Tumbleweeds and Transexuals
A fascinating new documentary focuses on the tiny town of Trinidad, Colorado, population 9,000—and sex change capitol of the world.
By Steven Foster
When most people think of Colorado, laid-back Boulder, snowy Aspen, and cosmopolitan Denver are the go-to’s. But when thousands of others ponder the Centennial State, the little town of Trinidad comes to mind—and its reputation as the “sex change capitol of the world.”
To find out how this tiny outpost of barely 9,000 people became the mecca for sexual reassignment surgery, don’t miss the remarkable new documentary by noted Austin filmmakers PJ Raval and Jay Hodges. Trinidad explores the recent past and ponderous future of the town whose inhabitants are (literally) in transition. The film follows the fascinating, sometimes frustrating journey of three transsexuals in various stages of the transgender process; Dr. Marci Bowers, Sabrina Marcus, and Dr. Laura Ellis.
It all started in 1969, when kindly old Dr. Stanley Biber performed the first “sex change” operation in Trinidad. (Culture geeks are probably aware of Biber’s name from an infamous South Park episode, if not the hundreds of media articles on the good doctor.) When Biber began his practice, the slice-and-dice procedure of removing a penis and tranforming it into a vagina was a fledgling, workmanlike procedure at best. But Biber revolutionized the process, advancing genital reassignment surgery into something of a medical miracle and surgical game changer. Frustrated by the less-than-artistic aesthetic, Biber created genitalia that resembled the actual genitals and, what’s more, they worked remarkably like the real thing. His pioneering efforts drew pre-op transsexuals and those with gender dysphoria from all over the world, and by the time of his retirement, Biber had performed almost 6,000 GRSs.
When Biber did retire, Dr. Marci Bowers left a lucrative practice as an OB/GYN in Seattle to inherit Biber’s mantle. But Bowers had one important difference: she’d been there on the other side, whereas the man’s man Biber had not. So Bowers gave a certain spiritual resonance to the procedure, and, believe it or not, most residents of Colorado didn’t bat a prejudicial eye. The other two Bowers subjects don’t find Trinidad as open-armed.
Naturally, Trinidad does reveal the small-town folks you’d expect. There are the toothless good old boys in gimme caps who “just don’t get it” and the stalwart church-goer who’s scripturally opposed to the whole transgender debate. But Trinidad is also filled with dress-shop dowdies who only want to help the new girls in town look better, farmers who realize that without the surgeries there would be no hospital for anybody, and children of men-who’ve-become-women who stand by their parent while debating whether to call Dad “Mom.” And these transsexuals aren’t above the occasional catty Real Houswives of Trinidad behavior either. And those with weak stomachs should be prepared, the doc doesn’t spare any Nip/Tuck -like details. From almost shocking, decades-old surgical sketches to vivid, headspinning footage of the procedure, the documentary pulls no punches.
Gripping, enlightening, and frequently deeply moving, Trinidad is that rare documentary that educates while it entertains.
Plan ahead: PJ Raval and Jay Hodges’ Trinidad screens April 4, 7 p.m., at Rice Cinema. Details: ricecinema.rice.edu.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.