Journalist Martin Smith said he wrote his latest book, in part, because of the recent politically driven rollbacks of civil rights for transgender people and with the belief that it is harder to marginalize and dehumanize a person with whom you can empathize.
His book, released this month, called “Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories From an Unlikely Gender Crossroads,” deeply personalizes the transgender experience, from the often tortured paths that brought nearly 6,000 people to Trinidad to the sometimes complicated relief and new lives that were found here.
Smith also said he wrote his book because he was shocked to find the story of surgeons Dr. Stanley Biber and Dr. Marci Bowers and their patients had yet to be told this way, from beginning to end.
For 41 years Trinidad was a mecca for those struggling with gender identity and the profound issues that often arise when facing questions that do not have binary answers. Questions we still endeavor to understand today.
Smith spent nearly two years researching the book and a time he calls a “forgotten chapter in gender and medical history,” and tracked the lives of transgender men and women to help people better understand their complex pre-and post-surgery experiences. He focuses on two patients that experienced very different outcomes. He explains how that choice has brought some controversy to the book in the interview below.
“I began this journey ill-prepared and uneducated — a consequence of growing up in an era when most people believed gender was a binary thing,” Smith said. “I’m still learning, and hope others who read the resulting book will learn with me. I appreciate the privilege of being trusted to tell this story.”
Below, The Chronicle-News interviews Martin Smith about his new book, why he wrote it, what he found coming to Trinidad and what the city has lost no longer being “the sex-change capital of the world.”
An interview with Martin Smith on “Going to Trinidad”
—Ed. Note: The interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
The Chronicle-News: Hi, Martin. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Martin Smith: Well, I’m a journalist by trade. An ink-stained-wretch, just like you. I started in newspapers started in Pennsylvania, which is my home state and where I went to college, I went to Penn State. Then moved to California in 1985 to work at the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times, where I was a senior editor for the Sunday magazine. Then I’ve spent the last 10 years as a magazine editor for a monthly magazine called Orange Coast, in Orange County California.
I’ve also had a parallel career writing novels. I’ve written five crime novels, but never really quit my day job. I moved to (Granby) Colorado in 2016 and so I’ve written five crime novels and this is my fifth nonfiction book as well. So, I kinda kept those two plates spinning while also raising a family.
CN: What brought you to tell this story in “Going to Trinidad?”
MS: I had a cousin that transitioned back in the early 90s. It happened at a family reunion where she publicly came out and announced she was transitioning from living as a male to living as a female. Again, this is in the early 90s and, at least publicly, wasn’t very common. I watched that scene unfold and what she did was very interesting, and she came down every morning at breakfast wearing a slightly more feminine set of earrings every morning for four mornings.
By the fourth morning she was wearing very feminine earrings and it was subtle, but it got the point across and since that point forward she has lived as a woman. I watched all that unfold and watched the family react to it and writers are kinda squirrelly. They see something, but don’t know what to make of it. So, I put that away for a while.
Ten years later I had a conversation with her at another family reunion and I was a naive gender male and had assumed that anyone that transitioned that surgery was part of that. That’s not the truth and not always the case. So, I asked, “When are you getting the surgery,” and she said, “I don’t think I’m going to.” That blew my mind and I felt like I opened a door to something I didn’t understand.
So, for a couple of decades I carried that in my head and when I moved to Colorado in 2016, I started hearing about Trinidad and its interesting history as this gender crossroads for 41 years. So, I thought maybe that story is a way to go back into my head and unpack those questions and explore this gender issue and how it develops and how it plays out in our culture.
And Trinidad wasn’t some abstract story, it is not a treatise on “queer theory,” it is a real place with real people — real interesting people. Something like 6,000 medical pilgrims had come there over four decades to have surgery and, in their minds, finish their transitions. I just thought that there was so much there to explore; all those questions about gender that I always had and never really had a way to dive into. The Trinidad story allowed me to do that.
CN: Why tell this story now?
MS: I was fascinated and pleasantly surprised to find out nobody had written a book of what happened in Trinidad during those years. It had been written about in national magazines and stories were done on Dr. Biber. And Dr. Bowers had gotten a lot of publicity over the years, but nobody had told story from beginning to end. That appealed to me as a writer. It had a beginning, middle and end. Many characters are still alive. Dr. Bowers is still alive, some of the patients who had passed through Trinidad were still alive and willing to talk.
So, that confluence of events combined with one other thing. That was a sense of urgency that I felt when I first started working on this in 2017, because transgender rights were under pretty heavy assault, pretty direct assault during the Trump administration.
I just thought now is the right time to tell a story that’s full of real human beings struggling with profound issues of gender identity and to tell that story in a way that is accessible to people like me who grew up in a gender-binary world and have always been mystified by the transgender journey.
The Trinidad story allowed me to tell that story in a way that for people that otherwise might not ever pick up a book on transgender men and women might pick up this book.
CN: What struck me, reading your book, was how personal it was. Why is it necessary to take us deep into some very intimate scenes?
MS: Often when you tell the small story, you tell the big story. By telling those stories in great detail, like the stories of the two patients I follow, Claudine Griggs and Walt Heyer, it kind of makes it impossible to reduce the whole current transgender debate about ‘Oh, these are just people in dresses that want to get into girls locker rooms.’
When you see those stories up close and you realize the profound issues these folks are facing, and you realize the torment that brought so many of those people to Trinidad. For many of them it was a life, or death choice. Either I can do this, or I don’t know if I can go on living.
The stakes are enormously high and that’s a great story. As a novelist and a journalist, I look for the same things in a great story. One is larger than life characters; Stanley Biber and Marcie Bowers certainly are. I look for high stakes. What are the stakes to the people that are involved in this story? And the third component is timeliness. Why is now the right time to tell this story? To me the Trinidad story had all three of those things.
CN: You mentioned the main protagonists, Claudine Griggs and Walt Heyer, and we’ll leave most of that narrative for people when they read the book, but what about the other characters you might have found in Trinidad?
MS: Well, Michelle Miles former city councilmember there in Trinidad. She is a terrific example, and she is one of the very few that decided to make her life there. I think her story is fascinating, from Wall St. executive, or investment banker, to living in Trinidad and starting her life there. You know, buying the Tire Shop liquor store and becoming very much a part of the fabric of Trinidad’s culture and government and politics. I admire her a great deal.
I will point out: When you say there were 6,000 medical pilgrims who came to Trinidad and think about getting access to them, it sounds like there are endless stories to tell, but you really don’t (have that), because of HIPPA (Health Information Privacy) privacy regulations. I didn’t have open access to Dr. Biber’s files, or Dr. Bowers files. I couldn’t just look up who their patients were and just call them up and have a conversation.
I had to rely on their patients who had become very public about their passage through Trinidad. Claudine Griggs, for example, had a voluminous journal of her time before, during, and after her surgery in Trinidad. And Walt Heyer had that too, which meant I had a treasure trove of memories written down in the moment that would explain what they went through, how they went through it and what they dealt with. So, those two characters quickly rose to the fore, but that doesn’t mean they are the only ones. Obviously, there are 5,998 others, approximately, and I did tell some of those (stories). But I wanted to keep a real hard focus on those two, because like I said, it is the small stories that tell the big story.
CN: What did you find in Trinidad, now that it seems that chapter of our history is closed?
MS: I wrote story for the Los Angeles Times in 2019, it was on the front page, but I did a story for them about the obvious lack of commemoration in Trinidad of what that place meant for transgender men and women all over the world. And maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by it, because as Michelle Miles pointed out, Trinidad is not a place that goes around throwing up statues to people.
They have a few statues, but they are people like Kit Carson and the Miner’s Memorial and ‘Canary Cage’ downtown, but it takes a while. They just recently added a statue to Louis Tikas, who was killed in the Ludlow Massacre. And (Michelle) said ‘And that took 100 years.’ So she said, ‘Don’t feel like we are overlooking Biber,’ and she has a point.
When I visited in 2019 there was an exhibit (at the Trinidad History Museum) called the Borderlands exhibit that for the first time had a display of Stanley Biber and his work… I thought that was interesting and felt like the town was embracing him. And I mention in the book that during that same trip there was a brochure that alluded to the ‘welcoming’ nature of Trinidad and how it has always been a place where people could come and be themselves and I thought it was interesting how the town was starting to embrace this part of its legacy.
CN: Trinidad is no longer the “sex change capital of the world,” have we lost something now that has passed?
MS: One of the appeals of this story was that it is a closed window. Trinidad isn’t that anymore. After (Dr. Bowers) left in 2010, I think Mt. San Rafael hired a part-time OBGYN, but they didn’t have any interest in this type of surgery, so it ended. It was neither good, nor bad, it just ended.
As I write in the book, Trinidad itself is a city of transitions; from the Santa Fe Trail trading post era, to the mining era, to the Stanley Biber era, to the marijuana era, which may or may not be coming to an end, into the Fishers Peak project and recreational tourism. So, I think Trinidad has gotten comfortable over the many decades, over a century with change. Stanley Biber and Marci Bowers are one chapter of that identity but won’t be the last.
I think Trinidad is adaptable, though I do wish I had been alive and in Trinidad during those decades when three to four patients a week were coming for gender surgery and they were bringing their lovers and spouses and families and eating in the restaurants and walking the sidewalks and staying in the hotels. I would have loved to have been there, to see that, because that had to have been a fascinating place.
That was part of my attraction to the story. How did this happen here? And how did the town adapt to it? I think it adapted to it because Stanley Biber said it was OK.
He called this meeting in the early 70s. He called together the hospital administrators, and local clergy and politicians and said ‘Look, word is getting out. This is what I am doing. This is why I’m doing it, because these people need help and I’m qualified to help them. It’s the right thing to do.’ And that was OK with everybody.
There was always going to be people that didn’t like it; that it was the wrong image for the town, whatever. But for the most part, they went along with it and it was good for everyone. Restaurants have business and hotels have rooms filled. As long as Stanley Biber said it was ‘OK,’ it was OK.
I just think that says something remarkable about Trinidad. Even those that found it to be a negative, rather than a positive I think it is a remarkable thing about that town that so many people just opened their arms and said ‘Sure, we don’t judge. Welcome.’
CN: There is also some dichotomy there. A place so welcoming of change, yet also steeped in Catholic and Old-World traditions, whether those are Hispanic, Italian, Jewish and the like. What did you make of that?
MS: For me it was peeling back layers of an onion. You start with a Jewish surgeon, starting at a Catholic hospital, founded by the Sisters of Charity and run for most of that time by them. I think the last Sisters of Charity nun was there until 1995. That’s 20 years of gender surgeries with Sisters of Charity in attendance. Then you peel back another layer and you have the population of Trinidad, as diverse as it is. That goes back to the mining era.
The Rockefellers wanted to bring in people who couldn’t speak the same language. So, Greeks and Italians and people that they thought couldn’t communicate with one another and form unions. It remains a very diverse place. But every one of those layers that I peeled was just — what was underneath was more fantastic then the last.
CN: The book came out this month. What kind of feedback are you getting?
MS: Good for the most part. And when it hasn’t been good, it has been expected. I made some story telling choices in telling the story that I knew wouldn’t be very popular in the LGBTQ community. Walt Heyer in particular as a character is a little bit of a lightning rod in the LGBTQ community. And he is an anomaly to be honest.
His story is not typical of transgender men and women. He was never (going through) gender dysphoria, he was just mis-diagnosed. But his personal story was so fascinating to me. Regardless of who he became, which is this anti-sex surgery advocate, before he became that, for four decades before that, that is the story I was fascinated by and what I spend the bulk of those pages telling, because his story is no less valid than anybody else’s. It may not be representative of the larger LGBTQ community.
Claudine Griggs story, however, is and I wanted her story to embody the vast majority, something like 97 percent of transgender men and women who found that surgery was the right choice for them. Heyer represents the three to four percent that have some regrets about it, that doesn’t invalidate his story. I needed someone in the book that was going to be honest and says out loud all the things that sis-gender people that haven’t thought very much about the transgender experience, because that allows me in the book to then open that discussion and have that conversation and have push back on the science he cites. Because that was the point of writing the book, to help people like me, sis-gender people, understand all the issues involved. Having Walt Heyer in the story allowed me to have that discussion more fully.
CN: This is a discussion that is going to follow you for some time now isn’t it?
MS: I hope so. One of the things that I came out of this experience with is and I’ll be real honest with you, is an intolerance for people who try to caricature transgender men and women, to make them out to be these one-dimensional people who just want to change genders so they can win a track meet in high school. That is absurd. That line of thinking is absolutely absurd.
Yet, there are a lot of people, including politicians and leaders of all levels; national, state and local who are making those arguments. Trying to institute public policy that deny transgender men and women healthcare and to serve in the U.S. military and to deny them competing in athletics.
I wanted this book and I hope to get the opportunity to continue talking about, how absurd those arguments are. And how offensive they have become. They have put a target on transgender men and women, who have already struggled tremendously just to survive, and we are going to put these additional indignities on them? That doesn’t seem right to me… And I’m happy to continue talking about that for a long time to come.
CN: Smith said he is hoping to continue the conversation here in Trinidad on Saturday, June 19, through an event organized by the Trinidad Carnegie Library and Trinidad History Museum at 2 p.m. Other events might also be in the works and will be advertised closer to the date.