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Collage by Hunter French. Photo via Getty.
Identity

The Singular Life of Billy Tipton

Outed as transgender after his death, he went from regional jazz musician to national scandal over night. A new documentary attempts to reclaim his legacy
November 24, 2020, 12:00pm

In 1989, Billy Tipton Jr.'s father died in his arms. Within a month, Billy Jr. was appearing on talk shows where people would refer to his father as "she" and call his mom a lesbian. The revelation that the elder Billy Tipton—a moderately popular Jazz musician—had been assigned female at birth was a big enough to-do to hit national newspapers, tabloids, and daytime TV. On shows like Oprah, Billy's ex-wife Kitty and Billy Jr. would state, "This man was my husband/father." To which the host would inevitably respond, "No she wasn't."

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While Tipton’s death was turned into a sideshow in mainstream media, his story was recognized by trans activists of the day and incorporated into transmasculine history—though there was little they could do then to counterprogram the confused, transphobic coverage of the story. No Ordinary Man, a new documentary about Tipton released this fall, gives him another chance in the media spotlight—this time, from a less biased perspective. 

"It's such a common story, actually, to sensationalize the reveal, you know," Susan Stryker says about halfway through the film, gasping melodramatically. "'This person had those genitals but they used those pronouns—shock!'"

Stryker is one of the nation's preeminent scholars on gender and sexuality—she literally wrote the book on trans history—and she's heard this one before. "In the same newspapers, over the course of many decades in the middle of the twentieth century, you would see the same story,” she adds, sitting at the bar in an empty Jazz club. “It was the same narrative, the same turns of phrase… We're not unknown. You look at any small to medium-sized town, there's gonna be some trans person there and somebody's gonna know that they're trans. It's a thing. And yet the media presents it as this thing that nobody's ever heard of, every single time."

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No Ordinary Man is full of trans-centered historical context like this common narrative that Stryker explains. Produced by a team that includes notable trans creators like co-director Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac, it's tempting to say No Ordinary Man aims to "set the record straight" or something like that—but that's not really possible, and it's not really the point.

It's impossible to definitively set the record straight about Billy Tipton's life because Tipton left very little evidence of his inner life behind. We know Tipton was born in Oklahoma City in 1914 and was assigned female at birth. By the mid-1930s, he was presenting as Billy the majority of the time, working as a jazz musician—as a pianist, saxophone player, and singer—and living with the first of the five(!) long-term girlfriends and wives he'd partner with throughout his life, a dancer with the stupendous name Non Earl Harrell. He spent the second half of the 1930s as a band leader regularly performing live on Oklahoma City radio and at local clubs. Since Oklahoma City was his hometown, though, it doesn't seem as though being Billy there full-time was feasible, and the early 1940s saw Tipton start his nearly two-decade career as a touring jazz musician. 

From then on, and until just after his death, Billy would be known to everyone as just Billy. As far as we know—based on later interviews with friends and loved ones—bandmates, business partners, and each of the Mrs. Tiptons knew him as a man. While alive, he avoided the violent public outings or media scandals that other early and mid-20th century trans figures like Jack Bee Garland and Christine Jorgensen endured. (According to these same friends and loved ones, Tipton fabricated a car accident as a way to explain away any physical anomalies, such as his chest binder.) 

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By the late 1950s, Tipton was successful enough that his band, The Billy Tipton Trio, recorded two albums for Tops Records. Their careers peaked in 1958 when the trio was offered an opportunity to record four more albums and the chance to finally stop touring, and instead become the house band at a new resort hotel in Reno, Nevada. This was their chance. As the house band, the Billy Tipton Trio would open for acts like Liberace, who played the hotel the same month they were offered the gig. It was an opportunity for, if not quite fame, certainly more notoriety, stability, and money than he and his bandmates had achieved in their careers thus far—and Tipton turned it down. The Trio had another, more modest offer in Spokane, Washington. That's where Tipton wanted to go.

This decision—opting for family life and relative obscurity in Spokane over the bright-ish lights of Reno—is sometimes pointed to as the pivotal moment in Tipton's life. Diane Middlebrook, author of the definitive (until No Ordinary Man's release, at least) 1998 Tipton biography Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, posits that Tipton turned down the Reno opportunity because he feared the attention the job would bring could lead to his "true" (read: trans) identity being discovered. 

But No Ordinary Man co-director Chase Joynt isn't convinced Tipton's rationale was centered on his transness at all." I think, in some ways, it's a convenient story, that he ran away into heteronormative ordinariness," Joynt explained. "But there is also writing about the fact that he had arthritis in his hands and that he was tired, and that there were lots of reasons to actually not make that choice."

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Tipton moved to Spokane with his then-wife, a former dancer named Kitty Kelly. There, he eventually retired from playing live music and worked as a talent agent. He and Kelly adopted three sons, the youngest of whom, Billy Jr., was living with and taking care of Tipton in 1989 as his health deteriorated. Billy Tipton Sr., like many trans people, studiously avoided visiting doctors, even when an ulcer all but incapacitated him. Tipton collapsed in his home on January 21, 1989, dead at age 74. 

His son called the EMTs, who arrived at the home and tore open Tipton's shirt so they could attempt to revive him. Then, as Stryker says in No Ordinary Man: shock! This recording artist, successful touring musician, and father of three had different secondary sex characteristics than they were anticipating. Stop the fucking presses! 

But in at least one transmasculine-focused newsletter, of which there were several at the time, the coverage took a different tone.

In one of the final scenes of the documentary, Jamison Green visits Billy Tipton Jr. at his home, thirty years after his father's death. Green produces issue #7 of the FTM newsletter, and reads aloud a eulogy penned by the late Lou Sullivan

"Tipton lived in a time when there were no gender counsellors, no doctors to prescribe hormones, no surgeons to perform chest or genital surgery. If you wanted to live as a man you just had to make do with what you had. Tipton did it on his own. At age 74 he died as one of our grandfathers. Men like Billy prove that we as FTMs are not a bizarre recent phenomenon. That throughout history there have been females who knew deep down that they were men and did whatever they had to do to live their lives honestly. Our hats off to Billy Tipton."

It's a little ironic that Lou Sullivan, possibly the most prolific diarist of any 20th century trans man, wrote a sendoff for Tipton, who left behind no diaries, little correspondence—any documentation of his interiority that might provide insight into how he thought of himself and the world around him. In an inconvenient sort of cause-and-effect ouroboros, this lack of personal record-keeping also prevents us from definitively knowing why he didn't keep such documentation. Maybe he was afraid of his assigned sex being discovered; maybe he just hated journaling. 

No Ordinary Man makes use of the materials we do have, like a recording Billy made for his mother-in-law around Christmas when he and Kitty were still married. In a warm tenor voice, Tipton calls his in-law "grandma," provides updates on the kids (Billy Jr. had a cold) and announces plans to give up cigarettes "one of these days."

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It's this dearth of Tipton's self-documentation that leaves his life somewhat up to interpretation. And it has definitely been interpreted: in novels, plays, and even cabaret acts. Tipton's basic identity is variously interpreted, too. In Suits Me, Middlebrook uses female pronouns for Tipton and asserts that he was a crossdresser who took up living as a man in order to pursue a career as a jazz musician; a 1998 feature on the book in the New York Times highlights Middlebrook's theory that "Billy" was a role Tipton was playing, like an actor.

But that theory is insufficient to explain the entirety of Tipton's life. 

Not long after moving to Spokane, Tipton gave up playing music professionally, which changed his presentation exactly zero percent. "Doing drag for financial reasons" doesn't account for living as Billy during his off hours as a young man, or in the final, post-pro-jazz-player decades of his life, or, you know, adopting a child and naming him "Billy Jr." The subheading of Middlebrook's Suits Me is The Double Life of Billy Tipton, but it's unclear where the "double" comes in. From the time he had autonomy as a young adult until the day he died, Tipton lived as a man. No Ordinary Man takes Tipton's story from the dissembling "all the world's a stage" ponderousness of Middlebrook's book and contextualizes Tipton's life as he lived it.

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To help ground Tipton's story in his lived experience, interestingly, the documentary turns to fictionalization. No Ordinary Man intersperses interviews with trans luminaries discussing Tipton's life with footage of transmasc actors reading for the part of Billy Tipton, as they might in a rehearsal or audition. These vignettes were always intended to be used in the documentary—there's no forthcoming Tipton biopic. Each of the scenes features a real event from Tipton's life, expanded on by writers Aisling Chin-Yee and Amos Mac based on how they imagine it might've happened; call it speculative non-fiction.

The vignettes were written "based on what I thought were important moments in Billy's life," Mac explained. "There's no film footage of Billy Tipton that exists. Instead of going this other route of recreation, which you see all the time, this is a way to bring in transmasculine actors to embody this person that they might not have heard of and also have never seen moving around. It's a way to also bring the conversation around to how to retell someone's story in a nontraditional manner, while learning about them as well."

It's a postmodern wrinkle thrown into the standard talking-heads-dispense-facts documentary format, one that allows No Ordinary Man's creators some freedom to bridge the gap between Tipton's biography and his life, while remaining self-aware of their inevitable shortcomings. That the documentary features multiple actors portraying Tipton in these scenes emphasizes that, even in a scripted portrayal, they're still only guessing at what Tipton might've been like.

If Billy Tipton had multiple lives, it's through the many interpretations of his story after his death, and not the singular life he himself led. More than reframing the life of Billy Tipton as the life of a trans man, No Ordinary Man reminds us that if we aren't empowered to tell our own stories, we're condemned to have others tell them for us.

Follow Calvin Kasulke on Twitter.