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FLASHBACK: Jazz Icon Billy Tipton Dies And Is Outed As Trans (January 21, 1989)

Today in 2SLGBTQI+ history…

When jazz musician Billy Tipton died on January 21, 1989, at the age of 74, a secret was revealed: he had been assigned female at birth.

Tipton (whose original name was Dorothy Lucille Tipton) was born in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a high school student, Tipton (who went by the nickname “Tippy”) became interested in music, especially jazz, and studied both piano and saxophone; however, his school had a policy forbidding girls to play in the school band.

By 1933, Tipton started binding his breasts and began dressing as a man to get work with jazz musicians, because there were few career opportunities for women in the industry at the time. At first, Tipton presented as male only while performing on stage, but by 1940 he had fully assumed a male identity, adopting the name Billy Lee Tipton. He gradually gained recognition as a musician and enjoyed modest success in the 1950s and ’60s, including being signed to a recording contract.

Throughout his life, Tipton kept his sexual characteristics a secret by inventing a story that he had been in a serious car accident years before that badly damaged his genitals and left him with broken ribs, which was why he had to bind to protect his damaged chest.

Tipton was never legally married, but five different women called themselves Mrs. Tipton during his life, the most long-standing being fellow nightclub performer Kathleen “Kitty” Kelly. In 1961, Tipton settled down with Kelly and throughout their time together they adopted three sons: John, Scott and William (although the adoptions were not legally recognized).

In the 1970s, worsening arthritis forced Tipton to retire from music, and by 1989, he was suffering from a peptic ulcer, which was left untreated and eventually began to hemorrhage. On January 21, 1989, his son William called emergency services, and while paramedics worked unsuccessfully to save Tipton’s life, they, along with William, discovered that he was actually female. This information came as a shock to everyone in Tipton’s life. Two of the three sons (John and Scott) changed their last names after the secret came out.

Though Kelly arranged for Tipton’s body to be cremated in an attempt to keep the secret, one of their sons went to the tabloids with the story; the first newspaper revealing the secret was published the day after Tipton’s funeral. In an interview given after the story had circulated in a variety of newspapers, magazines and tabloids, Kelly averred that “there were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician, breaking into the 1920-’30s music business as a woman. He gave up everything.… No one knew.… It was the best-guarded secret since Houdini.”

One of Tipton’s sons, Scott Miller, said the musician died tired and without any money.

“Now I know why I couldn’t get him to a doctor,” said Miller. “He had so much to protect and I think he was just tired of keeping the secret.”

“You can imagine the pressure he lived with,” said John Clark, one of Tipton’s other sons. “Who knows? Maybe that’s what gave him the ulcer that ended up killing him.”

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