Even in this jaded here and now, when nearly every border of human identity and behavior has been transgressed, gender still holds as fundamental, given, fixing most of us in one place or the other. The notion of slipping across the line still titillates, ignites our imagination. Those who are born to one sex but live in the other retain the glow of dashing, glamorous figures, traveling with false papers and retouched photos--spies in the country of self.
When jazz musician Billy Tipton died in 1989, the paramedics who tried to save his life also uncovered Tipton's lifelong secret--that he was a woman. For 50-odd years he had fooled audiences, fellow musicians, his adopted children, and even some of his five wives. A biography was inevitable, and last year there was the publication of Diane Wood Middlebrook's Suits Me. Now from England comes Trumpet, in which lesbian poet and playwright Jackie Kay takes on the same story by reimagining it as a novel.
Her trumpet player is Joss Moody from Scotland rather than Billy Tipton from Spokane, black instead of white, fiat-chested as opposed to built, married once to a wife who's in on the secret, with only one adopted son. Kay approaches Joss (nee Josephine) from all angles---short chapters of testimony from the grieving widow, the angry son, the surprised undertaker, the good-hearted drummer, the sleazy biographer, the unsuspecting mother, the childhood crush. As a narrative technique, these documentary-style talking heads serve the story well, for what is a show without its audience, a disguise without those fooled by it?
Some voices ring truer than others and wear better. Joss's grown son, Colman, is given only one note: anger. After a few rounds of his sputtering, you just want to take him aside and say, "Hey, get over it." Much more interesting is Joss's widow, Millie, who sees herself as a heterosexual woman who spent a loving lifetime with a husband whose small secret was something they shared. She's appalled at the sensational spin being put on the quiet circumstances of their life together--a take summed up by the dirt-digging biographer. "Lesbians who adopted a son; one playing mummy, one playing daddy. The big butch frauds."
These opposing points of view set up the truly intriguing (and somewhat underexplored in this novel) question about a life played out in drag. Is this really a disguise after all? Is gender limited to physicality, or can it be superseded by desire and reinvention? In Trumpet this is couched in an op-ed page letter from a transvestite group amid all the fuss and bother surrounding Joss's death: "We question this notion that somebody who lives their life as a man and is discovered to be female at the time of death was really a woman all along. What is `really' in this context? What is the force of that reality?"
Anshaw is the author of Seven Moves and Aquamarine.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 16, 1999|
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