October 12, Governor Jared Polis announced that the administration of President Joe Biden had approved a health plan in Colorado that would include gender-based care services, described by Colorado Division of Insurance as “mental and physical health services that help adapt a transsexual’s body to conform to their gender identity.” Examples include face changes, breast or breast construction and more.
Colorado is the first state in the nation to take these steps, but it should come as no surprise. In decades past, at a time when the language used on transgender people was much less refined than it is now, the unlikely city of Trinidad was known as the United States’ gender reassignment capital — an unusual piece of Colorado history documented in many Westword stories.
An example of this is “Sex Machine”, an article from August 27, 1998 by Harrison Fletcher that profiled Dr. Stanley Biber, the man who put Trinidad on the transgender surgery card. The introductory passages from the article make it clear how many times have changed:
The surgical team gathers early on a Saturday morning and does not exactly hide what they are doing, but does not advertise it either. The procedure is still in its experimental phase and who knows how people will react.
Dr. Stanley Biber stands next to the operating table, white light shines down, the patient’s chest rises and falls with each breath of anesthesia.
A few weeks before, Ann had come to him, sitting in the same chair as thousands of other patients, and asked the question directly to him. She’s a friend, a social worker, who has brought him hare lip and cleft palate from around Las Animas County. Ann is impressed with her work.
“Can you do my surgery?”
“Of course,” Biber says. “There’s not an operation I can not do.”
He has no humility. He is 46 years old and still a rising star.
“What kind of surgery is that?”
“I’m transsexual,” Ann says.
“A transsexual? What the hell is that called?”
It’s 1969. Most people do not know a transsexual from a transvestite, and Biber himself is a bit sketchy. To him, this person sitting across his desk is a woman. Reddish hair. Medium construction. Does not look bad.
As it turns out, Ann is one of the first patients to receive hormone therapy from Dr. Harry Benjamin, father of transsexual research. Ann has passed Benjamin’s psychological criteria, lived as a woman for a year and is ready for the final step.
That afternoon, Biber calls New York and asks for Benjamin’s advice. He then contacts surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where the early gender reassignment surgeries have been performed, and makes sure the hospital sends hand-drawn diagrams detailing a man’s genitals to a woman’s. The technique is basic – raw, even – but similar to the procedure for prostate cancer.
“Okay,” he says. “We can do it.”
In 1998, Biber performed four sex reassignment surgeries every week and nearly 200 a year. Five years later, as Fletcher pointed out in a 2003 follow-up, the doctor’s total number of such surgeries had exceeded 6,000. But it ended there because Biber, then eighty, had reluctantly hung up his scalpel. “I did not retire – I was forced to retire, “he said at the time.” I’m in good shape. I work out every day; I lift the kids out. “But because of his age, his insurance company would no longer cover him.
Beavers died in 2006, as documented by an obituary in New York Times, but as Patricia Calhoun wrote in a piece from 2015, he left Trinidad as a successor: Dr. Marci Bowers, described as “an OB / GYN surgeon in Seattle who had undergone gender reassignment surgery in 1997, had met Biber in 2000, on the advice of a psychologist who had had Biber perform his own gender reassignment surgery …. A a few years later, when Bowers was ready to move on from the Seattle Clinic where she worked, she thought of Bieber’s offer to have her take over his practice, how she ended up in Trinidad and came right around the time the city held Stanley Biber Day, and became October 2010. ”
Bowers left Trinidad partly due to friction with the plant where she performed procedures; the administrators were not thrilled with the publicity generated by Sex Change Hospital, a reality show in which she starred back in 2008. She eventually moved to California, which prompted a local newspaper to headline a piece about her departure “Trinidad beats the golden goose.”
Today, of course, gender reassignment care is much more mainstream than it was a decade ago, as Colorado’s new health plan demonstrates. And while Biber did not live to see the change, he helped make it happen one operation at a time.