The media tainted the story of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton. This film wants to tell his truth

New doc No Ordinary Man offers a necessary dialogue about transmasculinity, centred around the revered musician who was outed after his death.

New doc No Ordinary Man offers a necessary dialogue about transmasculinity

Billy Tipton in No Ordinary Man.
Billy Tipton in No Ordinary Man. (Parabola Films)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

You may have heard of revered jazz musician Billy Tipton, who rose to fame in the 1940s and '50s, but it's unlikely you know the whole story behind him. It's actually quite possible that what you think you know about him is tainted with the vicious transphobia that was unleashed by the mainstream media after his death in 1989. Which is one of the many reasons you should find your way to Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt's documentary No Ordinary Man.

One of the best films — queer, Canadian or otherwise — to screen on last year's largely digital film festival circuit, No Ordinary Man essentially reimagines Tipton's narrative through a diverse group of contemporary trans performers and experts. Blending recordings, archival and present-day interviews, and the performers' interpretations, the film provides a necessary dialogue about transmasculinity — something even the recent surge in trans representation and storytelling hasn't done nearly enough of. 

"There's stakes of telling a story like this," says Joynt. "I think we knew from the start that the questions of our project needed to be much more complex than, 'What might it mean to tell a story about Billy Tipton?' Instead, we had to think: what does it mean to be thinking about a history of transmasculinity? What are the stakes of telling a story like this in a very particular moment in history where there is a spotlight on trans and gender non-conforming subjects in the media? And how can we really place the storytelling capacities into the hands of as many transmasculine-identified people as possible?"

"It was really a way for us as documentary makers to productively lose control of our story in service of those who are most impacted by its telling."

From left: Chase Joynt, Amos Mac and Aisling Chin-Yee on the set of No Ordinary Man.
From left: Chase Joynt, Amos Mac and Aisling Chin-Yee on the set of No Ordinary Man. (Parabola Films)

Joynt says that as a trans person thinking about and looking for trans histories, he always found Tipton on various lists and blogs of "trans people you might know or might not know or should research further."

"The story of Tipton that I think most people knew was that he lived a life and after his death was outed and really brutalized on the talk and tabloid circuit. And it wasn't until collaborating with Aisling and [co-writer] Amos Mac on this project that I really got to deepen my understanding of his life and think about it in much more complex ways."

Chin-Yee hadn't encountered Tipton's story before joining the project. 

"Coming onto the project in the early stages, I did some quick online research and then discovered how much he was problematically interpreted for so many decades," she says. "From that, just as someone who loves history and definitely stories about people who we don't see in the mainstream often, I did a deep dive with Amos and Chase — just like, who he was and getting to peel back the layers of Billy as a person and as a trans person and as a person coming up in America from the 1930s until the late 1980s."

She said that when they started digging into Tipton's story, they noticed there really was not much to work with, save for a problematic biography written by Diane Middlebrook and some interpretations of him by different actors and performers and musicians, "all having their own take and slant on who they wanted Billy to be." 

"Because we were also bringing our own hopes and dreams to who Billy was and what his experience was, from our own points of view, it really felt like we had to open it up to a much wider realm of interpretation and understanding," she explains. "We needed more than the scope of the three of us. Luckily, with Chase and Amo's vast community involvement and reach, it was a no-brainer to involve all these people that we were kind of in counsel with on the making and the writing of the film."

As No Ordinary Man makes it out into the world this weekend, Joynt says the team is "really invested in breaking out of the silos that put stories about minoritized people and communities into categories — 'narratives about LGBTQ,' for example."

"While we're so committed to our particular audiences, we also think there is so much to be gained and learned from a much broader public, and I think that Tipton's story is also a way for all of us to really reckon with the power and control that media has on sculpting stories about people. And we did really look to the influence of the talk and tabloid media on Tipton's life and Tipton's family, and brought connections to the ways in which the media continues to function and have power and control over the narratives of trans people today."

Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man.
Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man. (Parabola Films)

Chin-Yee says that with respect to media representation — and society in general — she is cautiously optimistic about where things are heading, particularly after the year we've just had.

"The past 12 months have definitely been a shift in culture, a shift in society and in filmmaking and mediamaking," she says. "So there is an interesting moment in that a light is being shone onto underrepresented stories and creators and the types of stories that people are craving as we're going through this life-altering moment. So I hope that that shift and change is lasting — that we are continuously trying to challenge ourselves and trying to always put the people in front of the screen and behind the screen that haven't had the opportunity by mainstream media."

"There's a crap-ton of work to do. It's still an uphill battle. But I think we are at least pointed in the right direction now."

And one way for you to do your own part is to point yourself in the right direction of watching No Ordinary Man.

No Ordinary Man is now streaming on CBC Gem.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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