The Great Trans-Frontier

Trinidad, Colo., is the ‘sex change capital of the world.’ A documentary now out on DVD explains why.

Jakob VanLammeren

In Trinidad, Colo., Dr. Marci L. Bowers helps her patients be who they really want to be. (Photo courtesy of <i>Trinidad</i>)

It is not often that a documentary film discusses the complexity and nuance of a small town in Colorado and genital reassignment surgery (GRS) for male to female transsexuals.

Throughout the film, Sabrina gives the most candid and dynamic interviews, stating at one point that she sometimes misses her masculinity, that transpeople, though they challenge the gender binary, are not exempt from conforming to traditional gender roles.

Trinidad, directed and produced by Jay Hodges and PJ Raval, presents Trinidad, a southern Colorado town of 9,000 that has taken on the moniker sex change capital of the world.”

The film, now out on DVD, highlights the stories of Dr. Stanley Biber, who began performing GRS in 1969, and Dr. Marci L. Bowers, a male-to-female transwoman, who took over his practice in 2003. The film also follows two transwomen at different stages of transition – Laura and Sabrina – who move to Trinidad to open Morning Glow, a recovery house for Bowers’ post-operative patients. These stories are framed within the backdrop of the town and its residents, who talk about the presence of transpeople in town and what gender means to them.

Trinidad shies away from the sensational representation of transness and of GRS, and instead focuses on individual transformations and the empowering aspects of male-to-female transition through interviews with Marci, Laura and Sabrina. In an interview during the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2008, Hodges said:

There are a lot of films that look at transgender issues but only focus on the physical aspects of before and after.” And though there are aspects of that in Trinidad, we didn’t want to sensationalize the experiences of these three women. We wanted to look at who they were as individuals in this small town and their everyday concerns, things like acceptance, sense of self, and the need to be who you are – challenges everyone faces. Ultimately, we wanted people to see aspects of themselves in Marci, Sabrina and Laura.

Trinidad is both a film about one of the last remaining frontier towns and GRS, how they co-exist and inform one another. We get glimpses of the town’s culture in the long shots of the main street, the rodeo, the county fair. The film takes us to the bar, to the bowling alley and also into the operating room. And while it may seem that these worlds are separate, this film shows that they are as connected and complex as any relationship. The microcosm of Trinidad and its views on transpeople are not unlike other cities in America, but this close examination allows us to witness that dialogue.

Trinidad touches upon complicated issues – being a transsexual parent, faith, varying notions of gender, what it means to be a transperson, and the town’s dynamic and mixed reaction to having a hospital whose main clientele are getting GRS. Further, the intersection between class and tolerance are subtly discussed, as townspeople acknowledge that Bowers GRS practice is why the local hospital is able to remain open.

One of the most interesting relationships is between Laura and her daughter, who comes to live and help build Morning Glow, and who stays after Laura decides to leave Trinidad.

Sabrina also stays, having found a supportive community of transpeople and townspeople. Throughout the film, Sabrina gives the most candid and dynamic interviews, stating at one point that she sometimes misses her masculinity, that transpeople, though they challenge the gender binary, are not exempt from conforming to traditional gender roles.

She goes on to say that everyone feels the pressure of normative gender representations. This was a powerful moment in the film, especially because most discussions about gender in Trinidad are based within the context of surgical alteration of one’s genitalia to align the body with one’s gender identity.

What’s interesting is that in Trinidad, neither transpeople nor their allies seem committed to sensitive, intentional and comprehensive public education about transgender and transsexual people. Yet despite this, numerous people in town, including the Catholic priest, are willing to be accepting of all people who live and work in Trinidad, and strive to embrace diversity and non-normative representations of gender. 

Trinidad is an important and necessary look at transpeople in rural America. The film complicates the notion that transpeople exist only in urban landscapes. We are shown the resilience and strength of transwomen through the stories of the women presented in the film. Finally, we are challenged to be who we are, to rethink our own identities and to venture to the frontier of ourselves.

Jakob VanLammeren, a poet in Chicago, is a co-founder of the Write to Win Collective, a penpal correspondence project for transgender and gender non-conforming people in Illinois prisons.
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