I think of myself as many things that define me, the least of which is my gender. It’s not because I was never told what to be. It’s because I was never told what I couldn’t be.
Throughout history, society has told transgender people what they couldn’t be. That includes Billy Tipton.
Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, having grown up in Kansas City, Missouri, Tipton entered the public sphere in the 1930’s and 40’s, first as a radio bandleader and then a regular at the Cotton Club in Joplin, Missouri. Through a series of interviews with trans performers, some of whom auditioned to play Tipton in a biographical film, we learn about the impact of his life as a performer both on and offstage.
Tipton died from an untreated peptic ulcer in 1989. Between the paramedics treatment and post-mortem arrangements, word quickly got out to the local press. As the author of Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Kate Bornstein put it, “Because there was no such thing as a trans man. There was no word for him…. Transsexual was in the people’s minds a man who becomes a woman.”
Directed by Aisling Chin-tee and Chase Joynt, NO ORDINARY MAN also explores Billy Tipton, Jr.’s acceptance of his father, and others’ mixed sentiments toward author Diane Middlebrook. Her 1988 biography of Tipton, while at times intrusive and perhaps insensitive from today’s perspective, also contributed to the emergence of a language for and forum of self-discovery for many trans women and men.
Medical studies have found correlations between political leanings and the size of the fear centers of the brain (“Conservatism and the Neural Circuitry of Threat.” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2018 Jan; 13(1): 43–51). And it’s perhaps that characteristic that cements their path to navigate life—having no shortage of things to fear. As soon as you take away labels, or you jumble them up, you confound the conservative fear-driven roadmap. Now they don’t know how make decisions and navigate life because they can’t be certain what to fear.
“The effect of electric technology had at first been anxiety. Now it appears to create boredom,” argued Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. But the “cool” (passive) medium of television once again became hot when broadcasters had a revelation: Selling negativity and fear was the way to ratings.
So we start seeing this recurring language of Otherism last well into the 80’s and 90’s, exacerbated by the age of shock jocks, talk shows, and investigative reporting. We’re awash in over-dramatized and partially-scripted episodes of people getting scammed, cheated, deceived, hurt, etc. This age of sexual paranoia culminates in the December 1993 rape and murder of Brandon Teena, a trans man living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Trans activist and scholar, C. Riley Snorton, observes, ““I think it’s fascinating that Middlebrook’s book drops the year before Brandon Teena becomes a national conversation again.”
Snorton is quick to note that another casualty of that incident was Philip DeVine, a straight, disabled, black man. The media coverage focused entirely on Teena and the “shock” of the others being deceived gave fuel to this idea that what was then labeled Gender Identity Disorder was an aberration, a deception. It also continued to marginalize black and brown stories, because where’s the angle for outrage if it’s not about white people in the so-called Heartland.
Snorton and musicologist Stephan Pennington draw parallels between the improvisational nature of jazz, its roots in black culture. The diverse, harmonious co-existence and collaboration within the jazz community—a space where Billy Tipton could thrive, undisturbed, for decades—becomes the template for trans people just beginning to learn how to improvise their own stories.
“We are enigmatic even to ourselves,” says multimedia artist Zackary Drucker.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM-V as Gender Dysphoria, to distinguish that it’s the social stigmas that lead to depression and other mental disorders, and not the discrepancy between one’s assigned gender and their sense of self. In the same way that the DSM-IV removed homosexuality from its catalogue of mental illnesses, being transgender was no longer characterized as a medical disorder.
Marquise Vilson, a black trans male actor, says of his motivation to fight for equality, “It’s not possible to create any kind of change or social movement [without consequences].” He goes on to say that he could choose to be hurt and achieve something, or just be hurt.
Says Pennington of the need to keep Tipton’s legacy alive, “If we erase that history, then you think that you have no ground to stand on… as a guest in a place that is not your own. But this is our place as well.”