The story and legacy of Billy Tipton, the jazz musician and closeted trans man. After his death he became the subject of a media frenzy focussing on his gender identity and how much his family new. Trying to move past the sensationalism and insensitivity, filmmaker Aisling Chin-Yee uses archival footage, interviews with his son and involvement from the wider trans male community to tell the story nobody cared to tell; the real story of Billy Tipton.
The film explores Tipton’s legacy as a man who managed to live as his true gender for all his life and was only labelled and outed as a trans-man after his death, which happened at a point of very low understanding of transgender. The film demonstrates how the media focussed on the idea of deception and was primarily interested in the experience of his survivors and any feelings of anger or hurt they may have. The man himself is entirely lost in the prejudices of others.
The film-making process is also portrayed within the film as a method of exploring what the legend means to them and how the film makers relate to Billy’s experience. This includes incredible insights into the relationship between gender identity exploration and the principles of jazz. Because so little is known about the specifics of Tipton’s life there is room for the would-be performers in the film to bring their own experiences to the story and find points of connection with the character of Tipton.
This is also a method of getting around the lack of archival footage of Billy Tipton. There is however a wealth of material produced in the aftermath of his life which are very revealing of the ridiculous attitudes and invasive curiosity of the wider public. In particular a moment in which his son is asked on live tv if his father threw a ball with him in a particularly feminine way. It’s a media circus that is shocking to see, but essential to understand. These are the attitudes and questions that form in the minds of those who have achieved no understanding.
The film is also very aware of its responsibilities as a biopic. Tipton has a biography written by a journalist named Diane Middlebrook who wrote about Billy from her own perspective, which was not sensitive to Tipton’s gender identity. She writes about his choices like a business decision, or at the very least writes him as a woman who has everybody fooled. Consequently the film struggle to includes voices that will be authentic to Billy’s experiences.
The film ends with the cast suggesting what they would ask Billy if they could and they all talk about what he was like as a man and as a jazz musician. This is the aspect of his character that his post-mortem outing and media frenzy completely overlooked. It’s the part of his story that has been missing in the legacy of Billy Lipton and is in danger of being lost in the lives of every transgender person and every marginalised person.