The NYT reviwed Nellie McKay’s show about Billy Tipton. The title of the review is “Exploring a Jazzman and Gender Identity” which is all well & good, but the subtitle, “Nellie McKay Plays the Drag King Billy Tipton at 54 Below,” is what made me roll my eyes.
I mean, really? Tipton lived his entire life as a man, so much so that all three of his wives had no idea he was assigned female at birth. He died at home to avoid going to the hospital so that his secret might not be uncovered.
That is NOT the behavior or life experience or someone who was doing drag.
That doesn’t mean that passing women – that is, masculine women who lived in the world as men – were all trans. I’m sure plenty weren’t – that despite being taken for male by others and appreciating some of the advantages of passing as a straight man and not as a lesbian provided – that they were comfortable being women. Their wives and lovers often knew even if no one else did.
But Tipton? Nothing I’ve ever read about him convinces me he knew himself to be a woman – even as a woman who passed as a man.
I don’t know what the show is like but I know the image of McKay in an oversized suit struck me as comic and playful – clownish, you might say – in a way that upset me. The name of the show is “A Girl Named Bill.” And that makes me sad and tired and angry.
I don’t really know what her take is as I haven’t seen it, but the historical record – including Middlebrook’s bio – keep regendering Tipton using female pronouns. It doesn’t seem right.
Tipton lived his whole life as male and used male pronouns for himself when he was alive. Without getting into a taxonomical bullshit argument about the differences between passing women and drag kinds and trans men, can we all, maybe, just maybe, respect the pronouns he did use and the life he lived and not re-gender him based on what gender he was assigned at birth, to stop making his life some kind of curiosity, some stupid gender experiment or performance?
His gender probably allowed him a career in jazz that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. And that’s all. His life wasn’t lived so someone could come along and make some kind of feminist point with it. It just was. And if we come to know that jazz was too sexist for a woman to make it in as a result, we can thank him for that without disrespecting his life choices.