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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Billy  Tipton

Billy Tipton 1914to –1989

American jazz pianist and bandleader. His interest in music and jazz began in high school in Kansas City, Missouri. He learned to play piano and saxophone, and soon after graduating, he was performing on the radio and with various ensembles. He began presenting as male on stage at the start of his career, around 1934. This allowed him to participate in the mostly-male jazz world of the time. But within a few years he was living as a man in his personal life as well, and would eventually marry several women, telling them each that a car accident was the reason for his chest binding and impotence. He toured the midwest, Texas, and the Northeast with different bands before ending up in Washington, where he formed his own group, the Billy Tipton Trio. They recorded two albums that reached moderate success. This led to the chance to work as the house band at a Nevada hotel and an offer to record four more albums, but Tipton declined both, opting instead to settle down in Spokane, Washington and raise a family. There, he and his fifth wife adopted three sons, and Tipton became a devoted father and a popular local musician before arthritis forced him to stop playing. Tipton eventually died of a hemorrhaging ulcer, treatable if not for his refusal to see a doctor. When the paramedics arrived, they were the ones to discover that Tipton had been assigned female at birth, which was a surprise to Tipton’s wife and sons. The story was treated in the news as something of a scandal, with people writing about Tipton’s “double” or “secret” life, and imposing their own assumed narratives. Although Tipton himself left no personal account of his experiences or motivations, he is remembered by those who knew him as an exceptionally kind husband and father.

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