New Doc Explores the Complicated Trans Legacy of Jazz Icon Billy Tipton

"It's not a look back at a history, it’s a reckoning with issues that are ongoing in the contemporary moment."

Billy Tipton was anything but ordinary. An acclaimed jazz musician, the Kansas City native made a name for himself in 1940s and ’50s by performing for radio broadcasts and recording albums with his eponymous band. He settled down with his wife, Kitty, and adopted children in the ’60s and remained out of the public eye until his death in 1989, when he was posthumously outed as a transgender man to his family…and to the entire world.

Tipton’s gender identity became a spectacle for public consumption. He was the subject of Dianne Middlebrook’s 1998 biography Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, a troublesome tome that misgenders Tipton and purports a harmful narrative of trans deceit. Still, Tipton’s personal and professional triumphs have gone on to inspire and encourage trans men and transmasculine folks around the world. No Ordinary Man, an innovative new documentary co-directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, out in select theaters today (July 16), is the first real attempt to tell that story, and to celebrate Tipton for the man he was and the life he lived.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Billy Tipton (far right) with the Billy Tipton Trio.

Co-written by Chin-Yee and Amos Mac and produced by Sarah Spring, the doc puts archival images and audio from Tipton’s life in dialogue with expert sources, transmasculine actors auditioning to portray the musician, and his own son, Billy Tipton Jr.

Speaking to NewNowNext via Zoom, Joynt describes the stacked panel of experts as “a who’s who of trans history and contemporary politics and art making.” He and Chin-Yee were also lucky to spend the bulk of their time shooting with Billy Jr., who has remained invested in how his father’s story is told.

“He says on camera how there’s a different vibe and interaction with our team than he’s had over the last 30 years, when people come into his house or come into his space and start asking him personal questions,” Chin-Yee adds. “He was a generous human to let us do that.”

Below, find NewNowNext’s full chat with Joynt and Chin-Yee.
 

Why Billy Tipton, and why now?

Chase Joynt: I think that Billy Tipton is such an interesting historical subject, because the only reason we know about him is because he was made a spectacle by the talk and tabloid media. If that had not happened, he would have disappeared into the fabric of heteronormative life and death. So we really get a chance to ask a series of interlocking questions in our film that are far more expansive than, “Who is Billy Tipton and why should we care?” We get to think, “How do we tell stories about transness and gender non-conformity before we had the language to identify people as such? What role does the media play in how we remember people but also how we create identities and stories about people?” I think that we recognize that our project is coming out in a burst of representational possibility — our friend Sam Feder’s film Disclosure, and a handful of others who were really asking similar questions but of different archives.

It’s so true. I thought the structure of the documentary was such a unique and effective way to work around not having any moving images of Billy. How did that come about?

Aisling Chin-Yee: That was something we had to confront and tackle from the beginning. We have photos, we have research, we have audio interviews, but we don’t have him playing on stage. So it quickly became the question of, “How do we show Billy, and how do we represent Billy?” And from that came the idea of making this a very meta process where we were going to have conversations with actors and performers about what would it be like to be Billy Tipton in this moment and in his life. What would be the conversations that you ask as a performer, as an actor, to inhabit a role? How would I feel from my experience walking into this room, trying to get my first job or meeting my idol, or seeing somebody who had a life that was similar to mine?

One of the expert sources in the film notes that Billy never consented to being such a visible trans man. Was that something you wrestled with as filmmakers?

Chin-Yee: We definitely had moral questions that we were constantly asking ourselves early on. We were going to contribute the first moving images of Billy into the culture, essentially, because there are no moving images. We wanted to be incredibly careful and thoughtful about what we were doing in that regard. He was a private guy. The way he presented himself in public was as a musician, so this is how he lived his life, and then it all changed after his death. So who are we to come in and start talking about his transness now?

Joynt: I totally echo everything that Ash just said. And you know, I think our film is trying to ask, how do you know what you know? How do we know what we know about Billy? And if we take that question seriously, then we have to think about the media. We have to think about medicine. We have to think about the politics of race and class in a very particular moment in time, right?

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Billy Tipton Sr. (center).

It seemed like a few of the actors who came to the casting call had very personal connections to Billy! Was that something you sought out, or did it happen organically?

Joynt: We put out a general call for transmasculine talent who wanted to participate in a documentary about Billy Tipton and clustered the talent in New York and Los Angeles. I think part of the ways in which you see varying degrees of knowledge [about Billy] is generational. I identify as a cohort of trans men who are now all in our late 30s and early 40s for whom Billy Tipton is closer to our experience than some of the 18- and 19-year-olds who saw a casting call and came in having always had access to transmasculinity as a category of identity that they could potentially explore or inhabit.

All of the guys self-taped and volunteered their time. And I recognized Marquise Vilsón as a hugely significant person in an early transmasculine doc called The Aggressives from the early 2000s and said out loud, “What would it mean to be thinking across documentary portraits about transmasculinity? How Marquise would feel about that?” And so Ash and I met him… hung out with him, and said, “This is who we are, and this is what we’re thinking.” And we know that Marquise went home and did a little bit more research on account of understanding the framework of the project. So what you see emerge in all of its glory onscreen there is definitely a product of his careful attention.

Chin-Yee: Definitely. We had those conversations early with Marquise and Scott Turner Schofield as well, who feels very close to Billy’s story. He says even in the film that that was his first exposure to transmasculinity, was through [Dianne Middlebrook’s] troublesome book. But, yeah, there were definitely people who walked in that were like, “I Googled him on the way here, and he had five wives?!” [Laughs] We had all sorts of interesting conversations in the waiting room.

I’m glad you mentioned Suits Me because I wanted to ask about it — it’s something you can’t not talk about when discussing Billy’s story. How did you balance incorporating this problematic book with respecting his legacy as a male musician who was just living his life and privately was trans?

Joynt: That’s a great question. For me, the answer is always about authorship, because the whole project is thinking about the politics and power of authorship — including us as filmmakers, to Ash’s point earlier. So the Middlebrook book becomes a touchstone, a place where people did find really valuable information and a place that causes anxiety in others. How do we treat it as a complex text that is doing both of those things simultaneously, but also how do we not stay weighted down by it or too attached to it and allow the storytelling mechanisms and capacities to open back up?

Chin-Yee: It was also a key element to Kitty and Billy Jr.’s journey as well, because they were involved in the making of the book. … So we weren’t ever really going to be able to tell a story about Billy without being confronted with the book at some point, whether it was going to be part of our research, which obviously it would have to be, but also that it was so many people’s entry points, and that it left a lasting impression on Billy’s legacy from then on.

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man.

In the doc, Jamison Green, a longtime trans health care advocate, notes that Billy Sr. didn’t seek out medical care when he was deathly ill, ostensibly because he was afraid of being outed. Unfortunately, trans people still face outing and discrimination at the doctor’s office. Was that something you thought about?

Joynt: Oh, absolutely. We are releasing this film in the same year that 21 states are trying to criminalize access to health care for trans young people, so it’s not a look back at a history, it’s a reckoning with issues that are ongoing in the contemporary moment. I think Jamison so beautifully and eloquently thinks about those barriers, but then to put his experiences, opinions, and conversations with young transmasculine people who are encountering the medical industrial complex for the first time as newly transitioning people — it’s quite striking and haunting in some moments.

Toward the end of the film, you ask all of the experts and actors what they would ask Billy if they could have a conversation with him today. I’m curious, how would each of you answer that question?

Chin-Yee: My answer has evolved, I think, as I’ve gotten to know him. When you spend so much time with somebody’s image, you really just want to hang out with them and then ask them a bunch of personal questions — what happened here, when you were playing on this circuit and when you first learned how to play music there? I think it would just be like, “I’ve been trying to put this two and two together. When did this happen? When did you learn that style of music?” My conversations with him would just be as nerdy as that at this point.

Joynt: On the tails of making a meta documentary, my answer will stay in that space, which is to say I would love to know what he thinks of our movie.

Oh my god.

Joynt: I think it would be such an interesting experience to sit down and be like, “Here’s where we’re at. What do you think of that?” … One of the things that we loved about asking that question, which became known very quickly on set as Ash’s favorite question—

Hey, it’s a great question! I stole it!

Joynt: —is that all of our interlocutors, with the exception of Kate Bornstein, answered the question without talking about gender. I think it’s exciting to actually present answers in that way. It showcases the variety of ways which one might approach such a human, even after spending 80 minutes really reckoning with questions of gender and identity history. When it comes down to it, people want to know other things.

No Ordinary Man is out now in select U.S. theaters.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella