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Know the West

The Colorado town that became a transgender haven

In ‘Going to Trinidad,’ histories illuminate — and obscure — the outcomes of gender transition.

 

The history of transgender people in the United States is nearly invisible, buried in institutional archives. Our personal stories are often preserved as medical or psychological “case studies” that portray us as disfigured and mentally ill — even criminals. When these documents record gender transitions, they emphasize “the surgery” — the procedures that can often offer good outcomes for transgender people, but can neither predict future happiness nor resolve systemic transphobia.

In Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, A Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads, journalist Martin J. Smith leans heavily on medical histories to tell the intimate, sometimes hair-raising stories of transgender people and the small clinic in remote, rural southern Colorado that served them in the second half of the 20th century. The book both illuminates and obscures the complexity of transitioning.

Trinidad dives into the life and practice of Dr. Stanley Biber, at one time the leading surgeon in the U.S. for gender-affirming surgery and one of the few doctors in the world who worked with transgender patients. His office in Trinidad, Colorado — a small town just 13 miles north of New Mexico — changed thousands of lives between 1969 and 2010. Few other clinics in the country did similar procedures; gender-related surgeries were on par with back-alley abortions, advertised through whisper networks. At that time, with assimilation into cisgender society considered the best possible outcome, genital surgery was seen as essential, because it would allow transgender people to “pass” and blend seamlessly into the mainstream. 

Biber’s wildly progressive surgical clinic is set against the backdrop of a historic mountain town. “Trinidad has always been the kind of place where road-numbed motorists traveling Interstate 25 between Denver and Santa Fe exit just long enough to top off their gas tank, refill their go-cups, and use the bathroom,” Smith writes. Even today, Trinidad’s only hospital has just 25 beds. The town’s name became synonymous with “sex-change,” a cultural association so common it was mocked on the animated sitcom South Park.

Smith spent two years researching Trinidad and tracing the stories of Dr. Biber and two trans women who sought his services: Claudine Griggs, and another woman who used several names: Walt Heyer, Christal West, Andrea West and Laura Jensen. They represent two disparate clinical outcomes. Griggs, who transitioned socially early in life, is a more “successful” case (defined as resulting in heterosexual marriage, stable employment and raising children). Heyer, on the other hand, struggled with mental illness and addiction; eventually, she attempted to detransition after a religious experience. For Griggs, the change offered freedom. Heyer’s story ends less happily — perhaps because the surgery failed to solve her problems; no medical procedure could answer the questions that troubled her. Smith’s extensive research fleshes out the women’s medical histories, creating moving, believable portraits that extend beyond a doctor’s notes. 

The book’s emphasis on surgical procedures inadvertently reinforces stereotypes.

Trinidad treats both women with empathy, but they are still primarily patients. The book’s emphasis on surgical procedures inadvertently reinforces stereotypes, as does its casual use of dated words now considered offensive, like “transsexual” and “transvestite.” Sex change is genital in this book; when someone acquires a long-coveted vagina, she “becomes a woman.”

But if genitalia defines gender, how do you explain trans people whose gender presentation aligns with their identity without surgery? Going to Trinidad has occasional moments that reveal these nuances. Griggs visits Dr. Biber, believing the procedure can alleviate her intense dysmorphia. Awakening post-op, she sees sanitary pads and flowers by her bed, and thinks for a moment that the pain she feels is the ache of labor. But there is no baby; she realizes that she is still “a transsexual woman.” She remains herself — just in a new body. Heyer, too, finds that the procedure does not alter who she is: “The problems (she) hoped the surgery would fix — aggravation, distress, depression — were still an issue. The battle that for years had raged inside her continued.”

The harrowing transphobia Trinidad describes permeates every aspect of life for the women who sought treatment. Their experiences range from job loss to sexual assault. Even Biber himself, who was by all accounts a compassionate practitioner, believed that with adequate therapy, most people would simply accept their lot in life and surrender their dreams. (He thought the penile-scrotal flap surgery he performed was “horrible-looking.”) Transition does not remove transphobia, nor does it solve the problem of being transgender in a deeply transphobic culture. But it does offer transgender people true autonomy over their bodies, dignity and relief from life-threatening gender dysphoria.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.19/interview-on-negotiating-brutality-and-beauty]

As a record of institutionalized perspectives on transgender people and the dominant beliefs concerning us at the time, Trinidad is indispensable. In a world that demeans, dehumanizes and discriminates against trans people, it is the story of a doctor who offered them a sense of ownership over their bodies. Ultimately, it’s a brutal telling — hard to read, though vital to hear.

Claire Rudy Foster is the queer, nonbinary trans author of acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever. Foster lives in Portland, OregonEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.