Stanford Today Edition:May/June, 1997 Section: Features: Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man WWW: Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man

Billy Tipton: Self-Made Man

By Sally Lehrman

Biographer Diane Middlebrook found herself face to face with questions about sex identity when she began researching the life of jazz musician Billy Tipton for her coming book. Tipton, a saxophone and piano player who led popular dance bands in the 1940s and early '50s, made his career traveling through small towns on the Southwest and Northwest jazz circuits. He lived a glamorous and exuberant life, made lots of friends and married several times.

Tipton eventually settled down in Spokane, Washington, married a former stripper named Kitty and adopted three sons. But jazz fever died out as Tipton grew older, and he spent his last years alone in a trailer park with little money. In 1989, at age 74, what Tipton thought was emphysema turned out to be a hemorrhaging ulcer. His youngest son called an ambulance and watched as the paramedics who tried to resuscitate his father uncovered a startling truth: The dying man had the body of a woman.

As Middlebrook, a Stanford professor of English, began talking with Billy's wives, children, cousins and colleagues, she asked about sex identity. She asked about sex. She asked about the way Billy dressed, the way he talked, the way he presented himself while making love. Middlebrook struggled to find the words to describe him. Born as Dorothy, Billy had fooled men and women alike for 50 years. The first time the young woman passed as a man it was a joke - and a concession to the economic pressures of the Depression and the reality that women jazz musicians didn't get jobs. But then the advantages became apparent. For the rest of her life, Tipton bound her large breasts, dressed like a man and made love to women. But when she visited her family, Billy always became Dorothy again. Was Tipton a lesbian? Was she truly female? Would it be accurate to call her a transsexual?

"I think the Tipton story is about the indeterminacy of gender identity," Middlebrook says. It's not that Tipton was born into the wrong body. Rather, her sexual identity became an exquisite act, a delightful invention that merged with her life on the stage. "You can understand her as someone who chooses her self-presentation in the face of options," Middlebrook says. "You can't draw a bottom line with her about identity, because she's so adaptable. She could enjoy the fact that here, she's this, and here, she's that."

Billy Tipton's body was cremated, and so many questions about her will never be answered. But Middlebrook is certain Tipton wasn't a hermaphrodite. And she wasn't a transsexual. Rather, she was an actor, Middlebrook says.

"I believe Billy's relationship to herself was female. She was the actor; he was the role," Middlebrook says. "Billy clearly was a sexy man. There's no question he was a heterosexual guy," she concludes. ST