber did an average of three surgeries per week at Mt. San Rafael Hospital, a practice lucrative enough to make him the largest landowner in Las Animas County and live out his childhood fantasies of becoming a cowboy. Meanwhile, “going to Trinidad” became a Rubicon-crossing phrase in the trans community, as well as a transphobic taunt among Colorado high school students.

But Smith gives most of the attention in his book not to Biber but to several of his patients, especially Walt Heyer, who first perceived the “girl who lived in my head” when his grandmother dressed him in a purple chiffon evening dress at the age of four. Walt took on the name Christal West and then picked the name Laura Jensen at random once he had gone to Trinidad. But Heyer’s life afterward was still fraught with dissatisfaction and alcoholism; Smith goes through the twists in detail, especially what Heyer called the “yo-yo” of constantly switching post-op gender identities, unable to land on one permanently.

Claudine Griggs had a happier outcome after suffering the youthful trauma of feeling like she didn’t belong. Her boss at an Irvine, California, law firm welcomed her back from Trinidad without prejudice, to her surprise, and she found love with a woman, followed her across the country, and married her. She became a published author and worked as a writing instructor at Rhode Island College.

Some readers will not appreciate the focus on Heyer, who has been called an outlier with a post-op journey that is not representative. In fact, Heyer has become a public speaker who inveighs against transition, has written a book called Articles of Impeachment Against Sex Change Surgery, and runs a website with the URL sexchangeregret.com. While Smith certainly found a willing and loquacious subject in Heyer, he might have served this book better by finding a less controversial nonfiction character to bear the narrative burden. Heyer seems even to overshadow Biber in the volume of reported detail.

This book’s contribution to gender studies and the history of transgender experience is marred in one more respect: Smith’s citations are made in magazine style within the text, and he takes some of his historic background on the city of Trinidad from glossy histories written for tourists. A few days in the archives and more detailed endnotes would have given this book more heft and respectability.

Still, throughout this biography of a doctor and a town, whose soul hinges on the complexities of change, Smith holds steadfastly to a nonjudgmental tone, acknowledging the courage and hardship that accompanied so many people on their journey to Trinidad, but also making the scientific record plain that surgery is not a cure-all for the unhappiness that can haunt trans people who feel they were misassigned. He walks readers through the thicket of academic literature on gender dysphoria, the sense of internal alienation. He quotes Andrea Long Chu:

Dysphoria feels like being unable to get warm, no matter how many layers you put on. It feels like hunger without appetite. It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane. It feels like grieving. It feels like having nothing to grieve.

Another insight comes from Dr. Marci Bowers, who herself has transitioned, and whom Biber tried to set up as his replacement in Trinidad once he grew past the age when he could easily acquire malpractice insurance. Bowers compared innate gender to the Missouri River, dammed and diverted for many years by well-meaning engineers who only sent it on an unnatural course.

Smith finishes her metaphor: “You can impose a binary view of gender on the world if you wish. Male. Female. Little in between. But that’s not in any way how nature works. Nature doesn’t want order. Nature wants diversity. That eventually takes hold, and nature controls destiny.”

A single book could never encompass the experiences of tens of thousands of people, and so Smith invited an afterword from Bowers. She objected to his use of only Heyer’s and Griggs’s stories.

“The described characters are atypical,” she writes, “expressing an unusual degree of uncertainty in their respective gender transitions compared to most who transition, and the many who ‘go to Trinidad.’” Her differing view — and Smith’s willingness to let her have an unfiltered say — only highlights the continuing dialogue around one of the more voltaic social issues of our time.

Stanley Biber made a profound change in more lives than just about anybody in southern Colorado in the 20th century, but you won’t find much in the way of a physical legacy in his adopted hometown. The pinched lips of my long-ago host are still shut tight. There are no plaques or statues to him. His protégé Bowers left town in 2010, and no transgender surgeries are performed there any longer. Legal marijuana sales to New Mexico residents are now the big cash infusion. A sentence in a tourist brochure vaguely states: “For half a century, Trinidad welcomed thousands of individuals seeking to become who they were born to be.” If you didn’t already know the story, you’d have no idea what this meant.

One of the most powerful moments in the book comes when Griggs quotes Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath: “It don’t take no nerve to do somepin when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.” The demand for Biber’s services proved durable through his lifetime, giving him far more work than he could handle on his own. If he had picked another field of work or never settled in Colorado, another doctor in another town likely would have replaced him; the road to Trinidad would have only led elsewhere but to the same destination.

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Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of LARB.