Promo art for film, "No Ordinary Man"
No Ordinary Man. The Billy Tipton Documentary. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

No Ordinary Man (2020) is indeed a documentary of jazz musician Billy Lee Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989), despite the film’s trailer showing actors auditioning to portray Tipton—including, rather unexpectedly, a Black actor.

YouTube video
No Ordinary Man – Official Trailer – Oscilloscope Laboratories HD:

But these actors are indeed a part of how directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt have chosen to tell Tipton’s story.

Tipton’s life was remarkable, but his 1989 death became infamous. The relatively obscure jazzman, revealed to be biologically female as unsuccessful life-saving measures were being performed, made for sensational, scandalous headlines in mainstream media and tabloid newspapers alike, all across the country and around the world. It was discussed breathlessly on the pre-Twitter town hall of TV talk shows, on which Tipton’s widow Kathleen “Kitty” Kelly and one of his three adopted sons, Billy Tipton Jr., appeared (and yes, these family roles and terms are more descriptive than legal).

They called him husband and father, even after his death, something society was in no way ready to accept at the time. The two were shamed and called delusional for doing so. The other two adopted sons changed their names to cut off their association.

The everyday sexism of the 20th Century was accepted as a reasonable explanation for the question of Tipton’s existence in 1989. The general story was that Tipton lived life as a man in order to have a career as a jazz musician. As if successful female jazz pianists didn’t exist – Marian McPartland, Dorothy Donegan, Cleo Brown, and Lil Hardin Armstrong enter the chat — but that was considered a digression.

This movie, made in the 21st Century, asks you to consider that this explanation doesn’t wash. Wanting a career as a jazz musician may be in no way related to Tipton living his life in his male truth. So what does that mean?

As the documentary explains, the seminal text on Tipton’s life, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, released nearly a decade after Tipton’s death, in 1998, muddies the waters. Middlebrook was chosen by the family to write Billy’s story, and author Middlebrook’s journalist background helps her produce a book full of rich detail about Tipton’s life, both his professional career experiences and his personal relationships, which includes previous marriages. But threaded throughout the biography is Middlebrook’s insistent contention that Billy Tipton can only be a deception, a lifelong lie to perform before the world. It’s a blind spot that complicates an already complicated situation, and, close to publication, soured the relationship between the author and Tipton’s family. A 1996 recording of a phone conversation between Middlebrook and Kelly is played in the film, of Middlebrook arguing with Kelly that as his wife, she must have known Tipton’s biological gender. Kelly maintained Tipton came to bed in a body truss and she did not know. Middlebrook does not believe Kelly, and she cannot be dislodged from the idea that Billy Tipton is a fully artificial personality. Billy Tipton is a deception, not a real person.

And here’s where the filmmakers put a spotlight on members of the transgender community themselves, letting them tell their story in their words, in general, while still telling Tipton’s specific story in detail.

Tipton was not exactly alone then; the film explores when Tipton met a likewise transgender man. But trans citizens back then did lack the community that exists now, that openly discusses having a different gender identity, that talks about various available medical options including for female-to-male (despite state after state these days spitting in the face of their constituents as well as the medical community by making laws to end such options, in a transparently bigoted and altogether unrealistic and unconstitutional attempt to legislate transgender people out of existence), and shares setbacks and achievements with one another. Those in the film are different ages and races and appearances, but they are all completely candid in their thoughts, experiences, and attitudes in being transgender people, and explain where Billy Tipton fits into their own individual narrative.

Most specifically, they give their varying opinions of Middlebrook’s book, including how difficult it could be to read. But they point out that Tipton had no role models and no road map to live the life that he did. A considerably improbable existence, Billy Tipton showed what was possible. Perhaps a more accurate biography title, in having played jazz, would have been, “A Life Improvised”–?

Overall, No Ordinary Man, in revealing the specifics of the Tipton family, provides real-life outlines of the transgender community.

Billy Tipton was indeed a real person. And Kathleen Kelly and Billy Jr. did indeed lose a husband and father that day.

Jenni Olson’s tweet displaying the Masc series of films that she co-curated with Caden Mark Gardner for the Criterion Channel for June 2023, #PrideMonth.

Valerie Hawkins has the same last name as the editor only because they have the same mother and father. She tweets under the handle @RebelliousVal, but it's under @Valsadie that she has appeared in books...