Billy Tipton’s story is one that I wish more people knew. His story is not only intriguing but also incredibly important for trans history. Despite society only recently beginning to accept transgender people for who they are, trans men and women have always been around. They were not something that came “all of a sudden” or in these modern “woke” days. Billy Tipton is proof of that, and this documentary raises up the voices of the trans community to detail Tipton’s life and the impact his story has made on the community today.
No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Documentary is an empowering look into how Billy Tipton’s story has validated and inspired the transgender community because of Tipton’s unwavering choice to be his authentic self in a time when being transgender wasn’t considered “a thing” accepted by society.
Brought to you by co-directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, No Ordinary Man details the professional and personal life of jazz musician Billy Tipton. Aside from bringing awareness to his story and life, the documentary also serves as a way to set the record straight about Tipton’s life and highlighting him for the transmasculine icon that he is.
No one in Billy Tipton’s life knew that he was a trans man until his death in 1989 when he was grossly outed by the media. In the months after the news hit the public, there was a massive media circus as publications attempted to frame the news as an outrageous deception on Billy Tipton’s part. Tipton’s family came under fire for never knowing, with many talk-show hosts, including Oprah, calling into question how Tipton’s wife and kids had never known. All the while misgendering and speaking ill of their lost loved one.
The nail in the coffin for the Tipton family came from Diane Middlebrook’s book Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton where the writer crudely theorized that Tipton only presented himself as a man to help further his music career in a time when female musicians had a hard time doing so, while also insinuating that the Tipton family knew more than they were admitting. Most disappointingly, the book doesn’t question, “How was Billy feeling?” but rather “how is his wife feeling?” One of the interviewees described it as “polite transphobia.”
No Ordinary Man shows us moments like this over the years to further show how Billy Tipton’s history was written over by what society wanted to believe. While many media outlets claim his “double life” was done to help further his music career, it’s clear from the documentary and Tipton’s history that it was clearly not just to get ahead in music as he was male in all facets of his life. He married, adopted three children, lived authentically as himself, and many were none the wiser that he was AFAB (assigned female at birth).
As the documentary continues, it becomes clear that Tipton’s story was only the catalyst for the production to dissect and educate the public about a large range of things relating to the harmful narratives around trans lives. Along with voiceovers about Tipton’s life, we also get to hear a variety of voices from the transgender community. The interviews of the people often take place in club-like settings, a choice likely made to set the ambiance for the sort of settings that Tipton often played in. The interviewees all bring incredible insight to the table when discussing these topics and it was incredibly interesting to learn not only the experiences of Tipton but of the many other people being interviewed.
Some of the most interesting lines to come from the documentary that really stood out to me were...
“It’s scary when centuries of your survival have been based on not being seen.”
“We have to think of outing as a form of harm [in death]. Because people are no longer able to speak for themselves, that harm is often masked over by questions like, “Well what about the wife?”
An interviewee speaking to his daughter after announcing his transition... “[Over time] You will change, and I will change, but we will always recognize each other.”
“It’s not a question of passing or transition. It’s about a person finding a way to make themselves happy. Are you your own interpretation of happiness?”
This documentary is extremely important in a time when trans masculinity is still scarcely covered in media. Billy Tipton is a way for the transgender community to be able to look back on history and see that, “ah, yes, there was someone like me back then. There I am in the history.” This documentary highlighted the historical presence of trans people in all areas of society. Showing that there were pioneers like Tipton living as their true selves, even at a time when that truth was not validated, highlights that the contributions made to society by trans people matter, and they will make an impact on future generations. While Billy Tipton didn’t consent to the visibility of being trans, knowing this about him is important for the trans community today, to serve as a model to look back on.
If you’re looking for an educational and deep look into trans issues and history, No Ordinary Man is an incredible watch. You will absolutely walk away from it with a lot to think about it, but I feel that a documentary hasn’t done its job if it doesn’t tap into that part of your mind. Billy Tipton’s life and career as a musician was the reason for creating No Ordinary Man, but the documentary is at its heart, a piece about the importance of trans visibility and acceptance.
No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Documentary can be rented/bought through services such as Vudu, YouTube, and Apple TV.
Written by Kristen Petronio