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The Strange Tale of Billy Tipton Ends in a Spokane Courtroom

One of the more colorful and bizarre tales in the annals of jazz history came to a conclusion on Wednesday when a judge in Spokane County, Wash., in an inheritance case, ruled in favor of the three illegally adopted sons of bandleader Billy Tipton and Kathleen “Kitty” Tipton Oakes, a stripper who lived as his wife. Not only were Tipton and Oakes never legally married-what made the case unique was that Tipton, it was discovered, had been a woman living as a man.

According to Washington State law, children who are not legally adopted are prohibited from inheriting their parents’ estate unless they are named specifically in the parents’ will. Tipton died in 1989, Oakes in 2006. Superior Court Judge Michael Price, using Washington’s rarely cited “equitable adoption” law, ruled that the sons-Jonathan Clark, Scott Miller and William Tipton-could not be held responsible for their parents’ illegal acts, and thus should be allowed to inherit the $300,000 in the estate, minus court costs. Oakes lived as Tipton’s wife in Spokane from 1962 until 1980. The sons were unaware that Tipton was a woman; two changed their last named following Tipton’s death.

During the trial, it was revealed that Oakes was an abusive mother to the adopted boys, forcing the two older boys to eventually leave home to escape her beatings. Billy Tipton and the youngest son, William, later joined them.

Tipton, born in 1914 in Oklahoma as Dorothy Tipton, lived as a man from age 19, marrying five women and adopting and raising the three boys. His identity as a woman was not revealed until his death, when the coroner made his true gender public news. During his career, Tipton performed with Duke Ellington and other jazz greats, none of whom were aware of his true sexual identity. A book written by Diane Wood Middlebrook, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, was published in 1999. A screenplay and an opera about the tale were also written.

Originally Published