How one writer’s coverage of the trans community changed his life

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When word got out three years ago that I was researching the remote former mining town of Trinidad, Colorado, and its unlikely role as what The New York Times once indelicately called “the sex-change capital of the world,” I was quickly declared unfit for the role.

A transgender blogger wondered why a cisgender male was proposing to write about this forgotten chapter in gender history. “Nobody I know in the trans world appears to know this person,” she tweeted to her followers. “Why *should* we trust [him]?” She later suggested I partner with a trans writer for my book project, advice later echoed by the LGBTQ editor at a progressive website. The editor criticized everything about my proposed project, including my vocabulary choices in describing it.

“By approaching trans people with the wrong language,” he scolded in an email, “they immediately know that you aren’t equipped to tell their stories.”

As it turns out — and as difficult as it is to admit — those early critics were right. (Tipoff: I had to look up the word “cisgender.”) I was taking my first stumbling steps on a long and arduous learning curve. What followed were years of research and self-education on a topic about which I now understand I was appallingly ignorant. But I also understand how terribly common that is among people like me who grew up in an era when gender was considered a binary thing.

I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades, a novelist for nearly three. I know a good story when I see it. I simply wanted to tell the stories of Stanley Biber, the pioneering Colorado surgeon whose work over four decades made “going to Trinidad” a euphemism for undergoing gender confirmation surgery; his transgender protege Marci Bowers; and some of the approximately 6,000 medical pilgrims who came from around the world for relief from the pain of gender dysphoria.

Their story had all the components of a great tale: larger-than-life characters, an unusual and unexplored setting, and enormous stakes. As I began reporting in 2017, transgender rights were under direct assault, and remain so today.

But that’s where my expertise ended, and my education began.

Questioning assumptions

I began to navigate a minefield of storytelling choices. How to handle the reflexive mistrust of those who considered me the wrong writer? How to write a book about gender confirmation surgery without overemphasizing the role of surgery in the transition process? How to choose individual stories that would give readers strong insights into the transgender journey? And how to support the “nothing about us without us” ethos in the LGBTQ community and, as a straight cisgender journalist, still write an honest book?

Ultimately, I decided to do what I’ve often done as a reporter: Get out of the way, let the subjects speak for themselves, and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. 

But as I listened to the stories of transgender men and women, I began to question many of my assumptions about gender identity, sexuality, and the uncertainties of human biology. And I began to understand why 97 percent of those who commit to a difficult surgery that promises no easy solutions would still do it again.

During long talks in her Rhode Island apartment, I learned from Biber patient Claudine Griggs how gender, genitalia, and sexuality are interrelated but distinct things, and why it’s misguided to base gender identification on a quick glance between a newborn’s legs. As Griggs discovered during heartbreaking post-surgery genetic testing at the University of California, Irvine, just because your chromosomal makeup is an unalterable male XY and biology dealt you a penis rather than a vagina doesn’t mean your gender matches your genes. 

As she would later explain, the test “confirmed that every cell in my body has an XY karyotype,” and that it made her hate every cell in her body individually, not just her body as a whole.

In many other conversations with transgender men and women, I learned how gender identification involves the brain and self-perception, and how debilitating the consequences can be when your gender and your genitalia don’t match. They told me there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem known as gender dysphoria, which is why some affirm their gender identities in email signatures specifying their preferred pronouns, or by sending social cues through the way they dress, walk, and talk. Others turn to hormone therapy for relief. Still others — those who can afford it and are willing to endure the physical ordeal — can only find relief through more radical therapy involving hormones and surgery.

Sexual orientation? Hoo-boy. Just because transgender men and women are welcomed beneath the LGBTQ umbrella doesn’t necessarily imply anything about their sexuality. True, about three-quarters of transgender men and women identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, queer, or asexual, but the remaining 23 percent are heterosexual. But as Griggs once told me, post-transition individuals “have to accommodate their desires in conjunction with the real-world possibilities. The possible can deform the desired.”

Mostly I learned how absurd it is to reduce the profound struggles of gender non-conforming people to the kind of one-dimensional caricatures being peddled right now. During the years I researched and wrote “Going to Trinidad,” misguided culture warriors began to target the already marginalized transgender men and women I had come to know.

By the time I was done, I was well aware of the depressing rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts among that population. Homicide rates? My god. Yet I’m watching fearmongers declare patriotic trans men and women unfit to serve in the military. I see insurance companies denying them health care coverage, and athletic programs denying them the right to compete. Our society is tormenting a group of people I’ve gotten to know over Thai food, in coffee shops, and during intimate confessional moments. The reasons are usually rooted in scientific ignorance, misguided religious fervor, and cultural prejudice.

Learning to grow 

It’s never easy to force yourself out of your comfort zone, to confront calcified assumptions like those embodied by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s posted declaration that there are only two genders, to recognize just how little you know. It’s humbling. It’s a little scary. But I’m convinced it’s absolutely necessary if our culture is to evolve and align with scientific realities that have been understood since the 1930s. 

I, too, was frighteningly comfortable with my ignorance, flawed assumptions, and biases. But I was wrong. It’s vital for each of us to educate ourselves — not just about gender identity, but about systemic racism, religious intolerance, or any of the other complex issues actively being used to divide Americans from one another. 

I remain the same cisgender male I was at the start of my transition. But what I learned along the way makes it impossible to tolerate the demonization of people who each day must summon the courage to simply be themselves.

I hope they’ll accept me as a late-blooming ally.

Martin J. Smith, a former senior editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine, is the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including the recently released “Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads.”