Filming the acclaimed documentary “No Ordinary Man” about trans jazzman Billy Tipton was a “moving and life-changing” milestone in Marquise Vilsón’s own journey as a transmasculine person and performer, the GMHC board member said. “It allowed me to see the possible role models for what we can create as trans people.”
Since archival materials for Tipton were sparse, the documentary re-envisions the mid-20th-century jazz musician through the eyes of an ensemble cast–all, unlike Tipton, openly transmasculine. Within the film, Vilsón and seven other trans artists, writers and performers audition for the role of Tipton, imagining how they’d play a transman whom Vilsón describes as “hiding in plain sight.”
As an actor, Vilsón, 40, said it was the first time he’d been in an auditioning space with so many transmasculine people–and across generations. “I never thought that was possible,” he said.
“It’s inspiring and incredible–the spaces I’ve been able to occupy in my life journey–and to see trans people thriving, living their truth and completely fearless,” Vilsón said.
Reclaiming Tipton’s legacy as a trans icon prompted Vilsón to reflect on the dangerous bind that transphobia causes for trans people in a society where they are still not accepted on their own terms. Being out and visible “can threaten your survival–expose you to stigma and violence,” he said–but staying hidden can also be perilous, especially in accessing health care.
Tipton kept his gender identity hidden to live on his own terms, but he died of a hemorrhaging peptic ulcer in 1989 at age 74 after refusing to call a doctor. Vilsón pointed out that Robert Eads, an openly transgender man, actively sought care for ovarian cancer and still died in 1998 after over a dozen doctors refused to treat him.
“It’s so heartbreaking–and it’s real,” he said. “Trans people are often trying to figure out that balance in the best ways we can, that allow us to survive.”
Vilsón joined GMHC’s board earlier this year to bring more visibility to healthcare rights for transmasculine people, particularly HIV prevention–a critical area where they are often unseen or overlooked. There is a significant HIV testing and treatment gap for transmasculine people, he said, due to the erroneous stereotype that they only have sex with cis women, and so cannot contract HIV.
He added that he’s been attending GMHC’s Latex Balls since 1996 as part of New York’s Ballroom Community.
Vilsón said that as a Black, queer man growing up in the Bronx in the 1990s, he never expected to make it to 40 himself. The first funeral he ever attended, at only seven years old, was for his own father, who was murdered at age 29 during the crack cocaine epidemic.
“It communicated to me what being Black meant in this country–and then add the queer layer,” Vilsón said. “It seemed almost inevitable that my fate would be very similar.”
When he was 16, Vilsón told his family he was trans and dropped out of school. “When I became aware of my queerness and started outwardly expressing myself at 14 or 15 years old, I started experiencing resistance in the school system,” he explained. “What people wanted me to do was to show up in ways that made them comfortable.”
He left school instead. At that time, Vilsón said, “I was looking for transmen, looking for my people.”
Most of the trans forbears Vilsón found were white like Tipton, whom he discovered at age 21, but he also found Wilmer Broadnax, a Black gospel singer from Tipton’s era, and Reno Prestige Wright, also in the New York Ballroom Community, whom Vilsón called “a living legend.”
The Ballroom Community embraced Vilsón as a performer in his early teens, and in 2018 honored the House of Balenciaga member as a Transman ICON.
Although he’d been involved in music, art and dance since his youth, Vilsón only tried acting professionally five years ago.
“I fell in love with acting,” he said, when he read for his first role for the web series “Skin Deep,” because the character he took on allowed him to feel “all the layers of what it means to be Black, trans and masculine.”
A role in an off-Broadway play, “Charm,” in 2017 quickly led to a part in the Julia Roberts film, “Ben is Back,” and a break-out role on “Law and Order: SVU” as a trans male soldier who risks coming out to testify in a rape case.
As an actor, Vilsón said he’s not interested in the false binary of choosing between transmasculine or cis male roles, but he added that trans-specific roles “are always around the examination of one’s body,” because trans bodies have been so threatened.
“I bring my transness into every room I’m in,” he said. “I want to be fully present in any and everything that I do—as a body that’s Black, AFAB, trans, a feminist—and who believes in just being a good person.”
Photo (top): Marquise Vilsón