Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Billy Tipton, who was named Dorothy Lucille Lipton at birth and who lived the first nineteen years of his life as a woman, lived fifty-five years as a man. He had a career in music, was married five times to women, and adopted and helped raise three sons. His gender at birth was revealed at his death.

Summary of Event

When Billy Tipton died of hemorrhaging ulcers in 1989, a paramedic revealed something very few people knew—that Tipton had the body of a seventy-four-year-old woman; only Tipton’s first wife knew that he was transgender. As he left no will, diary, or letters articulating his reasons for why he stopped living as Dorothy at the age of nineteen and started living as Billy for the rest of his life, others have since spoken for the musician in articles, a biography, plays, an opera, and a novel. [kw]Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton (Jan. 21, 1989) [kw]Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton, Death of (Jan. 21, 1989) [kw]Jazz Musician Billy Tipton, Death of Transgender (Jan. 21, 1989) [kw]Musician Billy Tipton, Death of Transgender Jazz (Jan. 21, 1989) [kw]Tipton, Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy (Jan. 21, 1989) Transgender men Musicians, Billy Tipton [c]Transgender/transsexuality;Jan. 21, 1989: Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton[1920] [c]Arts;Jan. 21, 1989: Death of Transgender Jazz Musician Billy Tipton[1920] Tipton, Billy

The cover of Diane Wood Middlebrook’s book on Tipton, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (1998).

(Courtesy, Houghton Mifflin)

After the divorce of his parents, neither of whom wanted custody of Dorothy (Billy) or her (his) brother, the children were sent from Oklahoma City to live with two aunts in Kansas City. Young Dorothy already had shown talent for playing piano by ear, but it was Aunt Bess who saw to it that her niece received formal instruction in piano, violin, and saxophone starting at the age of fourteen. After graduating from high school, Dorothy moved back to Oklahoma City to live with her mother, single again after a divorce from her second husband.

The Depression made the couple desperate economically, so Dorothy set her sights on making a living in the music world. Oklahoma City in the 1930’s was full of dance halls and honky-tonks that needed musicians, but nineteen-year-old Dorothy could find work only at a seedy dive, a job that did not last long because male customers did not want a woman piano player. Dorothy then heard of a traveling band that needed a saxophone player. Knowing full well that touring bands never traveled with female players, Dorothy enlisted the help of her cousins to cut her hair, bind her breasts, and devise a costume. Dorothy (as Billy Tipton) got the job.

For a time in Oklahoma City, Tipton lived on extreme sides of the gender binary by dressing in male clothing but living as a female musician. A shaping influence on his new identity was a veteran of dance marathons, a bisexual woman named Non Earl Harrell. Although the exact nature of Tipton’s relationship with Harrell remains unclear, it is known that they lived together in Oklahoma City and registered as husband and wife when they rented a house. When Tipton got his first real job in 1935, going on the road with the Banner Playboys—an eight-piece band—Harrell’s presence helped to confirm for others Tipton’s heterosexuality and masculinity. Fifteen years older than Tipton, Harrell had life and business experience that proved instrumental in her young companion’s maturation as a performer.

Tipton continued to get better jobs, and, even after Harrell moved on in 1943, Tipton was not without a companion for long. Later that year, he married a female singer named June, who sang with many of the bands that he played for until 1946. During World War II, Tipton would explain to others that because he had been injured at the age of twelve after being kicked by a horse, his lingering injury made him ineligible for the armed services. He also used this story to explain to his wives and girlfriends why he wore bandages constantly around his chest and groin, thereby masking his female anatomy.

Eighteen-year-old Betty Cox met the dashing thirty-two-year-old Tipton in 1946. Even though they had no official ceremony, Betty changed her driver license name to “Tipton,” and the couple presented themselves as husband and wife for the next seven years. Serving to confirm Tipton’s successful performance of his masculine gender, Betty had seen Tipton shave every morning, and band members recall hearing lovemaking from Tipton’s hotel room when the band was on the road. Betty told biographer Diane Middlebrook that Tipton would toss a condom out of bed after they made love.

In 1951, Tipton formed the Billy Tipton Trio with two men in their early twenties. At the age of thirty-six, Tipton needed to surround himself with youthful men to better frame his boyish appearance (he was 5 feet, 4 inches in height). The trio successfully played in Elks clubs and at Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, and resorts, traveling constantly throughout the western United States. Betty left Tipton, however, when she got tired of life on the road.

The Billy Tipton Trio recorded an album in 1956, followed by Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on the Piano, which earned them a four-week gig at a Reno, Nevada, hotel, where stars such as Liberace were booked year-round. The trio’s slick professionalism prompted management to offer them the position as house band. Much to the surprise of his partners, Tipton said no to the lucrative offer, explaining that he wanted to take a day job in a musical booking agency and settle down. Middlebrook suggests that Tipton was wary of too much visibility in a place such as Reno, where any number of acquaintances from his gender-bending days in Oklahoma City, or indeed his past as Dorothy, might unravel the elaborate persona he had developed. After twenty years in show business, Tipton not only had proved his musical talent but also was well-regarded as an entertainer, artistic director, and business manager. As much as Tipton wanted to perform, perhaps he feared exposure and recognition as well. In 1958 he set his sights much lower and headed for Spokane, Washington, with his new wife, Maryann. Betty earlier had left him.

In Spokane, Tipton became a successful agent, continued to play music at night locally, and maintained his masculinity by peppering his act with antigay slurs and by avoiding Spokane’s gay nightclub. He and Maryann split when Maryann discovered he was having an affair with a stripper named Kitty Kelly, “The Irish Venus.”

Tipton and Kitty Kelly were married with a forged marriage license in 1962, and they adopted three sons. At Kitty’s insistence, the couple never had sex, but she reported later that the marriage was a good one until pressures resulting from raising teenage boys and Tipton’s reduced earnings resulted in the couple’s separation in 1980. Slowed down by age and arthritis, Tipton lived out the rest of his years in a mobile home with his youngest son.

Significance

Billy Tipton’s name lives on not only in biographies, plays, operas, and novels but also in the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. Featuring five female jazz artists who blend jazz, punk, funk, and world music, the group issued four albums before reconfiguring itself into the Tiptons in 2003 but retaining its identity as an all-female saxophone quartet.

Scholar Marjorie Garber suggests that the only thing remarkable about the Billy Tipton story is “that it caught the fancy of the media and the public,” noting that history contains scores of accounts of lifelong cross-dressers Cross-dressing[cross dressing];and self-identity[self identity] whose gender at birth was “discovered” only at their deaths. Garber rejects various versions of the “progress narrative” theory of transvestism, which argues that Tipton (and other cross-dressers) lived as a man to secure employment, succeed in a patriarchal world, or realize or fulfill some deep-seated personal goal, such as, in Tipton’s case, becoming a jazz musician. Arguments against the progress narrative point out that Tipton abandoned his professional music career in 1958 at the age of forty-four; opponents to the theory have asked an important question: Why, then, after his career had ended, would it be essential for Tipton to continue to live as a man (publicly and privately), to marry a woman, and to raise his adoptive sons to know him as “dad,” if he did not self-identify as a man in the first place?

The progress narrative also does not account for sexuality. If Tipton and Non Earl Harrell, a woman-born-woman, had sex, then they had lesbian sex because they were both women; Tipton, although he dressed as a man, lived as a female musician at this time. Tipton and his other wives and girlfriends, however, were not “technically” in lesbian relationships because the women reportedly thought they were making love to a man. As playwright David Henry Hwang suggests in his opera M. Butterfly, “Happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it.” Billy Tipton’s life is testimony not only to the power of the performance of gender but also to the personal desire to live the gender (and sexuality) of one’s choice. Transgender men Musicians, Billy Tipton

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brubach, Holly. “Swing Time.” Review of Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (1998) by Diane Wood Middlebrook. The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1998, p. 7, 9.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadleigh, Boze. Sing Out! Gays and Lesbians in the Music World. New York: Barricade Books, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halberstam, Judith. “Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography.” In Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, edited by Maria Carla Sanchez and Linda Schlossberg. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: New American Library, 1988.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kay, Jackie. Trumpet. New York: Pantheon, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Cinitia. “One False Note in a Musician’s Life.” The New York Times, June 2, 1998, p. B1, B4.

January-June, 1886: Two-Spirit American Indian Visits Washington, D.C.

1912-1924: Robles Fights in the Mexican Revolution

September 24, 1951: George Jorgensen Becomes Christine Jorgensen

December 24, 1993-December 31, 1993: Transgender Man Brandon Teena Raped and Murdered

June 17, 1995: International Bill of Gender Rights Is First Circulated

1996: Hart Recognized as a Transgender Man

1998: Transgender Scholarship Proliferates

March 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

2002: Sylvia Rivera Law Project Is Founded

April 30, 2002: Transgender Rights Added to New York City Law

February 21, 2003: Australian Court Validates Transsexual Marriage

May 17, 2004: Transsexual Athletes Allowed to Compete in Olympic Games

April 4, 2005: United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act Legalizes Transsexual Marriage

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