Happy Birthday, Billy: A reflection on Billy Tipton’s place in history

It’s Billy Tipton’s 105th birthday today.  Tipton was a jazz musician. In his life, he was modestly successful as a pianist and saxophonist, a band leader, and talent broker. Upon his death, his assigned birth gender was exposed to the public. In the years following his death, Billy Tipton’s reasons for living as a man have been debated. In fact, there may be no historical figure more symbolic of what came to be known as the butch/trans border wars than Tipton (an aside: I find “butch/trans border wars” an unfortunate term, as I don’t think that it was mostly butch and trans people arguing and I know for certain there is no easy binary between the two categories). On his birthday, I want to give Billy Tipton’s life and music the consideration they deserve.

Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano: Tipton’s music and legacy

 

Tipton was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City. His parents divorced when he was 4 years old, and he grew up with an aunt in Kansas City, Missouri, a town with a long music tradition. He went by the nickname “Tippy” as a child and learned to play the piano and sax.  Because he was assigned a female gender at birth, he wasn’t allowed to join his high school band at Kansas City’s Southwest High School. So, he moved back to Oklahoma City, where he was allowed to join the school band. Soon, he began dressing as a man to pursue a music career. By 1940, he was a man in his private life as well and remained  one until his death at age 74.

Tipton worked as a band leader across the Midwest until 1949, when he began a tour of the Pacific Northwest (my home!). His band’s signature tune was a close imitation of Benny Goodman’s version of “Flying Home.” That tells you a lot about the type of jazz he was playing. His two records remind me a lot of the albums I inherited from my grandparents. He covered a lot of standards with skill and spirit. His music often sounded simple, but that revealed its magic. He could ring the very most out of just a piano and a familiar melody and a band backing him up. You can hear his rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown and look at some great photos from his later years here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3JAAxFYEws

You can listen to Tipton’s two recorded albums on Queer Music Heritage, and get a glimpse into how he was remembered after his death.  You can also read the newspaper article published after his death and see how queer artists have memorized him in song. Many of them, you’ll notice, remember him as a lesbian and a cross-dressing woman. I find that less than persuasive. Tipton was a man his entire adult life. He never legally married, but 5 women called him husband and he adopted 3 different children.  His family expressed shock to find out his assigned birth gender. That makes his story very different from those of women who dressed as men temporarily for specific reasons. Likewise, I don’t see his story has having much in common with lesbian lives, including those of butch women. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, a classic history of butch/femme culture in Buffalo, New York, presents butch/femme relationships as distinct from heterosexuality in many different ways, unlike the straight relationships that Tipton had into the 1980s.  Billy knew his gender and he lived has a man. He was also musician whose tunes still make me happy today.  Happy birthday, Billy.

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