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The name of Billy Tipton may not loom large among the list of jazz legends, but from the mid-1930s and into the 1960s his work with jazz dance bands and his own trio made him a familiar face in night clubs and dance halls throughout the American Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
When he died in 1989 of an untreated peptic ulcer, leaving behind three adopted sons and his ex-wife Kitty, it was learned that while Tipton was a man as far as friends and family were concerned, biologically he was born female.
As shown in the new documentary No Ordinary Man — now available at FIN Stream online film fest until Sept. 24 — Tipton’s broad grin and boy-next-door features appear in the colour photo on the cover of one of his two LPs, Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano, and over the years he and his groups would share stages with the likes of the Ink Spots and Billy Eckstine.
Telling his story
For the length of his adult years, Tipton led the life he wanted to lead. The new film puts that life in perspective and in contrast to contemporary trans experience, balanced by Dartmouth-raised filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee and her creative team of co-writer Amos Mac, a transmasculine creative based in Hollywood, and Toronto-based co-director Chase Joynt, “a fantastically beautiful and talented filmmaker, who’s also transmasculine,” she says via video conference from Montreal.
The film also includes an evocative score combining acoustic and electronic sounds by Halifax musician Rich Aucoin, whose work augments and blends with Tipton’s original recordings.
“We came together to explore how to tell Billy’s story and really honour his legacy, and to really put his story back into the hands of the people who are really the most affected, which are trans people living today who have known and grown up with Billy.”
Getting out the truth
Following Tipton’s death, his story appeared in both tabloid and mainstream newspapers, while family members appeared on daytime talk shows to defend him, facing a nightmarish barrage of hosts and studio audiences. In 1999, the Diane Middlebrook-penned biography Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, offered up a frequently misgendered perspective on his life, so two decades after that Chin-Yee feels a fresh look is long overdue.
“His life was really bastardized in a lot of ways, so (this film) was really all about reclaiming him for this community, and also looking at his life and experience from different points of view, and lots of different experiences within that as well.”
With little archival material beyond a handful of studio and radio recordings and a number of photos — and absolutely no surviving film or video footage — Chin-Yee, Joynt and Mac opted to present scenes from Tipton’s life, performed audition-style by a variety of transmasculine actors.
For the filmmakers, it was the best way to show Tipton through a trans lens, while also showcasing “the amazing, diverse trans talent across North America,” says Chin-Yee, who wants the film to stand as a dialogue about what the musician’s life means and what we can learn from it.
“We knew the images we would be contributing into society and culture at this time would be the first moving images of this man, and there’s a lot of responsibility attached to that.
“Obviously if we were going to pick an actor and do the kind of classic recreation you’d find in a historical biopic, we would still be putting our own biases on what we thought Billy was, looked like, acted like, without any actual context for that.”
Tipton Jr. weighs in
The film’s most moving scenes belong to Billy Tipton Jr., the adopted son who was present when his father died, and was one of the first to discover Tipton Sr.’s birth gender. He spent several days with the filmmakers talking about his father, and the parental relationship that he still holds dear.
He also discussed the nightmare experience of going on the talk show circuit with his mother Kitty in 1989 and 1990.
“People were really making trans people into a spectacle onscreen at that time, when this type of media was so widespread, and vilifying Billy and his family as well,” says Chin-Yee.
“But he and Kitty always said very strongly that Billy was a man, Billy was a great father, a talented musician, a wonderful friend and a loving husband. He was all these amazing things that make up a really, really great man. And they never strayed from that.”
At a time when transphobia and transgender discrimination is expressed from prominent corners with powerful voices, Chin-Yee feels the time couldn’t be better for a film like No Ordinary Man, providing a platform for transgender voices and abolishing stereotypes and myths.
For example, she doesn’t buy the idea that Billy began identifying as a man simply so he could play jazz shortly after finishing high school. “There were many (women) jazz musicians, and one doesn’t change their gender for a job,” says the filmmaker.
“Billy lived for many decades after that working as a booking agent in Spokane with his three adopted sons and his wife. He never, ever pretended he was a woman in any kind of capacity like that, so any kind of theory that tries to explain why Billy did what he did ... it’s like, well maybe we just believe people for who they are when they tell us their names and genders because it’s up to them.
“I hope this adds to the understanding that we can all empathize with people from different experiences, and that we all have the right to live the lives that we want to live with respect to others. To have privacy and be able to exist in this world as a complex and nuanced human being that can’t be reduced down to just one category.”
Where to watch:
To watch No Ordinary Man as part of FIN Stream programming, visit the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival website to buy tickets via the virtual box office and peruse the detailed online program guide.
Like most FIN Stream titles (apart from the gala presentations) No Ordinary Man is available to watch for the run of the festival, until Sept. 24, and once you press play you have 24 hours to view it.