Today, November 20th, is Trans Day of Remembrance. Fittingly, the RIDM’s second week of online screenings include a must-see.
No Ordinary Man, by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt shed light on an almost mythic creature from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s Jazz scene in Oklahoma. Billy Tipton was a pianist, and apart from the events surrounding his death, nobody, including his several wives knew he was transgender.
The film is not only about this talented musician, but about the influence he still has on the trans masculine community today. The documentary is interspersed with archival photos and newspaper clippings of Tipton, but more importantly, an audition process to search for an actor to portray Tipton in an upcoming bio-pic.
Though the selected actor is never revealed, we get the impression one candidate stands out more than others. Marquise Vilson, a black transgender man knew it might be strange to audition for the role of a white jazz musician, but it looks like the casting directors quite favor his interpretation of the lines they throw at him. In the end, the portrayal is about feeling and understanding of the role, rather than having certain physical features. The cast of would-be Tiptons range enormously – bearded, tattooed, clean-cut, blond, brunette, black, white – considering the late Tipton was a blonde blue-eyed fella.
Through the audition process, we learn how several performers relate to Tipton’s story. Certain key trans figures also lend their input, including gender theorist Kate Bornstein and professor-theorist Sylvia Stryker.
One of the more touching scenes features Alex Blue Davis (Grey’s Anatomy) – a musician himself, tearing up as he comes to realize the power of one of the scenes he’s asked to perform. As the younger generation puts themselves in Tipton’s shoes, they also feel how important this musician’s presence is in their individual journeys of transition. Tipton is an icon for the trans masculine population. His story brings up questions of visibility versus pretending we’re something that we are not. For safety, for awkwardness, for many reasons, trans identities through the years have been hidden, denied, and in Tipton’s case, a complete secret until medical staff examined his body.
Accusations of trans deceit is a real thing. People who don’t understand trans people’s experience might accuse them of being liars. But if a transgender man says they are male, we should believe them. Presenting as male asks that (usually) cisgender people accept their male-ness. Though the word passing usually has positive connotations (meaning people have recognized the trans person in the gender they want to be identified as), it can also strike up some uncomfortable interpretations. Passing ourself off as a different thing than what we are is not a crime, but it can be considered lying. However, context is also important. A trans person wanting to pass is not trying to hide who they are. It is the exact opposite, but an uninformed audience could easily see it the other way around. For this reason, interpretations about Billy Tipton’s life vary. His son, Billy JR. has his own issues with it.
But something he never thought could happen, does occur. Through No Ordinary Man, he meets other trans men who look to his father as a positive role model. He is even surprised people still know the man’s music. And for a whole community of trans people, Tipton’s name will always be remembered.
No Ordinary Man:
RIDM – On Demand, November 19th to November 25th, 2020