In trans masculine circles, Billy Tipton is seen as both an ancestor and a martyr. The jazz musician came up in a time when there were not yet any medical advancements in trans-affirming surgeries in the United States, much less a language or a subculture that could have made his life easier. He held the secret of being assigned female at birth for decades, until he was pronounced dead in his trailer with his adopted son and namesake Billy Jr. present. The grieving Billy Jr. was then abruptly told by an EMT that the man who loved and raised him, who stubbornly avoided medical treatment despite deteriorating health for unclear reasons, was not the cisgender patriarch he was led to believe. A transphobic national media circus ensued, persisting for several years and doing considerable harm to both Tipton’s memory and family. With that in mind, the documentary No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Documentary is not just a corrective about Tipton, but also a broader critique of how the media fails to understand trans masculine perspectives and stories – both before Tipton’s death and since then.
Directed by Chayse Joynt and Aisling Chin-Yee, No Ordinary Man operates with an unusual level of transparency, presenting how not just the directors but also several collaborators engage with Tipton’s story. These collaborators include co-writer Amos Mac (one of the co-founders of the influential trans masc zine Original Plumbing), historian Susan Stryker, trans activist Jamison Green, and several trans masculine actors. The subject’s lifelong act of self-preservation is treated with sensitive empathy, with many trans actors participating in a casting call for an imagined Tipton biopic. From this, the film builds its portrait and media analysis.
An older, similar film is Rosa von Praunheim’s 1992 docudrama I Am My Own Woman, about the trans German museum curator Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. The subject is interviewed about her life under Nazism, East Germany, and her awareness of her gender identity, while actors portray her life in reenactments. We also see von Mahlsdorf both directing and taking questions from the actors playing her younger selves. No Ordinary Man also builds from Joynt’s prior short film (made with Kristin Schilt) Framing Agnes. It similarly has trans people discussing and reenacting a medical case study about a trans woman simply known as “Agnes,” who tried to obtain gender-affirming surgery at the UCLA Medical Center in the late 1950s. The short is in some ways an inverse of No Ordinary Man; we know Agnes’s gender identity but little else about her, whereas Billy Tipton had a very public life with a secret trans identity.
Though delicate in its handling of Tipton’s life, when it comes to the media phenomenon that surrounded his passing, the film is urgent and fiery. Some of the targets are low-hanging fruit, such as the tabloid talk show hosts who gawked at Tipton with hit pieces masquerading as “human interest” stories, like Geraldo Rivera or Sally Jesse Raphael. Even Oprah Winfrey covered the topic, bringing on some of Tipton’s surviving family, including one of his ex-wives. Both they and their audiences had pretty much the same reaction of hostility and bafflement. Tipton was seen as a freak with a secret that made a fool of his partners and children, who all must have been stupid and somehow freakish themselves to have “fallen” for his “act.” Even the more sympathetic takes ventured into uncomfortable trans-erasing interpretations, with suggestions that Tipton was simply a butch lesbian or a cis woman in some modern Yentl situation who posed as a man to get ahead in jazz (despite the fact that he didn’t relinquish his male identity after retiring).
The person who takes the most on the chin is Diane Middlebrook, who published a biography of Tipton in 1998 titled Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Stryker notes how at the time, there was guardedness in the trans community around an outsider writing about such a major figure, but since Middlebrook was such a highly regarded biographer, there was also hope that it could have some positive impact. This turned out not to be the case. While Suits Me received notice from the LGBTQ community, getting nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, it has since been widely disregarded by the trans community. In No Ordinary Man, it comes under fire for the muddled way Middlebrook writes about her subject, evident in everything from her inconsistent use of pronouns to her basic lack of understanding of what trans people even are. Unlike Donna Minkowitz, who would ultimately retract and apologize for how she similarly botched the story of the late Brandon Teena (notably, she has a special thanks credit in No Ordinary Man), it does not appear Middlebrook ever felt contrition or engaged with criticism from the trans community before her death in 2007.
The film is healthily dubious about the progress that’s been made in trans representation and public discourse, taking into account the persistent struggles to be heard and seen, the carefully considered negotiations of being out or being able to just pass, and how visibility can be a double-edged sword. That’s to say nothing of combating the circular logic from the cisheteronormative mainstream, which treats trans people as a recent phenomenon rather than something with a deep historical foundation.
There is also the fact that even years after Tipton’s life was rendered a sideshow, the media still has the impulse to not see somebody in his circumstance as a trans man. They are“enigmas”at best, confused or self-loathing women at worst. As recently as 2019, the Washington Post paid tribute to American Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, who lived as a man up until his death, in a piece for Women’s History Month. The Post only backtracked after a backlash. There are still multiple books and articles about the life of James Barry, a famous surgeon who lived as a man, that cannot help but posit him as a woman who simply wanted to practice medicine. In 2014, musician Nellie McKay’s debuted a revue called A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton, wherein she sang songs as Tipton in both women’s and men’s clothes. She continued to perform the act as recently as 2017. The New York Times erroneously referred to Tipton as a “drag king” in the headline of its review of the show. Watching the imagined Billy Tipton biopic unfold in No Ordinary Man, it’s devastating to remember how trans filmmaker Silas Howard pitched a movie about Tipton to HBO that never went into development, and that he struggled to even get the executives to understand Tipton as a “he.”
Even now, the world’s perception of trans masculinity remains limited and obscured — often deliberately. While No Ordinary Man cannot undo the harm done to Tipton’s name, it is a long-overdue tribute to Tipton which can perhaps make people rethink how they see trans masculinity.
No Ordinary Man is currently playing various film festivals.