Review: 'No Ordinary Man' is Must-See Trans Cinema

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

Trans jazz musician Billy Tipton, middle, is the subject of the documentary 'No Ordinary Man'
Trans jazz musician Billy Tipton, middle, is the subject of the documentary 'No Ordinary Man'  (Source:Oscilloscope)

It seemed perfect timing to watch "No Ordinary Man" during Trans Awareness Week as it's the story of musician Billy Tipton, who has iconic status in the trans community.

Tipton's story starts with his death in 1989, when after decades living as a closeted trans man his "secret" was discovered and his very successful life became a tawdry tabloid story.

Trans filmmaker Chase Joynt and his co-director Aisling Chin-Yee have chosen to tell Tipton's story as an imaginative documentary that focuses not just on its historical importance, but also on its relevance to today's transgender community.

They set it up with a series of talented transmasculine actors who are seen auditioning for a movie about Tipton, and in the course of their tryouts they talk about the personal journeys they had taken to find their own truth.

Tipton was a very successful jazz musician. By the age of 19, in 1933, he was wearing men's clothing, which helped him get more gigs in a male-dominated industry. By age 40, he was living full time as a man.

Tipton was never legally married, but at various parts of his life there were five women who called themselves Mrs Tipton. In 1961 he became involved with a nightclub singer called Kitty Kelly, and they adopted three sons. When that relationship fell apart he returned to a previous one with Maryann, and he was with her when he died aged in 1989, at the age of 74.

Tipton kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics from all his wives by telling them he had been in a serious car accident that resulted in damaged genitals and broken ribs. This became the main point of discussion on all the TV chat shows when Tipton's secret was made public.

All the scrutiny — even by so-called sympathetic hosts such as Oprah — was spent in speculation about Tipton's genitalia and sexuality, without a single word about his gender identity. As writer/activist Kate Bornstein explains in the film, even the word "transexual" couldn't be used; that, she says, was reserved for MTF transitions, as FTM were totally unheard of back them

In that regard, little has changed. The general public's perception of any type of gender dysphoria or realignment is often mistakenly reduced to being about sexuality, i.e., homosexuality.

The clips of Tipton biographer Diana Middlebrook talking with Kelly and ardently focusing, again, on genitalia are very distressing, to say the least

Joynt and Chin-Yee do a superb job in setting the tone and pace and sharing information about how the trans community survives and prospers, despite even the challenges of today's polarized society.

As a gay male critic who is exposed to much trans cinema, I can never stop having my eyes opened to the realities of belong trans. So many face a long, hard, and difficult journey, but it's inspiring to see this presented in such a positive manner. The more we understand, the more we can be supportive and accepting, and that's why this movie is such a must-see.

"No Ordinary MAn" screens at Out On Film Atlanta

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.