Trans Trailblazers (Double Bill) – Cowboys and No Ordinary Man

BFI Flare 2021 presents Cowboys and No Ordinary Man.

UPDATE: Cowboys is now available to rent, stream or buy.


Director: Anna Kerrigan

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Everything is so big—the sky, the mountains, the wind-swept flatlands—it sinks into you, it shapes your body and your dreams.” – Christopher Paolini.

Montana’s expansive vistas and luscious mountains have long held appeal for filmmakers. This rugged, calming and beautiful landscape has been home to movies ranging from A River Runs Through It to Big Eden. Each reflects themes of family, isolation and renewal as if the mountains, rivers and forests are a spark for personal change and transformation. Montana’s glacier-carved landscape offers rebirth, risk and adventure to those who seek to explore its wonder; however, this romantic view hides communities where conservatism, culture and religion still control daily life. Here the freedom, beauty and size of Montana’s wilderness contrast the small, isolated and often insular towns that sit cradled in its presence.

In a small town where everyone knows each other and their kids, we meet 11-year-old Josie or Joe. Here their long blonde hair and dainty dresses please their mum, Sally (Jillian Bell), as she all but dismisses the discomfort in her child’s eyes. However, this discomfort is all too noticeable for Joe’s dad, Troy (Steve Zhan). Here Troy’s challenging relationship with Sally and close connection to Joe only add layers to the family tension. These tensions were born from Troy’s bipolar disorder, erratic behaviour and freewheeling attitude to life. When it comes to his child, Troy sees a tomboy, a girl who loves cowboys, camping and bowling, his role one of encouragement and rule-breaking. However, on returning from a trip out, even Troy is taken aback when Joe raises the subject of their gender identity.


Troy listens as Joe states that he is a boy and raises this issue with Sally as he returns home. But, for Sally, this discussion is out of bounds, as she states that Joe needs more feminine activities, toys, and outfits. But as tensions escalate over Joe’s gender identity, Troy is about to make a decision that will change the family unit forever.

Director Anna Kerrigan beautifully dovetails the classic Western with a more personal family drama in Cowboys. Here she slowly builds a sense of impending disaster as Troy leads Joe through Montana’s mountains and forests with the Police hot on their heels. But, it is within Cowboys nuanced discussion on the parental response to gender identity that Kerrigan’s drama sings. Here, we find a father who accepts Joe’s transformation without judgement while Joe’s mother seeks gender conformity. Here the fascinating question is whether the role of Sally and Troy would have been reversed if Joe had been a boy who identified as a girl? This, in turn, raises questions about how gender roles are seen differently based on parental expectations or desires.


In Cowboys, Joe’s need to transform and escape mirrors his father’s; after all, both father and son are outsiders in the small community they call home. In reflecting this, Kerrigan opts for silent moments of thought and connection. For example, when we see Joe sitting at the bowling alley watching their dad and his friends engage in banter, the camera follows Joe’s gaze as they identify and explore the male form.

None of this would have been possible without Sasha Knight’s superb performance as Joe. Here Knight brings lived experience and realism to Joe’s journey. And while the Mountains and lakes of Montana may offer brief freedom, escape and transformation. The fundamental shift sits in Joe’s home life and parental relationships.


No Ordinary Man

Directors: Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

”Billy’s story lets us watch one woman’s bold solutions to gaining a certain amount of recognition in what was largely a man’s world.” – Diane Middlebrook (Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton)

Since publication in 1998, these words have diminished and dismissed Billy Tipton’s life and gender identity as a mere career choice. Of course, Diane Middlebrook may have had no direct intention of doing this, but her writing only played to the media storm following Billy’s death in 1989. Words carry unlimited power; they influence public opinion and build accepted and ongoing narratives. Therefore, these words intentionally or unintentionally reinforced a media narrative of deceit and lies surrounding Billy’s death.

But let me start this review by taking you back to Billy Tipton’s birth in Oklahoma, 1914. Billy entered our world with a god-given talent for music from a young age. This passion for the piano and saxophone would eventually lead him into the world of Jazz, where he would spend his teenage years touring clubs and dance halls. By the mid-1930’s Billy was earning praise and applause as part of the Western Swingbillies, and this success was followed in the mid-1940s by several recorded sessions for local radio.


By the 1950s, Billy was a self-funded recording artist offered a prestigious position in Liberace’s house band. However, Billy would decline this offer and walk away from the fame, choosing to settle down with a nightclub dancer named Tilly. Throughout their loving relationship, Tilly and Billy would adopt three boys. However, Billy and Tilly’s relationship would end in 1977, but his role as a caring and supportive father continued. But, as Billy lay dying of an untreated ulcer in 1989, his son, Billy Jr, at his side, a media storm was about to break. On arrival at his home, paramedics would discover that Billy’s birth gender was, in fact, female.

Billy’s life as a man was immediately dismissed and questioned by a media machine that used damaging slogans such as “The Jazzy Gender Bender”. The complexity of his story only escalated by a series of family members who stated that they were unaware Billy was female until after his death. As the media circus erupted, his family and friends appeared on a series of TV chat shows rooted in tabloid curiosity. Here the 90s media machine was obsessed with lurid conversations around Billy’s genitals, sex life and lifelong deception. The effect of this circus was profound on Billy’s family and sons while equally ostracising trans people in a narrative that talked about grand deceptions. Here the homophobia inherent in 90s society merged with transphobia as people lapped up a conversation about deviance and immorality.


Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s new documentary No Ordinary Man finally uncovers Billy’s story with love and respect for the man at its heart. Here their engaging, informative and bold exploration of Tipton’s life and its links to trans experience today is creative, empowering and deeply emotional. Chin-Yee and Joynt opt to tell Tipton’s story through a group of trans masculine actors auditioning for a film based on Billy’s life. While at the same time combining their reflections on Tipton’s career and bravery with archive footage and interviews.

Unlike the typical biography, No Ordinary Man transcends the tried and tested and, in doing so, finds a unique, urgent and investigative voice. Here Tipton’s place in history and his legacy is coupled with contemporary discussions on trans equality and visibility. The result is a documentary that feels both alive and relevant as it celebrates Tipton’s life and career while exploring the ongoing discrimination faced by the trans community.


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