The small Colorado town of Trinidad has more than three decades of experience with lantern-jawed, 6-foot-3 women in magenta tube tops and strappy platform sandals passing through.
The town’s deep and unlikely attachment to the procedure that turns men into women could have ended in 2003, when Dr. Stanley Biber, a one-man industry, put down his scalpel after 35 years of performing his signature surgery.
But Marci Bowers, a gynecological surgeon in Seattle, decided to train with Biber shortly before he retired.
And that’s when sex-change in Trinidad moved from a cottage industry into the big time.
Bowers already was intimate with the procedure.
Until about a decade ago, she was Dr.Mark Bowers, a man.
And then she wasn’t.
The transformation of Marci Bowers, technically, began in childhood when she somehow understood that while her appearance said male, everything inside – her heart, her head, her spirit – said female.
It took a dramatic turn when she started growing her hair long and dressing as a woman, and another after a surgery by someone other than Biber that finally, and officially, made her a woman.
But then Bowers moved to Trinidad, and, like so many others who come to this town seeking metamorphosis, she found it.
These days, she whips around town in her silver Porsche Boxster, shuttling between surgeries and routine gynecological exams, between socializing with her Trinidad- native partner and heading north to the airport for one more stop in the parade of public appearances that now thread through her life.
Four years after leaving her wife and kids and run-of-the-mill doctor gig in Seattle, she is one of the more visible impresarios of the transgender movement.
Other transgenders treat her like a rock star, even traveling to Trinidad just to be around her. Documentary news teams have roosted in
Trinidad in the past year – the BBC, for example, this year ran a six-part series on Bowers and her adopted hometown. She’s been on “The Tyra Banks Show” and did a guest gig on the hit TV show “CSI.” On Wednesday, CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now” devoted a segment of its Fighting for Acceptance series to Bowers’ work.
During the middle of a newspaper interview in June, Bowers took a call from her secretary. A television studio had just called and asked Bowers to fly to Los Angeles at the end of the month to appear on a show.
“Yeah, right,” said Bowers, unleashing an almost scandalously sly laugh from the side of her mouth, a throaty, lusty, sardonic outburst that occurs every few minutes. “That will happen.”
surgeons had pilgrimaged to Trinidad to learn Biber’s procedure from the master. But Bowers, now 49, was the first to whom he handed the knife in the middle of a procedure. At that point, he’d effectively chosen his heir.
Bowers didn’t quite understand this at the time, although she did grasp the power of the moment: “I shuddered. It was incredible.
“The night before, there was a huge double rainbow over the hospital. Isn’t that weird? It’s things like that that tell me it’s more than an accident that I’m here.”
Bowers’ $17,500 surgeries are booked solid, week after week. Her next available appointment is in March.
Hospitals around the world routinely contact Bowers, asking her to come to London
or Los Angeles.
She says she dreams, every day, of returning to Seattle, to be with her three children and in the orbit of her spouse, to whom she still is married. The two no longer share a romantic relationship, but Bowers says they now are “closer than sisters.”
But for now, at least, Bowers isn’t budging.
“This is the frontier; this is the edge of something important,” she says. “The smallness of (Trinidad) also is nice. I can really control the local environment. People know me. I’m not demonized. I’m not some abstraction that can be loathed from afar.”
Nor are her patients, nearly 500 of whom have changed their genders under Bowers’ knife. Although a few have transitioned from female to
male, most of her patients are men becoming women.
Some “pass,” meaning they look like women. Many do not, despite the miniskirts and eyeliner. Size 12 ballet slippers, Adam’s apples and anvil chins give them away.
But what might shout strange, threatening or wrong in similar towns barely registers in Trinidad.
“It’s like growing up with a steel mill,” says Tony Tortorice, 37, a heavy-equipment operator and Trinidad native, as he drinks pints of beer at a pub in town. “Your grandfather worked there, your dad worked there, you work there. You’re used to everything about the industry. It’s the same way here. You see a patient, and you think, ‘Oh, there’s another patient.”‘
He adds: “Most of them are great. You have a few drinks and you’re laughing and joking like you are with your buddies. They’re just looking for friends. Once you befriend them, you will have a friend for life.”
Zach Duran, 24, was born in Trinidad but grew up in Cimmaron, a wisp of a town in western Kansas. He’s back in Trinidad now, working with Tortorice as a heavy-equipment operator.
“When I tell my friends back in Kansas about this, it’s totally mind-blowing to them,” he says. “It’s kind of accepted (in Trinidad), you know? “
With the breakfast rush over at Hot Spot at the Savoy, restaurant owner Diana Velarde says most longtime residents are tied, however indirectly, to the sex-change piece of the Trinidad puzzle.
“Dr. Biber, he raised us all,” she says. “He was like family. He gave us our penicillin shots and sent us on our way. When we lost him, it was like losing a family member.”
Biber died in 2006, but his legacy survives. Bowers now is performing more surgeries a year than Biber ever did. Her patients routinely stop in at the Savoy.
“Nobody bothers them,” Velarde says. “In fact, they fit into the community. And they stay here. Some of them come in here and they are absolutely gorgeous.”
Finally feeling at home
Bowers, for example. Leggy. Blond. High-cheekboned and pouty-lipped. Good-looking woman.
Before she started taking hormones and growing her hair, she was a good-looking man, too. Bowers keeps a photo album of her transition in her Trinidad house – mustached gent in a suit; full-bearded guy relaxing on a couch; wavy-haired character clowning with the spouse; woman in a restaurant.
Home is where Bowers escapes the gossip- humid small town, where people in the local brewpub shout “Marci!” when she enters and come over for a chat and sometimes a hug; where her romantic partner, Carol Cometto, an exceptionally gregarious Trinidad native, can barely take a step without bumping into an old pal; where Bowers plays golf (she’s a doctor) and gets massages in storage space behind an art gallery from a shaved-head Californian named Pineda.
At home, in a big, orderly brick spread above town, Bowers might find the time to sit down and talk about the topics that animate her, most of which revolve around her surgeries and the idea of compassion.
“I have a spiritual side. That’s what drives me,” she says. “I think there is a grander plan, a higher power, and if you don’t think you are contributing to a better future for the world, then you’re here for a bleak, hedonistic trip.”
Bowers has spent the past four years obsessing over the surgical procedure she inherited from Biber. The surgery now, she says, is much different from Biber’s approach.
“Sixty percent of what I do, no one else in the world does,” she says.
When she talks about the discrimination transgenders face, she becomes agitated, gesticulating and pounding tables or chair arms with her fists.
“There are two ways to look at the world,” she says. “There’s the Hitler view – you look at society and see what you think is wrong and try to exterminate it; get rid of them and they are out of the gene pool and you are left with a perfect society. The opposite view is unconditional love and acceptance. That’s the force that will win.”
That force, she says, is on the march.
Just a decade ago, most people who went through gender-reassignment surgery did it all alone: Their families abandoned them, their bosses fired them, they arrived in Trinidad, or somewhere else, with a suitcase and nothing more.
Now, however, extended families come to Trinidad for support. And while in the past, most patients tended to be middle-aged or even seniors, lately younger and younger people are opting for hormonal therapy and surgery.
Sometimes people who appear male or female actually fall more profoundly in the other gender’s camp. And for them, the tension between their appearance and their inner feelings about who they are can be agonizing.
“It’s not a choice, not a lifestyle,” Bowers says. “It’s about a core identity that doesn’t match up with genitalia. And it just speaks to how complex we are as human beings.”
A cause worth fighting for
As a soldier in what Bowers sees as a battle for acceptance, she speaks at events, she talks to the media, she appears on TV. But her scalpel is her principal weapon. And the operating room is her battlefield.
In there, she’s the general.
With Pink Floyd blasting through a CD player, Bowers sat in a low, wheeled stool for nearly three hours one afternoon in June, barely moving her eyes from the diamond of exposed flesh before her, cracking jokes and talking politics.
Bowers’ team of technicians gathered around, watching for gestures that tell them what tool or task she’s looking for, listening to her commandments: “K-nife,” she says for scalpel. When she makes a sucking sound, a technician hands her a wand that vacuums away blood.
When Bowers started the operation, Courtney Ridley, 50, was living as a woman, but in terms of genitalia, most definitely was not female.
During the surgery, Bowers carefully deconstructed Ridley’s male genitalia, reshaping skin and nerves and other tissue into functioning female genitalia. Among other things, the procedure allows most patients to continue having orgasms.
Ridley, like Bowers, works as a gynecologist and surgeon.
She grew up in tough East Texas as Clark Ridley, secretly wearing panties even as she attended Virginia Military Institute, a prestigious breeding ground for future military leaders.
She went to medical school at the University of Texas. Joined the Navy, where she flew helicopters. Worked as a Navy surgeon for 16 years. Went into private practice in Dallas. Got married three times and had three kids. Played cowboy – the hats, the boots, the belt buckles and the ranch.
All along, Ridley dressed – in secret – as a woman.
“You hit this wall and you have to do something,” said Ridley – fit, nearly 6-feet-tall, looking like a former women’s volleyball star – as she waited for an appointment with Bowers the day before her surgery. “Some people put the gun to their head.”
In April, after she and her wife separated, Ridley began looking to date. She’d always been attracted to women, and the hormones, the skirts and bracelets hadn’t changed anything. ThroughMatch.com, she found Lisa Kuester, 41, a lesbian massage therapist who was searching for romantic mates.
After Ridley told Kuester her story – a lifetime of pretending to be a man and dressing like a woman privately, the upcoming surgery – she steeled herself for rejection. But Kuester embraced her.
“With her, someone who is interested in being with women, I got something I hadn’t had in 30 years of romantic life,” Ridley says.
Mary Harvey, 39, didn’t have that problem, at least.
The New Jersey boat-engine mechanic started dating Shannon Harvey 11 years ago, back when her name was Mark. They got hitched seven years ago, and shortly after, Mary began taking hormones, growing her hair long and calling herself Mary. The couple had two kids, Gwen, now 9, and David, 7.
“I started out with a lot of anger,” said Shannon, 30, as the family waited to see Bowers in the Planned Parenthood offices where Bowers rents space. “I’m the kind of person who picks you apart until I found out what’s wrong, because I want to fix it.”
It was Shannon’s picking that compelled Mary to reveal the desire she’d harbored since being a little kid: She wasn’t like her hairy-chested, balding brothers. She wanted to align herself with what she felt was her true gender.
Focusing on their family
Earlier, before the surgery at Trinidad’s Mount San Rafael Hospital, Mary told Bowers the upcoming operation was “no big deal. I’ve seen engines a lot more complicated than this.”
And even earlier, “it’s just changing some parts, that’s all I’m thinking.”
Life at home tests the Harvey family. They live in the same blue-collar town where they grew up. Shannon always explains the domestic situation to other moms before they have play-dates, and “some wives get nasty,” she says.
The town is full of hard-partyers; the Harvey family steers clear.
“We do our thing. We walk in the woods,” says Mary.
“And get ticks on us!” shouts David.
“I have so much love for this person,” says Shannon, looking over at Mary. “And the family. We’re such a great family unit.”
In the hospital parking lot a week after the surgery, Mary limped along in Army-green capri pants and a yellow tank top. The kids raced to the rented Taurus and then swung between the front and back seats like crazed monkeys.
Before climbing into the car, Mary stopped and talked about how relieved she was to be out of the hospital. “I couldn’t sleep because, you know, she wasn’t there,” she said, gesturing to Shannon.
Mary stepped back and brought the back of a hand to her eyes; she squeezed a sob back into her throat.
“But now it’s going to be better.”