Trinidad, CO: Sex Change Capital of the U.S.

Learn how sex reassignment surgeons put the small mountain town of Trinidad, Colorado on the LGBTQ map.

It isn't the sort of place you'd necessarily think would be considered "the sex change capital of the world," where Bat Masterson once was the town marshal for over a year. But this western outpost has cheerfully accepted that mantle.

Welcome to Trinidad, Colorado, where there has been a physician specializing in sex change operations for the last 40-plus years — Dr. Stanley Biber from 1969 to 2003, and Dr. Marci Bowers from 2003 on. In November 2010, however, Bowers moved to San Mateo, California. Trinidad's nickname may still live on, though, since Bowers maintains a satellite office in Trinidad that employs two, but it's too early to tell.

"You would never know that it was dubbed the 'sex change capital of the world,'" remarks Realtor Charlie Barks. "For the most part, we don't see much of it here. Those coming in for surgery usually come in and have their operation and then leave to go back to their home."

But not everyone.

Trinidad's Transgender Community

Michelle Miles came to Trinidad in early 2005 to help a transgendered friend, who was opening up a bed and breakfast in the community — a recovery house, really, for patients who had undergone surgery with Dr. Bowers. Miles was also considering surgery, and it was around then that he decided to do what he had been considering for years. He had surgery, forever more became a she and adopted the name Michelle.

Miles didn't move to Trinidad immediately. She initially lived in Trinidad for a few months and then returned to New York City for a few more months, and then would come back to Trinidad. As the owner of a boutique investment firm, Miles could afford to alternate between two homes. "But you know, as I got a little bit older, Trinidad won," says Miles, who is 54. "It would become seven months in Trinidad, and four months in New York City, until eventually I decided to make Trinidad my home."

And her place of business. Several months ago, Miles opened the Tire Shop Wine and Spirits, and, no, she doesn't sell tires with a bottle of Chardonnay. Her business is located in a historic building and was formerly a tire shop, and since the former owner was a beloved member of the community, she decided to integrate his business legacy into her own.

As for being transgendered and living in Trinidad, Miles says that it isn't a problem. "The truth is, when I'm in New York, I feel just a little bit of an edge than I do in Trinidad. People just don't get in your business as much as they do back East."

Michelle Miles is one of many transsexuals who came to Trinidad for sex reassignment surgery. 

How It Began

The National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., estimates the number of transgendered residents as being between .0025 percent and 1 percent of the general population. An estimated 500 to 1,000 people undergo a sex change operation every year, with male-to-female surgery more common than female-to-male.

Trinidad's transgender history begins in 1969 when Biber, a country doctor for the last 15 years and a former Korean War M*A*S*H unit doc, was approached by a local male social worker who asked if he was qualified to perform a sex change operation. The rest is history -- an interesting one, at that.

Biber is credited with starting the nation's first private practice for gender reassignment surgery. By the time he retired in 2003, Biber had performed more than 5,000 genital reassignment operations on men, who felt they were only men physically. There was a period where Biber was doing four of them in a day, hence Trinidad's nickname, “sex change capital of the world.”

Bowers, a gynecologist who herself underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1998, took over Biber's practice and the town's reputation stuck. On average, she performs 130 surgeries a year. There are perhaps as many as 25 physicians who have conducted a sex change operation, but five or fewer do it with any regularity.

The Impact on Trinidad

While some residents have never much cared for the nickname, many quickly came to see that the sex change industry was helping Trinidad's economy. Biber's economy, too. Biber, who died in 2006 at the age of 82, owned a cattle ranch, and a trip through the newspaper archives shows how his income rose. Throughout much of the 1970s, he charged $1,000 for a sex change operation, until 1976, when it climbed to $1,200. By 2000, shortly before his retirement, according to USA Today, Biber and the local hospital split the $11,000 cost. Now, an operation can cost around $22,000.

Trinidad needed the economic help, according to graphics designer Dave Jacobs, a resident since 1989 who isn't part of the LGBT community. "I would not present Trinidad as a place of opportunity. If you have ambition, you have no business being here," he says with affection.

Trinidad has a population of approximately 11,000, and it's a quiet little place where its downtown is a charming, old-fashioned piece of Americana. In other words, it can be an ideal place to live if you aren't looking to live in the big city, and yet this is no barren ghost town with tumbleweeds drifting through the street. It has the requisite fast food outlets like McDonald's and Burger King (and if higher-fare food, like Mexican or Chinese, is your thing, yes, you're in luck), and there's the Trinidad Regional Mall. The community also has a junior college, several museums in and around Trinidad and the Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre.

Trinidad got its nickname due to the work of Dr. Stanley Biber and Dr. Marci Bowers, who were among the few doctors in the world to regularly perform sex change operations. 

Don't Expect an LGBTQ Utopia

The Walt Disney Company's manufactured town, Celebration, near Orlando, Fla., recently had its first murder. Similarly, Trinidad isn't quite Utopia. In August, 2009, a man living as a woman came to Trinidad, with an appointment to see Dr. Bowers, and was brutally attacked and raped in a hotel room. That said, the attacker was later identified as an out-of-state assailant and not a resident of the community. That should hardly reflect badly on Trinidad.

That said, Matt Kailey, a female-to-male transsexual whose blog, Tranifesto, explores transgender and transsexual issues, isn't sure he would encourage the LGBT community to pack up and move here. A Colorado resident who has visited Trinidad a number of times and knows the community on an admittedly superficial level, Kailey remarks, "I would say, based on what I know, that Trinidad is probably more tolerant than most rural Colorado towns, but I'm not sure that I would go so far as to say that it is LGBT friendly. It is still rural Colorado."

Kailey adds, "These are two very different groups, trans and gay and lesbian... I think it's really important to separate those two populations and not to assume that the town's attitude toward one will reflect the town's attitude toward the other."

Miles would seem to agree. She uses the word tolerant to describe the town as well. There is no gay bar in Trinidad, for instance, which at first she thought was a bad omen, but she later realized, "We don't need a gay bar. Everybody mixes in Trinidad. The manager of my store is out as a lesbian, and she has all kinds of friends. People around here couldn't care less about who she dates and who she doesn't."

Jacobs, who lives just outside the town's borders and maintains the site TrinidadColorado.net, echoes that sentiment, describing his municipality as "a nonjudgmental community, at least among the locals." And over 40 years of history appears to back Jacobs up.

"It's a slow town, for the most part, and most people don't have a whole lot of money," says Jacobs, "but people will let you be who you want to be."

Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to FrontDoor.com.

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