Stories

Who Was Billy Tipton?

Saxaphone and Martini

The first time I ever heard about a trans person was when I was in school and saw a documentary about Billy Tipton. Tipton was a jazz musician who was active from the 1930s through to the time of his death in the 1970s. When Billy died, his children discovered to their amazement that he had female anatomy—a fact he had kept secret from them for their entire lives.

Professionally, most musicians and fans knew Tipton as a man, as well. He chose to present himself to the world this way. In part this was a reflection of the fact that it is sometimes easier for men to get ahead in professions like music, but it was also obviously an aspect of who Tipton was as a person.

In the early days, in the 1930s, Billy Tipton went onstage as a man, but he lived as a woman in his private life. He also had a relationship that most people considered to be lesbian. At this point, Tipton must have been experimenting with, and exploring his gender, but he hadn’t yet made the step of moving into the gender space he wanted to occupy 100%. Those were very different times, and there certainly weren’t any positive influences around, and there was definitely no resource material.

At that time people who knew they were living in gender discord pretty much had to invent their own solutions. No doubt many hid their feelings entirely and went slowly mad. Others probably dressed up in secret. It must have taken real courage of conviction to start dressing and acting as a man in such a hostile world. Or perhaps the decision was so obvious that it was easy.

We will never know because Billy Tipton never wanted any light to shine on his gender identity. For him it was all about the music.

Over the next few decades, Tipton began to live full time as a man. He had many lovers, and even married. It was never clear how much these women knew. Tipton had begun to say that he had been injured in a car accident and didn’t want anything to do with sexuality. His injuries prevented him from having sex. He and his wife adopted three children. His wife accepted his story, and Tipton was known as a model husband and loving father.

Billy Tipton was a trans man in a time when such things were in a wilderness. Since his death in 1989, though, quite a few films, songs, and other works of art have been dedicated to him. He managed only moderate success as a jazz musician in his time, but perhaps if he were living today it would be different.

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