Billy Tipton was an American jazz musician and bandleader. It was not until he died in 1989 that Tipton’s body was found by paramedics to be anatomically female. Tipton had been accepted as a man for most of his adult life by his co-workers, the general public, his wives, and his children. His life story has made him an icon in the LGBTQ community, and an example of manhood as performed identity.
Dorothy Lucille Tipton was born in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914. As a teenager in Kansas City, Dorothy Tipton learned to play music, but was refused membership in her high school band because of she was a girl. She moved back to Oklahoma City while still in high school, and was able to join the band there.
Tipton began cross-dressing when she started looking for work as a jazz musician. In the 1930s, almost no women worked as jazz instrumentalists (Tipton played piano and saxophone) and, as Dorothy Tipton, she would have faced limited employment opportunities. Billy Tipton, however, prospered. He performed with the Jack Teagarden, Russ Carlyle and Scott Cameron bands before forming the Billy Tipton Trio, which played club dates all over the Western United States. Tipton also recorded two albums and was offered the chance to perform as an opening act for Liberace, the flamboyantly effeminate pianist, in Reno, Nevada. He refused the offer, and confined his career to playing smaller clubs in smaller cities.
Husband and Father
Tipton initially began cross-dressing as a jazz musician without completely giving up a female persona. Around 1940-1941, he chose to adopt a permanent male identity. Five women claimed to be his wife at one time or another, although none were legally married to him. The first was Non Earl Harrell, an androgynous person who had been married twice and dressed in a combination of masculine and feminine attire. Many assumed that Billy and Non Earl were lesbians, but they publicly represented themselves as a Straight married couple beginning in 1934.
Tipton’s second wife was a jazz singer who performed with his band. Only her first name, June, is known. They represented themselves as married beginning in 1943, and lived as a couple until 1946.
After June left the band and relationship for reasons unknown, Tipton took up with a 19-year-old farm girl named Betty Cox. They announced that they were married, and Tipton was accepted as son-in-law by Cox’s family. Cox followed Billy to the Western USA (a move occasioned by his having been recognized as Dorothy Tipton by a former neighbor), and left him seven years later when she reportedly wearied of the constant traveling required of a club musician.
Tipton’s next relationship was with Maryann Catanach, a call girl who had a son out of wedlock. She followed him on the road, cooked for the band, and was called “Mrs. Tipton.” This relationship also lasted seven years, after which Tipton took up with Kitty Kelly, a stripper known as “The Irish Venus.”
Kelly believed they were married in a civil ceremony, although no such marriage was registered and the marriage certificate was forged. They adopted three sons and lived a conventional lifestyle, taking part in the Parents-Teachers Association and Boy Scouts. When their sons reached adolescence, Tipton and Kelly broke up over differences in how to manage three unruly teenagers, and Tipton resumed a relationship with Catanach.
Tipton said an automobile accident had injured his ribs and genitals, thus the need to keep his chest bound with elastic bandages. Maryann Catanach, who claimed that she believed him to be a man, also said that he always dressed and undressed in private, preferred to touch rather than be touched, and that they only had sex in the dark.
It is possible that some of his wives were aware that Tipton was what would later be called a transman, but saw no reason to destroy his cover. Nevertheless, it may never have occurred to any of Tipton’s wives that their husband was really anatomically female. His adopted son William, who shared a trailer with Tipton and cared for him toward the end of his life, appeared to be genuinely shocked to learn that his father was not male. A paramedic who came to the trailer on the day Billy Tipton died (in response to William’s call after his father passed out) reportedly examined Billy Tipton, then asked William if he knew his father had a sex change.
Such a deception is not unique in modern history. There is the famous case of the French diplomat Bernard Boursicot who believed Shi Pei-Pu, a male Peking Opera performer and Chinese spy, was female throughout the course of an affair that went from the 1960s to the 1980s, a story dramatized in David Henry Hwang’s play, M. Butterfly.
Performance as Jazzman
In his professional life, Tipton presented himself as a heternormal man. The liner notes to his album, Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi Piano, state the following:
Billy Tipton is the lad pictured on the front cover between the pulchritude. (As Bob Hope would say, ‘Pulchritude, that’s highbrow for gorgeous gals.’) But there’s nothing highbrow about Billy or his superb musicianship on the eighty eights.
The photograph on the album cover places Tipton in the role of the rakish male jazz musician looking with approval upon two nearby women in low-cut dresses.
Tipton adopted a speaking voice that could pass convincingly for male, but his singing voice was more ambiguous and sometimes seemed to move between male and female registers. Perhaps for this reason, he focused on playing the piano. He would, however, perform as a female (although not as an adult woman) in some songs for comic effect, thus accomplishing a two-layered performance of an anatomically female person secretly performing as a man, who in turn lampoons the voice of a prepubescent female in public. One of his rare vocal recordings is a rendition of the novelty song “My Wubba [Rubber] Dolly” in which he imitates the voice of a little girl.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University, 2005.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.