Smith admits he didn’t know what to think or say.
At the next family reunion ten years later, Smith decided to address his cousin with “dumb questions because that’s what journalists do.” His cousin explained not only the physical dimensions of her transition, but also the mental burdens.
“I just assumed that if you were transitioning, that surgery was the logical endpoint,” says Smith, who grew up in Upper St. Clair and worked at The Pittsburgh Press.
A few years ago, Smith’s interest in the topic was rekindled when he learned about Trinidad, Colo., a small town that once was the epicenter of gender-affirming transitions.
Bower House), Smith, who moved to Colorado from California a few years ago, writes about the patients who traveled to the Colorado town seeking relief from gender dysphoria. The Mayo Clinic describes the condition as “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.”
Located about 20 miles from the border of New Mexico in south central Colorado, Trinidad might seem like an odd destination for pilgrims seeking medical support. Founded in 1860, it was a center for coal mining, with nearby “excellent pasturage for cattle and sheep,” according to a town history published in 1871.
Less than a century later, Trinidad became the home of Dr. Stanley Biber. A Korean War veteran who served in a MASH unit, he also was weightlifter, a rancher, and a pianist. Married five times with numerous children and stepchildren, Biber, a former rabbinical student, occasionally led services at the local synagogue when a rabbi wasn’t available.
After he first performed a gender-affirming surgery in 1969, patients from all over the country traveled to Trinidad seeking Biber’s services. It’s estimated Biber performed approximately 6,000 surgeries in a little more than 40 years.
Smith admits he came to the story about a decade after Biber died in 2006. But the doctor’s legacy — “everyone in Trinidad knows Stanley Biber because he either delivered them or delivered their kids or stitched up their hemorrhoids in his office,” Smith says — remains, as does the gratitude of his trans patients.
Or, at least, most of them. Smith says the majority of trans men and women who have surgery are satisfied with the procedure. One woman he interviewed extensively, Claudine Griggs, became a successful writer and found a partner post-surgery.
But another patient of Dr. Biber’s, Walt Heyer, became an antagonist toward the trans community. Heyer, who transitioned to a woman and then retransitioned back to a man, wrote books with titles including Paper Genders and Gender, Lies, and Suicide. He labeled the LGBTQ community “sexual activists” and achieved minor notoriety after Caitlyn Jenner transitioned in 2015, appearing on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and other conservative outlets.
Smith was strongly advised by some trans advocates not to include Heyer in Going Back to Trinidad, lest his story become fodder for anti-trans activists.
“Does he represent the vast majority of trans men’s and women’s experiences? No, absolutely not,” Smith says. “He’s an anomaly, a very small percentage. … But in terms of tension in the story, in terms of understanding the arc of the full story, his role was pretty important, I thought.
“I’m open to conversations about that, and certainly open to criticism about that,” Smith adds, “but it was a storytelling choice I made.”