Martin J. Smith, a veteran journalist and former senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, is the author of five crime novels and four previous nonfiction books. He has won more than 50 newspaper and magazine writing awards, and his novels have been nominated for three of the publishing industry’s most prestigious honors, including the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and the Barry Award.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
Martin J. Smith’s fifth nonfiction book, “Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories From an Unlikely Gender Crossroads” will be available at book stores on April 15. He recently chatted with SunLit about the events that pushed him toward the subject of the small Colorado town and the surgeon, Dr. Stanley Biber, who made it a destination for gender confirmation surgery for 41 years.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SunLit: Tell me about the origin of the book — what inspired you to spend two years reporting and writing about this portion of Colorado history?
Martin Smith: So I’ve got to go back to the early 1990s, at a family reunion in Estes Park. That was the reunion that my cousin decided she was going to announce to the family that she was transitioning to female. And she did it in this really remarkable way. The first day at breakfast, she had sort of a single-post earring in one ear. And then the next morning, she had a post earring in each ear, a little more feminine. By the fourth day, she was wearing these very feminine earrings, and it sparked some conversation at the reunion and people didn’t quite understand what was going on. It was an interesting thing and as I watched it, I just thought, “Wow, there’s a lot here I don’t understand.”
Flash forward another 10 years, and we had another reunion. By then, my cousin was living full time as a female. And I still had all these questions. And so I said, “So, are you going to have surgery?” I assumed that was what you do if you transition. And she said, “No, I kind of like my penis.” And I thought, there’s a world out there I don’t understand at all — this world of gender that is baffling to me.
Then you come to 2016, when we moved to Colorado and I started hearing about Trinidad’s interesting history as this gender crossroads for 6,000 medical pilgrims who came to take that step to do the surgery. And I started thinking maybe that’s a way to explore all these questions I have about gender and how it works. Because this is a real story with a real interesting place with real people, and if you tell that story well, along the way you learn something about gender in the process.
SunLit: Trinidad’s role in this kind of surgery has been out there in the public, off and on, for years. What was your approach to the story?
Smith: Nobody had ever written a book about it from beginning to end. And it was a complete story — it started in 1969 and it ended in 2010, when Marci Bowers, who was Stanley Biber’s protege, left town. So there was a window of 41 years where this happened. And this place was alive with transgender men and women and their families who came there for relief. So as a story arc, it was complete. It had a beginning, a middle and an end.
SunLit: Why did you think this story would resonate now?
Smith: The thing that really attracted me to it was the timeliness of it. You know, this is in the middle of the Trump administration where suddenly, transgender civil rights are under direct assault. No, they can’t serve in the military. No, they don’t qualify for health care. These are human beings, people with real lives, real families, and they were under threat.
I certainly don’t pretend to speak for the transgender community. I haven’t lived that experience. But as an empathetic person I looked at that and I said this is wrong. And maybe this is a way to bring that story to life, that will make it understandable and accessible to people like me.
SunLit: There were a lot of other things happening. This was not long after Caitlyn Jenner made her announcement. The trans community was gaining cultural traction in a much bigger way than it had in the past.
Smith: The Olympic decathlon champion transitioned and that was the big bang that put it front and center in terms of the conversation. It also kind of put a target on it, that’s when everybody started talking about transgender athletes and what an unfair advantage they have. And “these are just men in dresses trying to get into locker rooms” and all that sort of absurd fear mongering that went on around it.
SunLit: As a writer, you were starting to explore a subject that has its own particular vocabulary and terminology. I imagine that presented at least an early challenge.
Smith: It’s a minefield. I naively put it out there that I was working on this book, because I needed to raise some money for travel because I needed to go all over the country to interview people. So I put a little Kickstarter campaign together, which failed miserably. But in the process, some people in the trans community heard about it and the pushback was immediate: “Who are you? You’re not one of us. We’re going to tell our own stories.” I immediately understood that I was an outsider.
And one of the people who pushed back on that early on said I used the wrong vocabulary, and they said, “Look, we discourage you from doing this, but if you’re going to do this, use the media reference guide put out by GLAAD,” which is an LGBTQ organization. They’re very media savvy. And so I got a copy and it explained all these terms, like cisgender. I was that naive and that raw about all this stuff. And the GLAAD Media Reference Guide was a huge help to me.
SunLit: You quickly found out this is a very intimate topic with very strong feelings within the community. As an outsider, how difficult was it to find people who would trust you to tell their story?
Smith: One of the first things I learned in trying to report this book was transgender men and women are fine talking about their lives after their transition. Their lives before their transitions, they’re not really into talking about because they were generally pretty miserable. They were unhappy with themselves, they were probably tormented in school, they put up with a lot of social pressures, and it was an unhappy period of their life. And to revisit that requires courage, and a willingness to put yourself through that again.
So you start with this field of 6,000 medical pilgrims who came through Trinidad during those 41 years and you think there’s endless people who are going to want to talk. There really aren’t. There are very few who are willing to go back and say, OK, this is what this was like before, during and after. Very quickly, two names rose to the top of that list. They were Claudine Griggs and Walt Heyer, both of whom had kept contemporaneous records, journals of their experience in Trinidad before, during and after. They both were very articulate. In particular, Claudine Griggs was extraordinarily articulate about the experience — not just the physical challenges but the emotional and psychological challenges.
SunLit: Why did you choose Walt Heyer?
Walt Heyer was a little bit different. He’s a very complicated character. He was misdiagnosed as gender dysphoric, and he had the surgery. And then for four decades he struggled. The surgery didn’t help, and he kept flipping back and forth between these male and female personas. He had a four-decade struggle with mental illness. And in the end, he was not gender dysphoric at all.
So he was an odd choice for this book, and I concede that. And it’s turning out to be a fairly controversial choice, because he’s atypical of people who have gender dysphoria. I understand that. And yet his personal story was so compelling that I thought, OK, I’m going to use him as one of the characters in this book to say out loud all the things that a lot of people think, but don’t say.
Now, he’s stepped forward as a sort of sex change regret advocate, very conservative, the darling of the talk shows. Whenever they talk about gender dysphoria, they bring him on to be the counterpoint. I didn’t focus on that in the book at all — I think three pages out of a 300-page book are devoted to what he does now. But I don’t think any of that invalidated his struggle.
SunLit: How did the people of Trinidad react to your reporting? Were they willing to talk about that part of their town’s history?
Smith: It was ancient history to them by then. Remember, Marci Bowers left in 2010 and I didn’t show up till seven years after that. So initially people were saying, “That’s over, why is that a story? That doesn’t seem timely at all.” And that’s a valid point. But what I was trying to write was a historical account that would resonate right now. Trinidad was a pretty amazing place, and I had to do a lot of reconstructive reporting to figure out: Who was Stanley Biber?
And the fact is that he touched pretty much every life in Trinidad, Colorado, for many, many decades. He delivered babies, he repaired gunshot wounds, he stitched up hemorrhoids in his office. He also was one of the largest landowners in Las Animas County. He was just so integral to that community. And so they were happy to talk about Stanley Biber, because everybody knew and everybody liked him.
SunLit: How did the town feel about the gender confirmation portion of Biber’s practice?
Smith: If he said it was OK, which he did, they were OK with that because they trusted him and knew him. Things changed a little bit when Marci Bowers came in around 2003 and started taking over his practice. She moved from Seattle and she’s transgender herself. She’s very likable and a good surgeon, but she wasn’t Stanley Biber, and she had to struggle against that, even though she did great work there.
The tide started to turn and she didn’t get quite as much support from the community. But all the people who lived that story, both the Biber chapter and the Bowers chapter, are still there. They saw Marci on the golf course and they saw Stanley driving his beat up Toyota pickup truck around town. It didn’t take much to sit them down and just bring that history alive.
SunLit: How did Biber win the approval of the community?
Smith: One of the things Biber did early on when he started doing these surgeries was he called together all the hospital administrators and concerned citizens and politicians and clergy and got them into a room. And he said word’s getting out that this is what I’m doing. And yes, I am doing it, here’s why I’m doing it: These people need help. Their pain is real. I have the power to relieve that pain and I think that’s the right thing to do.
And they all said, “All right, we’ll take your word for it.” Keep in mind, this is a small rural hospital that at the time he started doing these surgeries was run by the Sisters of Charity as a Catholic hospital, and many of the staff were Sisters of Charity. And he’s doing gender surgeries. There is a Jewish doctor in a Catholic hospital doing gender surgeries. It was a minefield for him, and understanding how he went about getting the community behind him was just fascinating.
SunLit: What happened once he retired?
Smith: When he was unable to do surgeries anymore, Marci Bowers took over. And over the next seven years, it became untenable. It was nobody’s fault. Dr. Bowers would suggest that there was some misogyny and transphobia involved and maybe from her perspective that’s true. But I think generally, it’s just that she wasn’t Stanley Biber, and there was a little less tolerance for her than him.
SunLit: How did you set out to write this? Was it something that you were able to plan out or did the story take you in in unexpected directions?
Smith: I’ve written five novels and this is my fifth nonfiction book. And I can honestly say that only twice in those 10 books has the story just sort of written itself, where I felt like the train left the station and all I could do was run as fast as I could to keep up with it. And this was one of those.
SunLit: You’ve mentioned that your agent said this book should be forward looking. How did you approach that idea?
Smith: I don’t think I set out with any sort of agenda, with any sort of presumptions, other than curiosity and empathy. I wanted to answer those questions I had about gender, and I wanted to understand these trans men and women as three-dimensional people. And if I had any agenda at all, it was to simply make it impossible, in telling their stories, to turn them into caricatures — that’s what we see with the fear mongering going on in our culture right now.
When you understand the torment that brings most people to transition, and when you understand the physical and the emotional challenges of transitioning publicly — you’re going to do that to win an 800-meter race in the girls division? I mean, come on, let’s not be absurd here. The only agenda I had was to tell these stories in such detail, and in such human terms, that it makes it impossible for people to do that.
SunLit: With such a complex, misunderstood subject, did you bounce your manuscript off anyone in the trans community?
Smith: I did have (my trans cousin) read the completed manuscript when I finished it. She had some really good feedback. Susan Stryker, the transgender historian, wrote a book called “Transgender History.” She read it early. There was a woman named Marsha Botzer in Seattle, which is where Marci Bowers came from. She introduced Bowers to Biber. I found her late in the process but she turned out to be an invaluable source and I ended up having her take a look at it.
So yes, but I wasn’t seeking their approval. I wanted their feedback. I knew I had made editorial choices, storytelling choices, that were not going to be popular — with Heyer being the primary one. And I didn’t expect them to embrace that. But they were very helpful in helping me figure out whether I got it right or got it wrong.
SunLit: Looking at your own arc of understanding, what was that process like for you?
Smith: It’s kind of humbling to realize how stupid you are. I’d never thought much about gender and how it forms. And I think the revelation to me was how ill-informed I was as a fairly naive heterosexual male. I hadn’t really thought much about the very, very complicated process of gender development. The light bulb went on for me. I realized how little I knew about this to begin with, and how much I had learned about it by the end of this process.