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Regional Interests

‘No Ordinary Man’ Reintroduces Jazz Musician and Transgender Hero, Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton was an accomplished jazz musician and talent agent, a dedicated husband, and a father of three adopted sons. It was only after he died in 1989, at the age of 74, that his family, friends and fans found out that he had lived in a female body. The public outing that Tipton was subjected to after his death resulted in his being both publicly misgendered and mis-characterized as a liar; his musical legacy was overshadowed by tabloid trash talk.

Now, a new documentary written by Original Plumbing co-founder Amos Mac and writer/director Aisling Chin-Lee, seeks to undo that damage. And oh, how beautifully it succeeds. No Ordinary Man is a moving and consistently thought-provoking tribute to an individual who lived as authentically and boldly as he could, at a time when trans men weren’t only without medical recourse, but weren’t even supposed to exist. “It’s scary,” Zackary Drucker poignantly notes in the film, “when centuries of your survival have been based on not being seen.”

Tipton’s life is explored in some depth, including his greatest triumphs—such as playing with jazz legends like Duke Ellington—and painful tragedies. Most devastatingly, Tipton refused to seek medical treatment for the ulcer that ultimately killed him, no doubt fearful of being discovered. His 18-year marriage to Kitty Kelly was also without physical intimacy—Tipton told Kelly that a car crash had left the lower half of his body gravely and permanently injured.

What makes No Ordinary Man truly extraordinary, however, is the way in which it uses Tipton’s story to explore the experiences of all trans men. It probes issues around identity, sexuality and a culture that has historically either erased trans men, or else treated them as an aberration. It analyzes the importance of media representation. And it even examines the inhumane medical neglect that, until fairly recently, trans people were consistently subjected to. (“Trans people going into emergency rooms in the late 1980s,” Jamison Green explains, “were told, ‘We don’t treat people like you. We don’t understand your body.’”)

One of the most impactful methods No Ordinary Man employs to explore the lived trans-masculine experience is through scenes in which real-life actors audition to play Billy. The pathos that some of them—particularly the exceptional Marquise Vilsón—bring to scenes from Billy’s life elevate our understanding of the knife-edge Tipton must have lived on during his 55 years of “passing.” In Vilsón’s hands, for example, a simple scene in which Tipton prepares to meet Duke Ellington is transformed into an anxiety-laden edge-of-seat moment. Another, in which Tipton unexpectedly meets an out trans man for the first time, becomes quietly devastating.

At one point, Vilsón effectively sums up why these audition scenes are so important. “The casting process looks like as many different versions and variations of transness walking into a casting director’s office,” he says. “There are so few accounts of us having access to history that belongs to us, that is being created by us, that is being curated by us, that allows our voice and our vision to be part of the process.”

Also part of the process here is Billy Tipton Jr.—a man you can practically see healing on screen as he finally finds out his dad is a hero to countless others. At the end of his father’s life, Tipton Jr. was hurt and frustrated by his dad’s unwillingness to see a doctor. He acted as a caretaker and was present at Tipton’s death. And in the aftermath, he was caught up in a media sensationalism that swept him onto several prominent daytime talk shows. No Ordinary Man seems to offer Tipton Jr. a new understanding of all that his father achieved in life and how much he is still respected for it. His shock and relief is palpable.

In just 84 minutes, No Ordinary Man does so much more than introduce us to the “consummate professional” and “gentleman’s gentleman” that was Billy Tipton. It draws a figurative line in the sand and demands that we never again ignore or erase transgender people from our national identity. “Trans men have not existed in the cultural imagination at all really,” Thomas Page McBee says at one point. “So the idea of now having this process of looking back and trying to figure out what our lineage is, it makes a lot of sense to be looking at these sorts of stories.”

‘No Ordinary Man’ is playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, through Aug. 5.

Copyright 2021 KQED