No Ordinary Man gives an in-depth look at the life of musician and trans culture icon Billy Tipton. In this heartfelt Canadian documentary, co-directed by Chase Joynt (You Only Live Twice) and Aisling Chin-Yee (The Rest of Us), trans artists reimagine Billy Tipton’s story, revealing a tender and thoughtful portrait that celebrates and honours the jazz legend.
Billy was born in 1914 and passed away from an untreated ulcer in 1989. During the entire span of his life, the word ‘transgender’ was not widely known or used. When he died, and people and the media discovered that he was assigned female at birth, they fixated on that story, warped it and sensationalized it. “There was no such thing as a trans man, there was no word for him,”explains Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw; On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, who is also one of the many experts featured in the doc.
Archival footage from the 1990s in No Ordinary Man shows clips of Billy’s wife, Kathleen “Kitty” Tipton Oakes, describing him as “the perfect husband who every woman dreamed of having”, but that sentiment is overshadowed as she’s interrogated about his body, and genitalia. We also see clips of one of Billy’s son, who shares how wonderful a father he was, but again, the media press hard trying to discover some demented and perverse side to Billy—refusing to believe that he could have possibly held that role properly.
In the film, trans artists describe Billy in a myriad of ways that the mainstream media, at the time, simply chose to disregard. “He was a trans-masculine jazz musician,” says actor and activist Marquise Vilsón, and others describe him as a “a consummate professional” and “gentleman’s gentleman”. Indeed, it is obvious that he was all these things, as well as being a loving family man, and a goddamn inspiration to millions.
No Ordinary Man does a superb job at sharing the complexity of Billy’s complicated and daring life while also spotlighting his remarkable talents as a musician, but this film isn’t just about Billy. The doc thoughtfully weaves in bits an pieces of stories and struggles shared by dozens of transgender artists, providing a picture of the challenges that remain today.
“When I started my transition, I didn’t see a path, as an actor. At the time, I really didn’t see anyone in TV or Film that was trans and acting…so I didn’t think it was a possibility or something I could pursue,” says actor Carter Ray. He is one of many who sheds light on the stigma and discrimination that persist in the arts & entertainment industry.
After watching this film, one cannot help but be in awe of the way Billy lived his life—it was never an easy path. No Ordinary Man honours Billy Tipton’s invaluable legacy, while also empowering the next generation of transgender artists.