When most of us hear the name Trinidad, we think of the West Indies. But in the United States, Trinidad has a different—and often overlooked—cultural and medical significance, as veteran journalist Martin J. Smith informs us in his deeply reported, engagingly written new book, Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads.
Dr. Stanley Biber, a physician in the rural community of Trinidad, Colorado (today, the population hovers at around 8,000), was a pioneer in gender-confirmation surgery long before transgender issues were covered in the news. In 1969, he began a practice at Mt. San Rafael Hospital—the formerly Catholic institution where he performed his operations until 2004—that was known to those it sought to serve. As Smith writes, “the phrase ‘Going to Trinidad’…was well-understood shorthand among transgender men and women, easier than saying, ‘I’ve made the most difficult decision of my life.’ ”
Smith sketches the history with novelistic detail, building the book around three main characters: Biber and the patients Claudine Toni Griggs and Walt Heyer, each of whom embodies a complex narrative of fear, hope, anger, joy, and—in Heyer’s case—regret. The approach is reminiscent in some ways of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Yet here, Smith updates the perspective for a new era—including granular descriptions of exactly what gender-confirmation surgery entails.
The author also offers a vivid portrait of Trinidad, a town previously known as home base for Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Kit Carson, and labor activist Mary “Mother” Jones. As to why this remote community may have provided a perfect setting for Biber’s work, Dawn DiPrince, the chief operating officer of History Colorado, tells Smith: “When you operate in a borderland, you’re on the margins, not close to the centers of power.… If you exist on the margins, there’s a lot of opportunity for invention and creativity, and for taking risks that people would not ordinarily do if they were more in the mainstream.”
Biber died in 2006, at age 82. Smith never met him, but he fills in the life by interviewing family members and former patients. A onetime rabbinical student who spent time with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Biber originally moved to Trinidad to practice at a United Mine Workers clinic. But everything changed when a woman he knew asked whether he’d perform a “delicate surgery.”
Asked for more specifics, she said she was “a transsexual woman.”
“What’s that?” Biber replied.
After she explained, he was undaunted. Relying on a set of diagrams from John Hopkins University, he performed the operation—the first of an estimated 6,000-plus he and his successor would eventually undertake.
A crusty, notoriously frugal rancher with what one patient called a brisk bedside manner, Biber changed the lives of countless patients, almost all of whom were grateful for his service. One who was not was Heyer, misdiagnosed with gender dysphoria by a Bay Area psychologist who neglected to explore other issues, including childhood sexual abuse.
Heyer was married and had a managerial position with American Honda. He scheduled surgery, changed his mind, then returned to have the procedure, though he now regrets the decision and identifies as male. He battled alcoholism and mental illness. These days, he’s “a willing antagonist to those who advocate for transgender rights.”
While less dramatic, the portrayal of Claudine Griggs is compelling for other reasons. Griggs became a successful academic and author in Rhode Island and doesn’t regret her choice—but she doesn’t see it as a panacea, either. “Despite her doubts, misgivings, and disappointments about the surgery,” Smith writes, “…she has arrived at a place of peace, and occasionally, even happiness.”
Smith’s decision to focus on these patients is arguably problematic. Heyer’s mélange of right-wing politics, junk science, and personal Christianity, as an example, is hardly representative of those who have undergone gender-confirmation surgery.
To the author’s credit, he invites Dr. Marci Bowers, who took over Biber’s Trinidad practice before leaving herself in 2010, to share her reservations about his choices in an afterword. “The fact is human males and females share 99.7 percent of the same DNA,” Bowers writes, also observing that Heyer’s and Griggs’s experiences are broadly atypical within the trans community.
We live in a time when people have become hardwired to talk past one another, when we hold default positions as articles of faith. The issues raised by Going to Trinidad are complex. But Smith handles them with empathy and compassion.•