Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1914, Billy was assigned female at birth. He learned piano and saxophone in high school. When he left home to pursue a career in music, it was as a young man. He played for a variety of bands during the 1930s and 40s, and formed his own Billy Tipton Trio in 1954, performing through the 1970s until arthritis forced him to retire.
During this time, Tipton had relationships with a variety of women, and adopted three sons with Kitty Kelly, a dancer whom he met in 1960. They separated in 1979, but the boys came to live with him. On his death, his family and the world learned of his birth sex—but despite their surprise, his sons seem to have been quite accepting.
“He’ll always be Dad,” his son Jon told the Associated Press after Tipton died in 1989. He added to People magazine, “He was always there for me.” After a serious motorcycle accident in 1981, he said, “If it wasn’t for my dad, I wouldn’t have made it. The doctors wanted to amputate my leg, and Dad made them work to save it. He was there every day for the six months I was in the hospital.”
His son Scott told People, “I think he probably never told us because he was afraid we might have rejected him. I could have accepted it. He did a helluva good job with us. That’s what mattered. He was my dad.” (The 1989 People article misgenders Tipton with female pronouns, which I don’t condone, but I think his sons’ quotes there offer insight.)
Some of the coverage of Tipton’s life says that he only dressed as a man because women couldn’t have careers as jazz musicians at the time. I think that if this were the case, he would have at least told his Kelly and his sons of his birth sex. Since he didn’t, I’m inclined to view him as transgender—with the caveat that it’s always chancy applying modern labels to people born before those labels took on their current meanings. Maybe he’d use “genderqueer” or another label instead. My sense, though, is that we’re safe viewing him under the broad trans umbrella.
Below is a short video with some photos and music of Tipton, and here’s a longer playlist of some of the pieces he performed. Enjoy!