If you want to hide out in Trinidad, stay away from the Hot Spot at the Savoy. Every single customer — and there were more than a dozen — who stepped into the long, narrow downtown diner during a recent lunch hour was greeted by name or back-slapped or fussed over by somebody already inside.
Everybody knew somebody in the diner. And they were well aware that the town’s marquee personality, gender-reassignment surgeon Dr. Marci Bowers, had left for good.
“And everybody has an opinion about it,” said Hot Spot owner Diana Velarde.
“I think it’s too bad,” said Mike Gerardo, one of Velarde’s customers, who sat in overalls polishing off a plate of spaghetti. A former coal miner, Gerardo knows about the impact of a business shutting down.
“She brought a lot of money into the community,” Gerardo said.
Bowers is known the world over for turning men into women (and occasionally the other way around). She didn’t make Trinidad, Colo., the sex-change capital of the world; she merely made it world famous as that.
But this fall, after months of fighting with the hospital that was the home base for her practice, she packed up her instruments and headed to the San Francisco area, ending an era that helped define Trinidad for decades.
It may not be the greatest cataclysm the town of about 10,000 has weathered. Mines have closed. Railroad hubs have moved.
But regardless of its eventual place in Trinidad history, Bowers’ departure reverberates now, in ways big and small, throughout this rugged town in the Purgatoire River valley.
Gender-reassignment patients didn’t fly in and out overnight. Their procedures kept them in town for days, if not weeks.
That’s why restaurants, hotels and gift shops will all be hurt, said Karin Murray, co-owner of Hometown Pharmacy & Medical on Main Street.
Murray’s business has been hit too.
“All her patients needed prescriptions,” she said.
They also needed a place to stay after they got out of the hospital. For the past couple of years, Carol Cometto provided that at the Morning After Guest House.
Cometto, Bowers’ former partner, said she hoped to keep it running, with a few changes, in the post-gender-change era.
“My slogan was going to be ‘instead of coming to Trinidad for a sex change, come to Trinidad for sex for a change,’ ” she said.
But last week, Cometto, a Trinidad native, hauled out the last empty wine bottle, swept the dust out of the five guest rooms and locked up the Victorian guesthouse for good.
Now she’s managing Trinidad’s swanky new wine shop.
Michelle Miles, the owner of the Tire Shop Wine & Spirits (located in an old tire store), is a transplanted New Yorker and a transgender woman.
Miles came to Trinidad as a patient and never really left.
“I’m part of the legacy. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Marci,” Miles said.
Miles remembers when, five or six years ago, a letter writer to the Trinidad Chronicle News called sex-reassignment patients sinners who should be run out of town.
The author was slapped down by letters that were pretty much variations on a theme: mind your own business.
Miles sees that Western live-and- let-live philosophy all over town.
“Trinidad learned to respect their privacy,” Hot Spot owner Velarde said of the transgender patients. “Generations grew up knowing that’s just what happens in Trinidad.”
Beginnings of a reputation
Mike Gerardo, like most Trinidadians of his era, was ushered into life by Bowers’ predecessor, Dr. Stanley Biber. Doc Biber, as he’s known, wasn’t from Trinidad. He was Jewish in a town that, back then, was overwhelmingly Catholic. But somehow he fit in so well that the community didn’t just embrace Biber. It celebrated him.
“He could diagnose you just by looking at you,” Gerardo said.
Biber started the gender-reassignment thing in Trinidad but not intentionally.
He was an Iowa boy who showed up in Trinidad after serving as a surgeon in a Korean War MASH unit, said Ella Biber, his fourth wife, whom he was married to for 24 years.
He came because Trinidad’s coal miners needed care, Ella Biber said.
“According to Stanley, he said one day someone from Trinidad came in asked him if he could do her surgery. She said, ‘I’m transsexual.’ He had no idea what it was. So he started to investigate and found a doctor trying this surgery,” she said.
The doctor, from Johns Hopkins University, sent drawings of the procedure, and with not much else to go by, Biber did the surgery. It was a success, and slowly other patients began seeking him out.
At first, Biber did the surgeries in secret.
When word got out around town, religious leaders yelled.
“He had to get them all together and told them, ‘It’s no different than somebody being born with a cleft lip that needs fixing,’ ” Ella Biber said.
Biber died in 2006, and by then Bowers — who first came to Trinidad as Mark Bowers — had taken over the practice.
Bowers, though, had no intention of being quiet about it.
Her work has been recorded in documentaries, magazine articles, TV shows — attention she has welcomed, even courted.
Mt. San Rafael Hospital, not so much.
Bowers views the publicity as part of her work.
“It’s important. It educates people,” Bowers said.
The hospital viewed it as an intrusion, an inconvenience and a royal pain. Crews dragging cameras, wires and microphones through the 24-bed hospital disrupt patient care and cost money, said chief executive Jim Robertson.
That prompted an unusual policy. Media must get hospital permission 60 days in advance before visiting and pay for access.
It was that policy, Bowers said, that drove her away.
“In September, I finally said, ‘Look, if I’m going to stay here, we’ve got to address this media policy,’ ” she said.
The hospital and its board weren’t about to do that.
“There are many residents of Trinidad who would like to have the city known for something other than gender-reassignment surgery,” said board member Dr. Jim Colt.
Chance at a new image
Bowers is convinced that one thing town leaders would prefer to be known for is the Cougar Canyon Golf Course.
The course opened in 2008 to raves. Then, the economy crashed, taking the market for golf-course homes with it.
Golf-course backers, including some on the hospital board, may worry that potential residents wouldn’t be enthusiastic about relocating to a transgender mecca, Bowers said.
Colt said the development was irrelevant.
“As far as I know, the golf course wasn’t part of our discussion at any time,” he said.
In any case, the town has a chance to re-create its image.
Residents are excited about the New Elk coal mine reopening and bringing hundreds of jobs in an area where unemployment is 8.3 percent — and where those with jobs make about one-third less than Colorado’s average annual salary.
Mt. San Rafael has hired a gynecologist and started doing cardiac diagnostic tests, said Dr. Ron Dalton, the hospital’s new chief medical officer.
Those new services, plus other additions hospital officials plan, will help make up for the revenue generated by Bowers’ 100 or so surgeries a year, revenue that constituted about 5 percent of the hospital’s net, Robertson said.
Bowers contends the figure is much higher.
“This town will miss Marci and does already. But there’s more to Trinidad than Sex Change Capital of the World,” Miles said.
That’s undoubtedly true.
On the other hand, Trinidad’s association with gender-blurring goes way back — to 1872, when an African-American woman named Cathay Williams moved to town and set up shop as a seamstress. Despite rules barring women, Williams had served in the Army from 1866 to 1868.
She did it by posing as a man.
Karen Auge: 303-954-1733 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Trinidad looks pretty much like any small town. Home to about 10,000 people, it's tucked in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado.
It's the kind of place where the day's highlight might be a game of hoops, or perhaps a loaf of freshly baked bread.
Once a stop along the old Santa Fe Trail, Trinidad's always been on the frontier.
Mayor Joe Reorda says it's a "live and let live" kind of place.
"I'll tell you what - I could walk into any house in this town, if I needed a thousand dollars, if they didn't have it, they'd find it someplace to give it to me. That's the kind of town that we are - we take care of each other," Reorda said.
As a local doctor it's Marci Bowers' job to care, but she's not your typical small-town doc.
"She's a boon to this community," said Trish Keck.
Radio announcer David Phillips said of Bowers, "In town people know her, like her, see her interact with her. But really, they don't treat her any differently than any other doctor you'd see in town at the grocery store."
So what's so special about Doctor Bowers?
"It was just interesting," Bowers told Doane, "because everyone thought, 'Oh, how cute. We have a lady OB-GYN moving into town. How sweet.' You know? And little by little - you know, some of these media things happened - people began to find out about me. And it was like, 'Oh, well, that's interesting.'"
Interesting because before she was Doctor Marci Bowers she was Doctor Mark Bowers.
In 1998, Dr. Bowers underwent sexual reassignment surgery - a "sex change" operation.
"Gender is from the shoulders up," she said. "It's what you think of yourself inside. So the hard part and the discomfort and the reason why people pursue hormones and surgery is [when] those two things don't match."
And now today she performs that very same surgery on hundreds of patients every year, right here in Trinidad.
But this story doesn't begin with Marci Bowers. In 2003, she took over from Dr. Stanley Biber who started the nation's first private practice for gender reassignment surgery back in 1969.
"He would educate little by little," Bowers said. "And people would meet transgendered people one by one. And pretty soon the town came to realize that, you know, we were helping these people. And they were in turn providing an economic stimulus to the small community."
And so Trinidad, Colorado came to be known as the "sex-change capital of the United States."
Almost 40 years later, Mayor Reorda says to everyone here it's very old news indeed:
In fact, when folks like us come around, townspeople like Pastor Dick Valdez confess it's kind of "been there, done that."
"Well, let's put it this way: Valdez told Doane. "I heard that you were in town yesterday. And, you know, it immediately clicks, 'Well, they're gonna be doing the transgender reassignment whatever deal again.' And it's like, 'Okay, we've had Geraldo here, and we've had Oprah here, you know? I think we get a little tired of that being our claim to fame."
Still, for some, it's a very big deal. In fact, for about 300 Americans every year, Trinidad is a destination that's part of a life-long journey.
"It got time to the point where it was either suicide or surgery, suicide or transition, really. It got down to that point."
"That was the choice?" Doane asked.
"I could not ignore my feelings anymore."
For years, Lynn says she tried to numb the pain by abusing substances, even cutting herself.
She's come all the way from the East Coast believing that this surgery may offer some answers.
"I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm scared. I'm relieved," she said.
The next morning, Doctor Bowers prepares for the procedure. As you might expect, it's complicated, controversial, and incredibly costly.
Though estimates vary widely, it's estimated roughly 1,000 people undergo sexual reassignment surgery every year, despite the price tag of about $18,000 dollars.
For Lynn, like most Americans, it's not covered by insurance.
Dr. Bowers said there may be as many as 25 doctors in the U.S. who have ever done such surgery. "But in terms of one who [does] them on a regular basis, I would say, fewer than six."
After a few days of recovery, most patients will return home.
But a few others, like Michelle Miles, will remain.
"You know, Trinidad was a place that has a lot of lore for a transsexual," she said. "I mean, this is where modern transsexual surgery in the United States was born."
Once an investment banker in New York City, Michelle was Michael Miles. She traveled to Trinidad for the surgery, and says she stayed for the peace and quiet.
"I think there's some legacy of this rugged Western individualism here where people just have a lot of respect for your choice in how to lead your life," she said.
But most, like Lynn, return home, where we caught up with her 3-1/2 months after the surgery to see how things were going.
This time, she was willing to let us show her face, and reveal her name: meet Rebecca Lynn Jamison.
Why did she decide to come out and reveal her identity?
"I'm not sure, really," she said. "It's just I'm not concerned about hiding, you know? I don't want to feel like I'm coming out of one closet and going into another by hiding my past."
A past, she says, that was incredibly painful ...
"There were times when I held a loaded pistol to my head. And I thought all I had to do was pull the trigger."
Rebecca is 37. She works for a large financial institution in the Southeast. For a long time she says she tried to hide who she really was, even joining the military - all, she says, in vain.
"Maybe if I'm just man enough, I can deal with this," she said. "I can push it aside. I can bury it. I can overcome it. I tried to do that. And it never worked."