No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Documentary is a new film out today that tells a story unlike so many other movies about transgender people, like The Danish Girl, The Crying Game, and Boys Don’t Cry. Those movies cast cisgender actors in roles that satisfied the curiosity cis audiences have about gender dysphoria, focusing almost exclusively on “the perception of deception.”
What this documentary film does differently is set the record straight about this man’s life, with the participation of and guidance from an oft-overlooked segment of the LGBTQ population: Transgender men.
Marquise Vilsón, Scott Turner Schofield, C. Riley Snorton, and Thomas Page McBee are among those featured in the documentary film. It’s co-directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, and also stars trans women Dr. Susan Stryker and Zackary Drucker, whose most recent work, The Lady and The Dale, is streaming on HBOMax.
It was not until after jazz musician Billy Tipton died on January 21, 1989, that his family and the world learned his secret. He had lived, performed, married and raised children as a man before passing away from a perforated ulcer at 74 years old. But when Tipton’s life began in 1914, he was thought to be a girl.
Today, much of the world would consider Billy Tipton to be a transgender man, or perhaps “transmasc,” which is short for “trans masculine” and is used by queer, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people who don’t feel “transgender” fits their gender identity.
Scholars, composers, playwrights and journalists have been fascinated by his life story ever since learning of this secret, which has been the subject of books, an opera, and of course, supermarket tabloid headlines.
The myth that trans people transition in order to deceive people or trick them has persisted for decades, despite effective arguments to prove it is false. Even The New York Times could not resist temptation to sensationalize that aspect of his life story, based on this headline: “One False Note in a Musician’s Life; Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived.” One author in particular, cited by The Times, chose to ignore Tipton’s choice as anything more than moxie, branding him as a woman who posed as a man in pursuit of a career.
“It was incredibly frustrating, obviously, to read the biography that painted him as an ambitious woman that just wanted to play jazz music and her love of jazz was so great that even she would change her gender for her entire life,” said co-director and co-writer Chin-Yee, in an interview with film critic Danielle Solzman for Solzy At The Movies.
“To do that was just so absurd and ridiculous that she was so thorough in her research but just had such crazy blind spot for this really, really significant part of this human that she was want to write about,” Chin-Yee told Solzman about author Diane Middlebrook. “When we were going through the archives, to really find that she had read and highlighted and collected texts by trans-masculine people. She had copies of FTM Magazine, she had talked to Jamison Green, she had read Kate Bornstein’s texts. She had access and she decided to not bother including into the narrative that she was constructing about Billy Tipton. That was like, ‘Okay, you’re not ignorant anymore; you’re someone who’s willfully trying to change a person’s legacy based on what you think is the story that should be told.’”
As Solzman pointed out, a creative decision by Chin-Yee and Joynt to use the videos of trans men auditioning to play Tipton adds extra authenticity to the film, and a window into what Tipton’s life meant to their own experiences. Click here for that story.
Ultimately, what this film does is not just reframe the life of one man, but shines a new light on men whose lives are too often overlooked, because of where their journey to manhood began.
Watch the trailer for the film on YouTube and click here to visit the documentary’s site. No Ordinary Man is now playing in New York City, Pleasantville, N.Y. and Los Angeles, with more dates across the country in coming weeks. Click here for listings.