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Review: Imaginative Doc Tells the Story of 'No Ordinary Man'

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Nov 30, 2020
'No Ordinary Man'
'No Ordinary Man'  

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 of living as a closeted trans man, his "secret" was discovered and his 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 Tipton's historical importance, but also on his 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 truths.

Tipton was a very successful jazz musician, and by the age of 19 in,1933, he was wearing men's clothing, which helped him get more gigs in a male-dominated industry. However, by the age of 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 a woman named Maryann, and he was with her when he died 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. Even with the public's hang-up on insisting on labeling everybody, as writer/activist Kate Bornstein explained, even the term "transexual" couldn't be used. That, she said, was reserved for MTF transitions, as FTM were totally unheard of back them

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

The clips of Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford University Professor who wrote a Tipton biography, 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 in sharing so much information about how the trans community now survive and prosper, even accepting the challenges of today's polarized society.

What struck me most from this excellent film, as a male gay critic who is exposed to much trans cinema, is that I can never stop having my eyes opened even further to the realities of being trans. So many face a long, hard, and very difficult journey, but it's inspiring to see this all 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" streams at OUTShine Film Festival Dec. 3 - 6

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.

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