William Lee “Billy” Tipton (born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989) was an American Jazz musician and bandleader. He is also notable for the postmortem discovery that although he lived his adult life as a man, he was assigned female at birth.
Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his parents’ divorce. He subsequently rarely saw his father, G. W. Tipton, a pilot who sometimes took him for airplane rides. As a high-school student, Tipton went by the nickname Tippy and became interested in music, especially Jazz, studying piano and saxophone. He returned to Oklahoma for his final year of high school and joined the school band there.
As Tipton began a more serious music career, he adopted his father’s nickname, Billy, and more actively worked to pass as male by binding his breasts and padding his pants. At first, Tipton only presented as male in performance, but by 1940 was living as a man in private life as well. Two of Tipton’s female cousins, with whom Tipton maintained contact over the years, were the only persons known to be privy to Tipton’s assigned sex.
Early in his career, Tipton presented as a male only professionally, continuing to present as a woman otherwise. He spent those early years living with a woman named Non Earl Harrell, in a relationship that other musicians thought of as lesbian. The relationship ended in 1942. Tipton’s next relationship, with a singer known only as “June”, lasted for several years.
For seven years, Tipton lived with Betty Cox, who was 19 when they became involved. Cox remembered Tipton as “the most fantastic love of my life.”Tipton kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics from Betty by inventing a story of having been in a serious car accident resulting in damaged genitals and broken ribs, and that it was necessary to bind the damaged chest to protect it. From then on, this was what he would tell the women in his life.
Tipton was never formally married in a ceremony, but several women had drivers’ licenses identifying them as Mrs. Tipton. In 1960, Tipton ended his relationship with Cox to settle down with nightclub dancer and stripper Kitty Kelly (later known as Kitty Oakes), who was known professionally as “The Irish Venus”. They were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. After Tipton’s death, Kitty gave several interviews about him and their relationship. In early interviews, she said, “He gave up everything… There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician,” in reference to breaking into the 1920−30s music industry. William described Tipton as a good father who loved to go on Scout camping trips.
For seven years, Tipton lived with Betty Cox, who was 19 when they became involved. Cox remembered Tipton as “the most fantastic love of my life.” Tipton kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics from Betty by inventing a story of having been in a serious car accident resulting in damaged genitals and broken ribs, and that it was necessary to bind the damaged chest to protect it. From then on, this was what he would tell the women in his life.
Because of the couple’s ongoing arguments over how they should raise the boys, Tipton left Kitty in the late 1970s, moved into a mobile home with their sons (two of their sons had run away from home after being physically abused by Kitty), and resumed an old relationship with a woman named Maryann. He remained there, living in poverty, until his death
In 1989, at the age of 74, Tipton had symptoms he attributed to emphysema and refused to call a doctor. He was actually suffering from a hemorrhaging peptic ulcer, which, untreated, was fatal. It was while paramedics were trying to save Tipton’s life, with son William looking on, that William learned that his father had female anatomy. Tipton was pronounced dead at Valley General Hospital. The coroner shared this with the rest of the family. In an attempt to keep the secret, Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated, but later after financial offers from the media, Kitty and one of their sons went public with the story. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton’s funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services. Stories about Tipton appeared in a variety of papers including tabloids such as National Enquirer and Star, as well as more reputable papers. Tipton’s family even made talk show appearances.
Two wills were left by Billy Tipton: one handwritten and not notarized that left everything to William Jr.; and the second, notarized, leaving everything to John Clark, the first child the Tiptons adopted.A court upheld the first will, and William inherited almost everything, with John and Scott receiving one dollar each.According to a 2009 episode of the documentary program The Will: Family Secrets Revealed, which featured interviews with all three sons, it was revealed that a final court judgment awarded all three sons an equal share of his wife Kitty Tipton’s estate (not Billy Tipton), which, after lawyers’ fees, amounted to $35,000 for each son.