Life-Long Wordsmith’s New Book Respects the Freedom to Change

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by Brian Mori

Veteran writer Martin J. Smith enjoys the coincidence of living at the headwaters of the Colorado River.

He spent over three decades as a journalist in Los Angeles, a megalopolis that owes its stature to that same body of water.

“I went from one end to the other,” Smith, 64, said. “I just think that’s cool.”

In a way, the Colorado’s meandering determination represents Smith’s nearly half-a-century career in the business of words, and may also serve as a visual motif for his latest project, Going to Trinidad.

He elucidates the freedom to change that the bustling, southern Colorado town symbolized for the international transgender community for over 40 years.

“‘Going to Trinidad’ became a worldwide euphemism for having (sexual reassignment/gender confirmation) surgery,” he said. “Approximately six-thousand medical pilgrims came from all over the world.”

Around 275 pages, it is a multibiography of two pioneering doctors and two brave patients, all who risked this once very dangerous and controversial procedure.

Smith sprinkled his saga with tidbits about the town’s history, including some of its colorful inhabitants, across a span of time from its inception as a trading post in the mid-nineteenth century, through its role as a mining town a century later, and most recently as a destination for marijuana tourism.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Smith and his wife, Judy, retired in Granby in 2016.

He continues to write for periodicals in Colorado and guest lectures at universities.

Going to Trinidad is the former L.A. Times Magazine editor’s fifth work of nonfiction.

He also co-founded the Grand County Community of Writers through the Library District.

“Within Colorado, the story of Trinidad is fairly well known for being a gender crossroads,” Smith explained. “But the story has never been told from start to finish.”

Throughout the book, Smith unpacks the life of Stanley Biber, a surgeon in a MASH unit in the Korean War, who came to the town to serve as a general surgeon.

Over time, he helped transition the town into a kind of mecca for those seeking relief from

gender dysphoria, what the Mayo Clinic today defines as, “A feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related, physical characteristics.”

Biber’s life in itself challenges stereotypes.

As Smith tells it, Biber, a Jew, first opened his practice under the supervision of a Catholic hospital system. He married five times and had several children, some of who still live around Trinidad.

After a long and successful career helping transgender people find peace, he handed off the baton to Marci Bowers, a Seattle obstetrician-gynecologist who began her own medical practice as a man.

Bowers remained in Trinidad from 2003 until 2010 when she moved the practice to Burlingame, California.

Smith next contrasted the stories of two patients, Claudine Griggs and Walt Heyer, who represented two very different scenarios.

“It’s hard to find a transgender man or woman willing to go back and relive that traumatic period of their life,” Smith said. “Six thousand quickly becomes only a few who are willing to talk.”

Smith was able to sit down for extensive interviews with both Griggs and Heyer after reading their autobiographies.

“I used Griggs in the story as the embodiment of how it should work,” he said. “It improved her life greatly and she is generally happy.”

Whereas Griggs’ tale features a happy ending, Heyer’s may seem rather tragic to some.

“Heyer’s personal story is incredibly interesting, even if it is not typical,” Smith said.

According to Smith, “Heyer suffered from mental illness, specifically dissociative disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder.”

Now a man in his eighties, Heyer actively speaks out about the trauma of realizing it was a mistake to undergo surgery.

His website hosts several articles about people bemoaning similar choices to undergo chemical or operative gender treatment.

“He is a lightning rod in the L.G.B.T.Q. community and a darling of conservative media,” Smith said.

Heyer recently claimed that nearly 2 out of 10 people who alter their bodies regret it, while Smith cites studies suggesting the reported rate of satisfaction is closer to 97 percent.

“Some believe Heyer overstates the numbers,” Smith said. “He essentially denies the relief that so many men and women have felt.”

Regardless of numbers, Smith wants to empower freedom of choice with his book.

“(These) are real stories with real people,” he said frankly. “Understanding that gender exists along this pretty broad spectrum was something that I was pretty ignorant about.”

Smith was first perplexed by transgender phenomena during a family reunion in Estes Park almost 30 years ago.

“Writers are funny creatures,” he said with a laugh when asked for details. “They tend to squirrel things away in their head until such things are practical and useful.”

Smith described a cousin who had been raised male, who revealed to their family the desire to be identified as a woman by wearing progressively more feminine earrings each day.

“In 1992 it wasn’t radical, but it was noticeable,” he explained. “Flash forward ten years and my cousin was living full time as a woman.”

Surprising Smith at the time, his cousin reported no interest in undergoing surgery.

“I kind of like my penis,” Smith quoted her. “Then my head just sort of exploded and I thought, I don’t understand this at all!”

Prior to his cousin’s transition, Smith said he assumed what most people did back then, that those who want to change gender would want to alter their bodies.

“Gender is not your genitalia,” he explained. “It is one cue but it involves your brain and how you see yourself.”

Scientifically, “sex” refers specifically to anatomy, while “gender” is a perspective of the psyche.

“Who is better to define yourself better than you,” Smith asked rhetorically. “We delegate that duty to the nurse in the maternity ward who takes a look between your legs and says ‘oh, you’re a male.’”

He does not believe genital distinctions account for intersex people, or chromosomal makeup.

“I don’t pretend to be an expert, and I don’t want to get on a soapbox,” Smith said. “Biology demands diversity.”

Most of the adults with whom he has spoken reported severe emotional and physical pain prior to transition.

“Some people may be satisfied with simply changing their clothes,” Smith said. “Others may need more help.”

Although he considers himself a staunch ally of transgender and intersex people today, Smith said he didn’t spend a lot of time on politics in the book.

 He remained true to his journalistic purpose,boiling away the speculation, theory, and contradiction with a question no scholar could dismiss.

“Why would somebody do it,” he asked. “Why would they risk alienating friends and family if they weren’t looking for some relief from some extreme physical or emotional pain?”

No matter the answer for any one individual, Going to Trinidad respects the daring voyages of transition undertaken by thousands within this one, little Colorado town.

In an era when one-size-fits-all mandates seem to dwarf individual freedoms, the river outside Smith’s home serves as a reminder that change is the only constant in this world.

How future societies will treat gender, as fact or fluid, remains to be seen.

However, at least one truth is certain: the freedom to change begins in the mind.

As for Trinidad, Smith believes the town has always embraced its transitions.

He even included a prediction about what he believes is next for the town.

Going to Trinidad is widely available on Amazon, through other major online retailers, as well as chain and independent bookstores. Readers can learn more about Smith, his work, events, and even what he looks like at Martinjsmith.com.

Learn more about Smith’s writing workshop at gcld.org/writers.  

Martin Smith is also on the calendar for book talks, signings and question and answers.  

  • May 22, at 4 p.m., Martin Smith will be on-stage in Granby at the Polhamus Park for an interview and question and answer session. The event is hosted by the Grand County Library District and moderated by Anna Szczepanski of the Grand County Community of Writers.  
  • June 12 – Book talk and signing at Next Page Books in Frisco from 2-3 p.m.
  • July 9 – Book talk and signing, 5:30 p.m. at the Cozens Ranch Museum in Fraser.  Hosted by the Grand County Historical Association.