1914 - 1989

Billy Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a high school student Tipton, who was assigned female at birth, studied piano and saxophone, but his school had a policy forbidding girls to play in the school band. In 1933, he 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 only presented as male in performance, but by 1940 had fully assumed a male identity. 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, he kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics by inventing a story that a serious car accident had badly damaged his genitals and broken some ribs, and that to protect his damaged chest he had to bind it. Tipton settled down with fellow nightclub performer Kitty Kelly in 1960 and they adopted three sons. In the 1970s, worsening arthritis forced him to retire from music. By 1989, he was suffering from a peptic ulcer that began to hemorrhage, but refused to call a doctor. At the age of 74, while paramedics worked unsuccessfully to save Tipton’s life, his son William learned that his father was assigned female at birth. Though Kelly arranged for his body to be cremated, in an attempt to keep the secret, one of their sons went to the tabloids with the story. In an interview Kelly finally averred that “there were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician, breaking into the 1920-30's music business as a woman. He gave up everything… no one knew… it was the best-guarded secret since Houdini.”


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Straight

Gender Identity Transgender

Ethnicity Caucasian/White

Nations Affiliated United States

Era/Epoch Cold War (1945-1991) Great Depression (1929-1939) World War II (1939-1945)

Field(s) of Contribution



Commemorations & Honors

Folksinger Phranc Created a Tribute Song Tipton (1991)

Theatrical Revue by Trans Woman Kate Bornstein Called "The Opposite Sex Is Neither" Features Billy Tipton (1993)

Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man Short Film About Tipton (1995)


Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell