The famous jazz musician who was secretly trans

Billy Tipton was someone in No ordinary man respectfully refers to a “regional jazz musician”. In the mid-1930s, he led a band that performed on radio stations and at Elks Lodges, Air Force bases, and nightclubs, first in his hometown of Oklahoma City, then in various parts of the country. He was a successful working artist, and with The Billy Tipton Trio he recorded two jazz albums and soon after was offered a spot in Reno, Nevada, opening for Liberace. Rather than continuing to climb the showbiz ladder, Tipton retreated from the spotlight, becoming a talent broker in Spokane, Washington, where in the early 1960s he met and married dancer Kitty Kelly, with whom he dated. adopted three sons.

Real fame, however, didn’t come for Billy until his death, when everyone found out, including Kitty and her eldest son Billy Jr., who cradled his father when he died, that Billy was a man. transgender.

Billy Tipton (center) and his bandmates


No ordinary man (in theaters July 16) is the story of Billy’s unique journey, as well as tabloid coverage of his post-mortem outing, but to his credit, it’s more than that. Embarrassed that, save for a few old photographs and some audio recordings of holiday gatherings, there is very little archival material on Billy, directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt take a no-nonsense approach. conventional in their history. Their documentary is a marriage of interviews with trans authors, activists and artists, and auditions with trans actors in which they play the role of Billy. The latter allows the filmmakers both to bring key incidents in Billy’s story to life and to examine the underlying dynamics and thought processes that may have governed him at particular times, highlighting the interplay between art and fiction to understand and face reality. experiences of the world.

Since he never talked about it openly with anyone, let alone in public, no one knows what Billy really thought about his decision to live his life as a man. However, No ordinary man delves into the tangled issues of trans identity – then and now – through commentary from its speakers today. These individuals have a lot to say about their own processes of defining and navigating a world that struggles to truly see them. This group’s diversity in race, appearance, demeanor and outlook – as well as their takes on the same scripted stages – serves as a subtle yet powerful celebration of the trans community as a melting pot of many disparate types. , all of whom face similar and unique struggles over who they are, how they want to present themselves (and be seen), and how art provides a conduit for those efforts.

Billy’s saga is therefore the basis of No ordinary manis a larger, nuanced inquiry into the historical and contemporary plight of trans men and women. For them, Billy was a real pioneer confirming that, far from being a new modern phenomenon, trans people have always existed. Billy’s wonder, of course, is that at a time when being trans was likely to get someone killed, he chose to “hide in plain sight”, hiding that he had been assigned a woman to birth while embracing a profession that made him the constant center of interest. This pioneering courage is clearly an inspiration to everyone in Chin-Yee and Joynt’s film, who talk about his predicament – ​​and the bravery he showed in being himself, no matter what. obstacles – with palpable reverence.

No ordinary man seeks to correct the historical erasure of trans experiences, resurrecting Billy as a trailblazer on whose shoulders modern trans Americans stand. Restoring Billy’s reputation is particularly necessary due to the close coverage of his death and “coming out” in the 1990s, when Kitty and Billy Jr. made the rounds on talk shows and were forced to endure all kinds of offensive questions from Oprah and Sally guest Jessy Raphael. In a new interview with Billy Jr., the pain of losing his father and the intense confusion of that time doesn’t seem to have entirely lessened, and in Billy Jr.’s belated encounter with author Jamison Green, who arrives dressed a hat that looks surprisingly like Billy’s favorite – the movie seems to offer him some solace by showing him the enduring significance of his father’s legacy to so many.

Restoring Billy’s reputation is particularly necessary due to the gross publicity of his death, and “coming out”, in the 1990s…

A 1998 biography of Billy, Suits meby feminist author and scholar Diane Middlebrook takes a beating in No ordinary man, not only from those interviewed—actor and artist Marquis Vilsón denounces its pun title as disrespectful and the tome as “a simulation”—but also through a clip of Middlebrook’s phone conversation unpleasantly challenging Kitty to about her claims that she never knew her husband was assigned female at birth. In this hostile and accusatory exchange, as in subsequent conversations about 1999 boys don’t cry, the documentary examines changing attitudes and perspectives on trans experiences both inside and outside the trans community. It is a portrait of understanding the complicated facets of 21st century life from different points of view, which further involves acknowledging the misconceptions that have long dominated dialogues on these concerns – for example, that trans men and women are “liars” because they pretend to be something they are not, rather than the idea that they are simply seeking acceptance to be authentic themselves.

No ordinary man addresses these topics through a clever formal structure that maintains a constant and benevolent focus on the underlying humanity of Billy and his own speakers, whose distinctive personalities and opinions (on the dangers of visibility, the desire for tolerance and compassion, and the performative aspects of trans identity in many settings) reinforce non-fictional study. While Billy is the nominal subject of Chin-Yee and Joynt’s film – hailed, in an old newsletter read aloud by Green, as “one of our grandfathers” – he is also the pretext for a closer look. broad on the complexities, difficulties, and triumphs of trans life, which are explored here with invigorating insight and empathy.