No Ordinary Man documents the life and death of a trans jazz man
In life, Billy Tipton was a musician. In death, "she" became tabloid fodder
If your knowledge of transgender celebrities starts and ends with Caitlyn Jenner and Elliot Page, then this documentary about the life and death of Billy Tipton will be an eye-opener. Dorothy Lucille Tipton was born in 1914 Oklahoma. As Billy Tipton, he became a bandleader and jazz musician through the middle decades of the century. And after his death in 1989, Tipton was tabloid fodder and the subject of a biography by Diane Middlebrook when it was discovered that “she” was female.
Directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt present a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Tipton’s life through a fascinating lens. They “audition” several trans actors to play Tipton in a would-be biopic, and this leads to discussions about the difficulty of being a trans person in the world. Though as Marquise Vilson, a Black trans man notes, it’s impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a trans man of any colour in 1955. Even the vocabulary barely existed to talk about it.
Talk-show footage from the ’90s illustrates the difficulty society had (and continue to has) when discussing trans people. We hear repetitions of the idea that to be trans is to lie to the world about who you “really” are. And we hear the claim that Tipton’s wife, though she never knew her husband had been assigned female at birth, must have been lesbian – a retroactive lesbian, if you will.