by Jordan King
The creation of LGBTQIA+ cinema, particularly documentarian works, is an act of restoration and reclamation. The history of marginalised communities is so often found to have been erased or written in phobic terms by those on the outside of that lived experience that the very act of telling their lost and misrepresented stories is something revolutionary. With the UK premiere of documentary No Ordinary Man, directed by trans filmmaker Chase Joynt and collaborator Aisling Chin-Yee, another remarkable figure in LGBT history is rightfully presented as the icon they were and the trailblazer they continue to be.
Billy Tipton is a name that even the most musically aware amongst us may struggle to place. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Kansas City, Tipton rose to prominence as a jazz musician in the 1930s. Starting out on a local radio station as bandleader, Tipton quickly found himself on the touring circuit with several jazz outfits, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Duke Ellington, The Delta Rhythm Boys, and The Ink Spots as he toured the Pacific Northwest. After 20 years on the road, Tipton founded The Billy Tipton Trio, with whom he recorded two albums of jazz standards in 1957. The albums weren’t best-sellers, but they made a fair buck, and Tipton continued playing jazz music well into the 1970s, stopping only when arthritis rendered him unable to play anymore.
A private man for most of his life, it wasn’t until Tipton’s death from a haemorrhaging peptic ulcer in 1989 at the age of 74 – which cruelly would have been avoided in a world where seeking medical aid wouldn’t have exposed the musician’s transsexuality – that his wife and adopted children found out that Tipton was in fact trans-masculine. Having presented as male since the early 30s, Tipton had lived almost his entire professional and private life as a man with no need to divulge his trans identity. As wife Kitty says during one of the many talk show interviews we see that in the documentary, ‘Billy Tipton was a man in every sense of the word.’ This is a truth held by his son Billy Jr. also who, when asked pryingly by another talk show host whether his dad’s parenting was ever suspect or lacking in ‘fatherliness’, resolutely states that his dad ‘was as much of a dad as anyone else’s, even moreso’. This didn’t stop tabloids seizing on the story and running with it however, spinning a narrative that Billy Tipton was somehow a liar and a great deceiver, fitting a media narrative that documentary contributor and trans musicologist Stephan Pennington summates as being ‘trans men do not exist.’
In the absence of substantial biographical and archival materials to tell the story of Billy Tipton’s life – the only biography about him, penned by Dianne Middlebrook, is a deadnaming shambles described by Transgender History author Susan Stryker here as ‘well-heeled phobia’ and agenda suiting ‘emotionally violent’ distortions of the truth – Joynt and Chin-Yee’s approach to reclaiming Tipton’s narrative is truly innovative. No Ordinary Man sees the filmmakers casting colourblind for the role of Billy Tipton in a film we may well never see, with trans-masculine actors rehearsing imagined scenes in Tipton’s life, placing themselves in his shoes as a trans man at a time where there was a very real threat to life should his trans identity be found out.
As men from all manner of backgrounds and at varying stages in their trans journey enter this long-hidden trans trailblazer’s history, impressing with their performative grit and raw emotional resonance, an immense sense of catharsis is achieved. In his own lifetime, Tipton’s story was subdued and shrouded in secrecy, and in death it was stolen and twisted into something sinful by a media who perceive transhood as a threat and an affront to cis-heteronormativity. Here however, Tipton’s entire being is opened to a broad array of trans experiences and potential emotional reactions to defining moments in his life, posthumously giving back to Tipton control of his story whilst allowing today’s trans artists to connect with, recognise, and uplift a man they now look upon as a hero.
Watching actors such as Marquise Vilson provide invaluable insight into the way a trans man scrutinises their voice and clenches at the slightest mention of ‘secrets’ or ‘rumours’ demonstrates both his commitment to his craft as an actor and what it is truly like to live as a trans man. A beautiful moment of bone-deep connection arises when Alex Blue Davis plays out a scene where Tipton meets KFXR radio host and fellow trans-masculine man Buck Thomason. This was potentially the only time Tipton saw his own experience reflected elsewhere, and for Davis – whose own trans journey was marked early on by a process of self-exclusion – the value of seeing yourself reflected in someone else contributes to a profound performance and personal revelation that we get to witness.
Concurrent to these rehearsals and auditions, we also have an array of trans experts providing crucial context and commentary on the media landscape and its evolution over Billy Tipton’s lifetime and since his death. They also dig into the nuances of the sociological processes that transhood has triggered both in society itself and in art over the course of the past century. It sounds almost obvious to say it, but having trans history and experiences related to us by exclusively trans contributors is incredibly refreshing – this is their story, so why on Earth wouldn’t we want them to tell it? From Pennington and Stryker, to author Kate Bornstein and activist Jamison Green, with numerous other experts besides, we are given the ‘talking heads’ segments so ingrained in the documentary form but in a way that goes beyond mere presentation of information and instead shows these commentators as active parts of the history they describe.
Towards the end of the documentary, we spend more time in the company of Billy Jr., Tipton’s son, whose continual gobsmackedness at his father’s iconic status amongst the trans community endears him wonderfully to the viewer. As he watches clips of the film’s contributors describing what they’d ask his father given a chance to meet him, the realisation of what he means to so many clearly chokes him up. And when Chase Joynt tells Billy Jr. he is trans and feels honoured to share Billy Tipton’s story, the shock and awe that dawns on the mild-mannered Tipton son is incredibly moving to witness. Billy Jr. has spent the best part of his life believing he is alone in caring for his father’s legacy, but as Jamison Green philanthropically muses, ‘hardly anybody is ever really alone in this world.’
Touchingly using Tipton’s music to tie together the documentary’s many strands, and playing itself out to one of the rare surviving audio clips of Tipton’s warm voice talking to his kids as he gears up to tickle the ivories, No Ordinary Man is a riveting documentary that ensures Tipton’s talent, courage, and story will live on, reclaimed here by those who are writing the latest chapter in trans history. With immense care and craftsmanship, Joynt and Chin-Yee have given us the definitive tale of Billy Tipton, who most assuredly was no ordinary man.
No Ordinary Man is playing as part of the BFI Flare Film Festival
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