TRINIDAD, Colo. — The young waitress with anxious eyes examined her four customers as she refilled their coffee and haltingly asked whether anyone wanted more tea.
There was Elise, a buxom brunet in a crop top and hip-huggers. Kate, a Harvard-graduate writer in khakis, a hand-knit sweater and tasteful pearl earrings. Thea, a graphics designer sporting chic suede boots. And Jackie, a towering figure in trousers and a blazer.
Amid the lunchtime crowd of merchants, housewives and farmers at the Main Street Bakery and Cafe--clad mostly in bluejeans and shorts--the four women stuck out like fashion models on a pig farm.
But it wasn't their style that caused the waitress to stare. Retreating to the kitchen, she pulled her boss aside and stammered, "Oh. My. GOD! Those women I'm waiting on? They're men!"
The waitress, well, she was new in town. Hardly anyone else gave the foursome a second glance.
Not here. Not in Trinidad. Not in the so-called "Sex Change Capital of the World."
Repeat that phrase to almost any of the town's 9,500 souls and you're likely to be met with a disgusted roll of the eyes and a lecture on what this southern Colorado hamlet should be known for--its idyllic scenery, comfortable climate and friendly people.
But don't misunderstand: Most don't mind that more sex-change operations have been done in their town than anywhere else (about 4,500 to date); they just hate that darn nickname.
"Nobody cares," says Monica Violante, owner of the Main Street Bakery. "It's just a part of Trinidad."
What makes Trinidad unique is just that--for 30 years, transsexuals have simply been part of the landscape, like the Purgatoire River running through town and Fisher's Peak looming off in the horizon.
What makes Trinidad unique is not that it's the sex-change capital of the world, but the fact that this former mining town has come to accept its destiny, to depend on it and, at times, even to embrace it.
In 1969, Trinidad was a town in transition. Since the turn of the century, coal had been king in these parts, bringing 12,000 miners and their families to the foothills of southern Colorado and making Las Animas County--with Trinidad its county seat--the top coal-producing region in the state.
But after World War II the mines began closing, and by the late '60s only a few remained. Families pulled up stakes or were left looking for other work. Main Street, once a bustling collection of department stores, car dealerships and restaurants, became a lifeless shell of shuttered storefronts.
But from his fourth-floor office inside the First National Bank building, prominently situated at the corner of Main and Commercial streets, a 46-year-old doctor named Stanley Biber was thriving.
As Trinidad's only general surgeon, Biber did it all--from delivering babies and removing appendixes to reconstructing the cleft palates of poor children.
An Iowa native who once wanted to be a rabbi, Biber moved here in 1954 after serving as a MASH surgeon in Korea and finishing a stint at Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. A friend had told him about a mining town near the New Mexico border that needed a surgeon, and when the doctor arrived to find mountains where he could hunt and lakes where he could fish, he never looked back.
In those first 15 years, Biber built a comfortable life around a practice he loved and a town he adored. In 1969 he encountered the patient who would forever change both.
A social worker Biber had met through his welfare cases asked him to perform her surgery.
"Well, of course," he told her. "What do you want done?"
"I'm a transsexual," she replied. And Biber said simply, "What is that?"
After consulting a New York physician who had done some sex reassignment operations and obtaining hand-drawn sketches from Johns Hopkins University, Biber agreed to do the surgery.
"She was very happy," he recalls. "And then it started spreading all over."
With less than a handful of doctors performing the procedure, Trinidad became the place to come for a sex-change operation, and Biber was the man to do it.
But the doctor was worried. The town's sole hospital, Mt. San Rafael, was run by Catholic nuns. Biber hid the charts of his first transsexual patients in a hospital safe but knew that if he were to continue his new specialty, he'd need the approval of the hospital board and, eventually, his fellow townspeople.
Biber went to the sisters and an alliance of local ministers and explained his work.
"I went through the psychology of it all. They decided as long as we were doing a service, and it was a good service, that there was no reason we couldn't continue doing them," he says, adding that while some were adamantly opposed, others began counseling Biber's patients.
Soon Biber was lecturing to the hospital staff and the public.
"Once they knew what was going on," he says, "they accepted it."
"We figured that's his way of making a living; more power to him," says Linda Martinez, 54, a lifelong patient of Biber's.