Going To Trinidad: A Conversation About Colorado's Transgender History
Starting in 1969, Trinidad, Colorado, a small city near the New Mexico border, was one of the few places in the world with a clinic providing gender confirmation surgery.
Trinidad became so well known for the procedure that “going to Trinidad” became a euphemism for gender confirmation surgery within parts of the trans community. Historian Martin Smith, who resides in Granby, borrowed that euphemism for the title of his latest book that delves into that particular pocket of Colorado history.
Since publishing the book, he has faced some criticism from the trans community over some of the stories he included. And a few weeks ago, Smith spoke on the phone with Soleil Hanberry-Lizzi, a burgeoning historian and intern with History Colorado. She confronted him with some of those concerns and the two had a constructive conversation.
The two of them joined Colorado Edition to discuss Smith’s book, the history of Trinidad, and the reaction from some in the trans community.
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Henry Zimmerman: Martin, let's start with you. In broad strokes, can you explain where the title of your book, Going to Trinidad comes from?
Martin Smith: Between 1969 and 2010, Trinidad, Colorado, a small remote former mining town, was the destination of choice for most transgender people seeking surgery. The reason is that there was a doctor there, a surgeon named Stanley Biber, who in 1969 began specializing in gender surgeries. And there simply aren't that many surgeons who do these surgeries, so wherever they are located tends to be the destination for those seeking surgery.
What can you tell us about how Dr. Biber and his clinic ended up in Trinidad?
Smith: Stanley Biber was a surgeon in a MASH unit during the Korean War, where he got very good at doing the sort of micro surgeries involved with lower body extremity injuries. There were a lot of landmine injuries.
After he got out of the army, he had an offer to open a clinic in Trinidad, Colorado, for the United Mine Workers, which was setting up a clinic for its workers at the Allen Mine down there. And Dr. Biber signed on as the general surgeon for Trinidad. He was the only surgeon in town at the time.
In 1969, he was approached by a colleague who was a social worker. At the end of their session, she asked if Stanley Biber would be willing to do her surgery. And he said, “Sure, what do you got?” He was a very confident surgeon. And she said, “Well, I'm transsexual,” which was the word she used at the time. He did enough research to think, “Well, yeah, I could do this kind of surgery.” And that began a career.
Word got around very quickly that he was not only a good surgeon, but compassionate and nonjudgmental. And at a time when many of the university clinics were shutting down their gender clinics, Stanley Biber suddenly was the last man standing. He was the guy that everybody went to for many, many decades.
Can you give us a bit of trans history context here in and help us understand the significance of genital reassignment surgeries, especially as they were seen in 1969?
Soleil Hanberry-Lizzi: It's definitely hard to talk about since it wasn't a universal thing. Chemical treatments — what we think of today with testosterone and estrogen — wasn't as common. I believe in the 1970s, 1980s, it started to come into a bit more prominent use. Quite a lot of work was being advanced in the struggle for LGBT rights by trans women, especially black trans women at the time.
Gender surgery is always a big step, especially genital reassignment surgery. It always takes any trans person a long time to come to this conclusion. It's not the end of a transition, but it certainly is a big part if that is what somebody wants.
Everybody in the trans community — their experience is different. And so it's hard to say that this is the most common or that is the most common, especially when it's their genitals. They don't really want to talk about it with just anybody. People in the trans community don’t go around asking, “Have you gotten the surgery?”
Smith: And I would build on that and say, there's a misconception, particularly among those outside the LGBT community — people like me who grew up in a gender binary world — that surgery is somehow the final stage of a transition. That's not the case at all. Surgery, I think, for most trans men and women was one option. But it's one of many, many options.
Back in the late '60s and '70s, when Biber started doing his surgeries in Trinidad, it was pretty uncommon. And like Soleil said, it was it was sort of done on the down low. You had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew a doctor who could refer you.
That's the case with Claudine Griggs, who is one of the primary characters in my book, Going to Trinidad. Griggs’ endocrinologist referred her to a nun in Orange County, California, who, after some conversation said, “Oh, I think you probably need to see Dr. Biber in Trinidad.” That was the way it was done back then.
Soleil, you have read Going to Trinidad. And I understand that, as you read through, there were a few things about it that bothered you — in particular the story of Walt Heyer, a somewhat notorious figure in the trans community, who had the surgery with Dr. Biber but later de-transitioned. Can you tell us about your concerns?
Hanberry-Lizzi: I think my biggest concern is just the inclusion of Walt Heyer. He has a very complicated life story. We ultimately shouldn't shy away from people who de-transition. But what was mostly concerning is that he was a part of a far right-leaning, I would say, propaganda machine. My concern is that, while these transition narratives are necessary for our community, he has the potential to further radicalize people. But I do think Martin does a good job of discrediting his ideas.
Gender by itself is not so easily defined just by genitalia or voice or chromosomes. I wish he could have included more of a breadth of people and experiences in the book. Personally, as a trans person, I would have liked to see a bit more of the positive experiences.
Smith: Claudine Griggs, is one of two patient characters that I focus on in the book. Her story really represents about 97% of trans experiences, where surgery is chosen as an option and it's the right option, and the person who chose that option has absolutely no regrets. It was the right choice for them. 97% is a startlingly high figure, and I think we need to keep that in the forefront of our minds.
I included Walt Heyer in this book, not as a false equivalence — you know, here's one success story and one story that's not a success — but rather to include a point of view that represents 3-4% of experiences and to give some texture to the book.
There were more than 6,000 people who made the journey to Trinidad for this surgery during that four-decade period. But one of the early things I learned about trans men and women is that they're often reluctant to go back and revisit their lives before their transition.
Claudine Griggs had written an extraordinary memoir called Passage Through Trinidad, in which she chronicled in real time her experience while undergoing surgery in Trinidad with Stanley Biber. Walt Heyer did the same thing. As a historian and a journalist, I had access through those two characters to get all of their contemporaneous experiences before, during and after their time in Trinidad.
Hanberry-Lizzi: Not all trans people want to talk about their transition experience and even less want to talk about who the person was that they were beforehand.
I really don't want to put you on blast here, Martin. I'm honestly very impressed with the book. But history has not treated trans people fairly. And so it might be harder for historians to do this research and do these important pieces of writing simply because we don't always feel like we can trust the historical community.
I never want to say that a cis historian will never be able to write a true trans history. I think that's reductive and against the point of wider society's recognition of gender being a more complex thing. But it is especially important to recognize that if it's written by a cis historian, there's a good chance they're not getting the whole picture. There’s a good chance that it's very incomplete. I would say that is a limitation of the book.
Smith: I accept that as a reality. I went into this as a journalist. In Trinidad, I saw the opportunity to tell a story about real people, in a real place, at a really interesting period in our history, that might be accessible to people like me who grew up in a gender binary world and who were kind of mystified by the whole transgender journey and experience. That was my intention, because of the climate that we're in, with trans men and women being targeted and being demonized by people, policymakers and politicians. I think my point in trying to make the book accessible to a wider audience was to make it impossible to caricature trans men and women.
Hanberry-Lizzi: I do very much appreciate the fact that you were writing this book. Despite my quibbles, I think that it is incredibly important. No trans person transitions on a whim. It's painstaking and it takes time. You second-guess yourself all the time. But it is something that ultimately you come to a very firm decision on.
The history of trans people is something that is intense and can be incredibly transforming. I know it was for me. The trans experience, while it is an arduous one and oftentimes a bitter one, it is one that is ultimately overflowing with love for yourself and for others.
I do appreciate that this work is being done. It has its faults, but giving a broader audience an understanding of what we have to go through is something that can only be good for us.
I want to end on something that I think you were both getting at. Historically speaking, people who are disenfranchised often don't get to control their own stories. And it takes a lot of time for history to right its course and eventually move into the space where disenfranchised people can start to tell their own stories. Where do you think we're at now in terms of trans history being told authentically?
Hanbery-Lizzi: It is always going to be a very hard thing for us to fully untangle. Transgender and intersex people have always existed, but those words are relatively recent. There can be mislabeling. Historians overall have wronged these marginalized communities. And as much as I am thankful that historians are starting to show tans history the proper respect it deserves, the only way we're going to get these stories is if our community can trust the historians doing it. The easiest way to do that is to have another trans person lead it.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for May 13. You can find the full episode here.