The Double Life of Billy Tipton

The Painful Problems of Biological Sex and Gender in Society

Since feminist scholars identified the critical difference between biological sex and the cultural construction of gender, heated arguments have been evident. Radical feminists have argued that sex differences are a biological reality that are perhaps only necessary for reproduction. Gender differentiation and social construction into the two exclusive categories of “man” and “woman” however, are not only arbitrary but their stereotypical proscriptions serve to stifle both men and women’s lives. This prevents both men and women from achieving sexual equality and realizing their full potential in society. Radical feminist scholars have further advocated gender-neutral socialization of males and females in societal child rearing practices. The proposed solution is often advocating androgyny during child socialization in society. These assertions suggest that gender may be roles that anyone can play and successfully act out or perform irrespective of the biological sex of the particular individuals. Could this actually be the case?

What if a human being was born biologically female, raised as a girl, during late teenage she decided to become a man and lived the rest of his life that way as a man? This would be a challenging but not an unusual Hollywood movie plot. But the astounding twist to this story is that it did happen in real life. The circumstances in which this human drama unfolded stretched over seventy-five years.

In “Suits Me: The Double Life of Bill Tipton,” Diane Wood Middlebrook describes the life of Jazz Performer Bill Tipton. His death in a trailer park in Spokane Washington, at the age of seventy-five years in January 1989, drew worldwide attention. This was not just because of his music, but when paramedics who had been summoned to attend to the dying Tipton discovered that he was a woman. An autopsy later confirmed that Billy Tipton was a woman. The reader’s immediate reaction might be that this is impossible.

Some of the immediate questions that arise include: how did his family and friends react to his changing from being a woman to a man? How did it happen and why? How could he have been married to several wives and have children too? How did he play his role of husband and father? How did Billy and his wives have sex? Since he spent most of his life on the road with many Jazz bands as a performer, how did he conceal the secret that he was biologically a woman? Most of all, how did he pull this whole stunt up to his death?

In the three hundred and twenty-six pages of the book, Middlebrook integrates the fascinating puzzle of the double life of Billy Tipton. Since Billy did not have a diary and had no inclination to reveal the secret, the author had a difficult task of conducting numerous interviews and looking at scrap books to recreate as closely as possible the early life and experiences of Dorothy Tipton and the later life of Billy Tipton.

Sociologists often engage in ethical debates and speculative analysis regarding human experiments. The classic one is: “Should a social scientist raise a child in total isolation to determine the impact of isolation and therefore to determine the necessity for socialization?” The answer is always no. Parallels can be drawn with the story in this book. A human being was born anatomically female, raised as a girl but later decided to become and lived her entire life as a man. The life of this one person provides a rare opportunity to investigate and validate the power and complexities of gender, socialization, and impact of social change in society.

The story of Billy Tipton challenges the society’ notions of gender role socialization especially the rigid dichotomy of man and woman. It demonstrates what can happen when factors such as family instability, poverty, rapid social change, individual ambition and a yearning drive for excitement can all combine to drive human beings to do the unusual and extraordinary. Billy Tipton’s life may suggest and confirm that gender is not only a social construction but the way humans live their lives may be entirely acting or like roles that actors play on a stage. This is the classic Goffman’s dramaturgical approach.

Nielsen says: “Which is more interesting – knitting or burglary? The idea of a woman committing a burglary has a certain bold flavor that a man’s knitting does not. …The comparisons suggest that there are advantages connected with the traditionally male activity, the so-called male job, or the male role that are not part of traditionally female activities, jobs, or roles.” (Nielsen, 1990:5) Nielsen suggests that men’s gender roles have higher status, power, privilege, and especially adventure. When Dorothy started to play music in Jazz bands, women Jazz musicians were neither respected not given the opportunity to excel.

This book provides a rare and unique opportunity to perhaps empirically test some of the propositions that arise out of the gender-neutral hypothesis. Parts of the story pose some critical challenges that seem to confirm what radical feminists have asserted for several decades; men’s gender accords them higher status, power, privilege, more choices, adventure, and more freedom.

Faced with a dysfunctional family, grinding poverty, limited options as a young teenage woman who barely finished high school, she becomes a man playing in jazz bands. She does this without radicalism and with no pomp and ceremony. Other men gradually accept her as a man and she enjoys with them the high status and incredible men’s comradely and banter including dirty jokes. It is apparent that it must have been physically and psychologically very difficult for Billy Tipton to conceal the biological reality that he was a woman.

When interviewed after his death, some of his previous wives expressed views that are philosophically challenging. One of the former wives said that Billy was a loving, kind, caring, and very supportive husband. The wife experienced sexual intimacy with Billy as her man, lover, and husband. In spite having had essentially positive and fulfilling experiences with Billy, some of the wives felt betrayed. The question that arises is whether “gender role” is something that is so neutral that anyone should be able to “act it” like one is on a stage? If gender was entirely disassociated with biological sex, would it matter if a husband was not biologically male or wife was not biologically female? Were the feelings of betrayal that some of the people who had intimate relations with Billy Tipton felt, entirely a product of societal expectation through socialization?

The book challenges many of the fundamental assumptions about the relationship between gender socialization, gender role-expectations, and social change in American society. One missing ingredient that would have perhaps precluded any lengthy theoretical speculation about Billy Tipton’s motives for living this was is Billy’s opinions. Since he seems to have been completely committed to living as a normal man, he never kept a diary or confided in anyone about how it felt like to live like a man. It is not possible to determine why she chose to be a man. This reconstruction of Dorothy and Billy Tipton’s life is what must have made the book so difficult for Middlebrook to write.

Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton is excellent for general readership. But it provides rare infinite resources for teaching American history of Jazz and music, the challenging nature of women’s gender roles in the context of social change.

****** Diane Wood Middlebrook, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, 326 pp. Cloth, 25 US Dollars. ISBN 0-395-65489-0

**********Nielsen, Joyce McCarl., Sex and Gender in Society: Perspectives on Stratification, 2nd Edition, Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 190.