In “No Ordinary Man” trans men reflect on the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, reclaiming his place in trans history

By Alex Schmider, Associate Director, Transgender Representation |

October 13, 2020
On Sunday, October 18, AFI will host the US premiere of “No Ordinary Man,” a documentary about the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, which reclaims Billy’s life as an important part of trans history, while providing a broader look at the lives of transgender men today. Tickets are on sale now for the festival and can be purchased here.
If you’re not familiar with Billy’s story, this documentary is an excellent opportunity to learn more about him. Born in 1914, Billy made his living as a jazz musician from the 1930s through the 1950s, before moving to Spokane, Washington to start a family. Billy didn’t disclose his gender history professionally or to his three adopted sons. Upon his death in 1989 at the age of 74, it was revealed that Billy was assigned female at birth. The subsequent media attention was almost uniformly dehumanizing and disrespectful, with media stories and books misgendering Billy and accusing him of deceiving his family and the public. The documentary includes this archival footage and it can be difficult to watch.
The documentary’s co-director Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac (both of whom are transgender) with co-director, co-writer, and editor Aisling Chin-Yee place that transphobic media reaction in stark contrast to how we understand Billy today — as a trailblazing trans man who lived his life on his own terms. Current interviews with his son Billy Tipton, Jr. are especially moving as he gains a greater understanding of his father’s place in trans history.
In addition to Billy Tipton, Jr. the film interviews trans advocates and historians Jamison Green, Thomas Page McBee, C. Riley Snorton, Stephan Pennington, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Zackary Drucker — and includes an audition process in which over a dozen trans men audition to play Billy Tipton in a (fictional) scripted scene. This creates an opportunity for the actors to reflect on Billy’s life, imagining how trans men lived in the mid-twentieth century, and discussing the power of connecting to our own history. Even though Billy didn’t choose to have his gender history known, he does provide a needed link to trans history that is rarely documented or preserved in our culture — especially for transgender men. In fact, other than Billy Tipton, Jr., every person interviewed on-screen is a trans person.
Many of the actors auditioning are well-known for their appearances in film and TV, as well as advocates within the community, including Scott Turner SchofieldAlex Blue DavisMarquise VilsónRyan Cassata, and Morgan Sullivan. But casting director Russell Boast cast a wide net to find a diverse group of talented trans actors who may be new to audiences, including Carter RayEllis David PerryEmmett PreciadoHennessyHolden BernsteinSkylar MarshallTyler DiChiara, and Zelda Vinciguerra.
In auditioning a diverse range of actors, who make no attempt to look like Billy Tipton, the documentary allows audiences to hear from trans men and transmasculine people about community, culture, and the power of being connected to the past.
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation, says of the film:

“No Ordinary Man is a beautiful documentary about the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton, and returns to him the dignity he was denied when his story was covered by the media after his death. The filmmakers spotlight a diverse group of transgender people to remember Billy’s life, restoring his humanity through their reflections on his role in trans history and the impact his story made on their own lives. It’s rare that transgender men have the opportunity to tell their own stories, and we hope that audiences around the world can see this honest, evocative, and moving film.”

If you miss “No Ordinary Man” at AFI, the film is just beginning its festival run where it will hopefully find multiple distributors bidding to buy it. You can watch an interview with Chase Joynt, Amos Mac, and co-director and co-writer Aisling Chin-Yee, alongside Marquise Vilsón from their world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival here.
Screenings for “No Ordinary Man” begin Sunday, October 18 at 12pm PT and run until October 22 at 11:59pm PT, with 48 hours to view upon unlock. Pre-order your tickets before the screenings sell out.
Follow the film’s Facebook page for more news and updates: