Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton

March 21, 2018 - Non-Fiction, Reviews
Author: Diane Middlebrook
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

When a respected musician passes away, they are almost always remembered for their artistry, their virtuosity, their character – if they’re lucky, perhaps all three. In 1989, a jazz musician named Billy Tipton passed away in Spokane, Washington. A skilled pianist, vocalist, saxophonist, and comedian, Tipton was remembered less for his talents as an entertainer, and more for something else: upon his death, it was discovered that, unbeknownst to his former wives, adopted children, and most of his friends, Tipton had the biological parts of a female. For Tipton, this detail greatly overshadowed his legacy and became an object of national curiosity. In Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, Diane Wood Middlebrook joins the frenzy and engages in a remarkably comprehensive, even voyeuristic overview of Tipton’s life, interviewing his children, his wives, his friends and colleagues, and his extended family members. However, this wealth of information serves a troubling purpose. Middlebrook is determined to understand why Tipton would choose to live his life as a man, and how he managed to “deceive” those around him. On the surface, these questions seem reasonable and harmless. However, they tap into dangerous prejudices toward transgender people, ultimately disrespecting rather than elevating Tipton’s legacy.

From the beginning of the biography, Middlebrook seems hesitant to consider Tipton a man. She often uses “she” pronouns even during times of Tipton’s life when he was presenting exclusively as masculine. Middlebrook does offer an explanation for her use of Tipton’s pronouns at the beginning of the book, stating that “she” pronouns are used during Tipton’s early life and when “the people around her know she is cross-dressing” (1). While Middlebrook at least recognizes the importance of considering the use of pronouns, I would argue that Billy should be referred to as “he” even when he was still presenting as female, because it is clear that, inside, Billy had always been a man. More concerning than her use of incorrect pronouns, Middlebrook often refers to Tipton’s male identity as an “act” or “charade,” and questions how Billy was able to “deceive” those around him. This language is extremely problematic and suggests that, by inhabiting his authentic self, Tipton was doing something wrong.

The doubtful shadow Middlebrook casts over Tipton’s gender identity serves as a backdrop to her analysis of his life. Throughout the biography, Middlebrook searches for reasons why Tipton would have chosen to live life as a man. One of her central theses is that Tipton struggled to find work in the music industry as a woman, and found that wearing men’s clothing was a simple solution. However, this analysis demonstrates an ignorance of the difference between doing drag, in which a person of one gender adopts a new and often outrageous persona, generally from a different gender (though not necessarily, as there are many trans women whose drag personalities are also women), and being transgender. For the majority of his life, Tipton clearly was not doing drag, but rather was living his life as a man. To say that Tipton lived as a man in drag for economic reasons is a stretch. Tipton risked his personal relationships, his career, and, in no uncertain terms, his life in order to live the way he wanted. In her struggle to understand why Tipton would choose to live as man, Middlebrook consistently chooses to ignore the most obvious explanation: Tipton was a man who was simply assigned the wrong biological parts at birth. In other words, he was transgender. Not once does Middlebrook reach this seemingly obvious conclusion.

Not only is Middlebrook’s failure to understand Tipton’s identity as a transgender man problematic, but the tactics she uses to investigate the intimate details of Tipton’s personal life are equally concerning. For example, there are passages with seriously intrusive analyses of Tipton’s sexual life, and Middlebrook demonstrates a fascination with discovering what Tipton’s genitalia looked like. These sections are often insensitive and invasive, and play into dangerous assumptions that transgender people are not valid in their identities until their biological parts match their gender. To her credit, Middlebrook does offer a decent explanation of the blurred lines between gender and sex, and establishes that a person’s gender can exist on a vast spectrum unrelated to their biological sex. Still, she ignores the obvious fact that, at great risk, Tipton chose to live almost his entire adult life as a man, and that questions about his genitalia and sex life ought to be insignificant in light of that fact.

There are countless further examples of Middlebrook’s insensitivity to the precariousness of Tipton’s situation and the extent to which he put himself in danger to be able to inhabit his authentic self. At one point, Middlebrook refers to the “potentially humiliating difficulties that her [italics added] charade presented to those who loved her and had to play along” (140). I find this statement to be shockingly callous and dangerous. If Middlebrook had any background in queer history, she would know that transgender people have been persecuted in myriad ways that have not-infrequently led to their murder or suicide. To ignore this in favor of categorizing Tipton as an inconvenience to his family is to seriously misjudge the historical plight of the transgender community.

In general, Middlebrook does not demonstrate the appropriate knowledge and sensitivity toward queer issues required to appropriately tell Tipton’s story. This is certainly not for lack of trying – Middlebrook’s research is remarkable and comprehensive, and she digs into every corner of Billy’s life and relationships. In the end, however, this information is handled in all the wrong ways. Rather than paint a sensitive and respectful picture of perhaps one of the first visible transgender musicians in the United States, Middlebrook chooses to investigate and discredit Tipton’s identity as an “act.” I don’t believe she meant this as a show of disrespect. But to spend an entire book playing the role of gender detective rather than focusing on Tipton’s bravery, his talent, and his commitment to the preservation of his ideals is a serious affront to his legacy.


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