Tennessee’s trailblazing trans official on Trump, gay bars, & Oscar de la Renta

Tennessee’s trailblazing trans official on Trump, gay bars, & Oscar de la Renta
Newly-elected Nashville Metro Council member Olivia Hill Photo: LGBTQ Victory Fund

One of the Nashville Metro Council’s newest members, Olivia Hill, says she’s “as happy a human as you’ll ever meet,” and after spending quality time with her in LGBTQ Nation’s Hot Seat, we concur.

With her win last month, Hill, 58, became the first trans person to be elected to office in Tennessee. She is also part of the group of five women who hold all of the body’s at-large seats for the very first time.

Last year, Hill won a settlement against Vanderbilt University after she sued for workplace discrimination following her transition in 2019. An engineer by training with 10 years experience in the Navy — she saw combat in Operation Desert Storm — Hill ran the school’s power plant.

Hill spoke from her “good living” room in Nashville where she charmed in front of a newly acquired set of drums.

Olivia Hill: Let’s jump on it.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ spot in Nashville?

OH: Well, I kind of have two. One is Frankie J’s in Germantown. It’s a new gay bar. It’s great. It’s wonderful. They are super good to me. I was there at the ribbon-cutting.

And of course, Lipstick Lounge is the other place, in East Nashville. I think it’s one of 18 or 20 lesbian bars left in the country. There was just a documentary about it.

LGBTQ Nation: Your fashion-forward eyeglasses have made you a style icon. Who designed them?

OH: I get these at See Optical, a place here in Nashville. I like it because what they do is, they’ll make a style, say like they make a thousand of these, and then when they’re sold out, they’re done. They won’t make this style anymore. So there’s a lot less chance that you walk around and see somebody with the same pair of glasses that you have.

LGBTQ Nation: At your swearing-in ceremony and celebration, there was no mistaking whose night it was. You went bold wearing a stunning fuchsia pink dress. Who were you wearing?

OH: That was Oscar de la Renta. I love Oscar. It’s actually my third. I’ve got my Chanel earrings on but I’m a little too big a girl for Chanel. Once I get down a little bit I’ll start wearing Chanel, but I mainly wear either Oscar or St. John.  

LGBTQ Nation: Given those bold looks, how does “style” figure into your now-very public persona?

OH: It’s kind of how I was raised. My grandmother was a buyer for a very upscale clothier here in Nashville called Rich, Schwartz, & Joseph which is where all the rich women of Nashville in the day used to get all their upscale dresses. So she used to go to New York Fashion Week to decide what the women were actually going to wear. So that’s kind of ingrained in me. I think my grandmother is flipping over her grave that people are wearing white after Labor Day.

Olivia Hill wearing Oscar de la Renta at her swearing-in ceremony and celebration at the Hermitage in Nashville.
Olivia Hill wearing Oscar de la Renta at her swearing-in ceremony and celebration at the Hermitage in Nashville. Campaign Photo.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the most surprising thing you learned after you filed your discrimination suit against Vanderbilt?

OH: I wasn’t prepared for just plain old sexism, the same thing women have been putting up with for 400 million years. That really kind of rocked my world.  

LGBTQ Nation: You spent 25 years as an engineer at Vanderbilt. What’s something nobody knows about working at a power plant?

OH: It’s hot. It’s on average about 20 to 30 degrees warmer inside the plant than it is outside. On a 90-degree day, it’s, you know, 110 or 120 inside. You ever put on a pair of blue jeans that just came out of the dryer, and the little rivets burn, and you have to, like, pull them back down? It was so hot in a couple places in the plant that I actually had to take my earrings out because the metal was burning my ears.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the single most thing important thing the world should do to address climate change?

OH: There’s all kinds of different things and I think there’s an awful lot of smart people out there. It’s one of the things I’ve learned in engineering. I don’t care who comes up with a good idea, as long as it’s a good idea for all of us. It’s a priority of mine.

LGBTQ Nation: Donald Trump famously said showers aren’t what they used to be. Does he have a point?

OH: I try not to give that yahoo too much attention. My shower works fine.  

LGBTQ Nation: How do you like to spend your Saturday nights?

OH: I love to go dancing. I love to go roller-skating. I love music of any kind. Live music anywhere is great. There’s no shortage of that in Nashville.

LGBTQ Nation: Where would we find you on a Sunday morning?

OH: If it’s nice, probably sitting out on my back deck here, drinking coffee, just listening to music, trying to enjoy nature and be outside. If it’s a little chilly, I’ve got a little fire pit out there. Just kind of have some Olivia time, you know? We all need a little time so that we can reflect on things and recharge the battery.

LGBTQ Nation: You’ve described yourself variously as a geek and a nerd. What’s one thing that quality translates to?

OH: At home, my entire house is voice-activated. My lights come on downstairs in the bar room every night at sunset, whatever that is. And then at 9:30 the lights go on upstairs. So if you ever looked in my house, it’s really hard to find out whether I’m ever home or not.

LGBTQ Nation: Tennessee has become known for passing some of the most egregious anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the nation. What’s your message to Gov. Bill Lee?

OH: I am valid. I am who I am.

So many people see us as men in wigs, so you have to sit down with them and you have to talk with people at their pace and on their level. You can’t push a rope.

LGBTQ Nation: We’ve written a lot about Gabrielle Hansen, who’s pushing an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda in her run for mayor of Franklin, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. She recently got a white supremacist group to provide security at her candidate forum. How would you describe Hanson in one word?

OH: “Trump.” There’s a lot of other words I would love to say about her.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the best piece of advice you got when you launched your campaign?

OH: Don’t hesitate to reach out to ask for help.

LGBTQ Nation: You met with transgender Virginia delegate Danica Roem (D) in July for some campaign guidance. Are there other trans politicians who’ve inspired you?

OH: [Democratic Delaware State Sen.] Sarah McBride. I think she’s amazing and I try to follow her model. I ran my entire campaign as a qualified human, not as a trans woman. Not as the first trans woman in Tennessee history, but as a qualified human to sit at the table.  

Hill celebrating her victory with supporters on Election Night.
Hill celebrated her victory with supporters on Election Night. Campaign Photo.

LGBTQ Nation: Almost a year to the day before your election, anti-trans commentator Matt Walsh helped unleash a right-wing smear campaign against Vanderbilt’s Transgender Health Clinic. What would you say to Walsh if he was sitting here with us today?

OH: He’s got some scam on in the background and he’s just one of the people that I don’t think we necessarily could change.

LGBTQ Nation: For the very first time, all of the at-large counselors in Nashville are women. One of our women editors wants to know, “Isn’t it awesome not having to deal with men?”

OH: Yes! We all kind of think the same in a lot of ways. I think we’ll be able to get a lot of stuff done.

LGBTQ Nation: You settled your lawsuit with Vanderbilt in 2022 for an undisclosed amount. What’s the single best thing that you spent the money on?

OH: Oscar de la Renta.

LGBTQ Nation: Your alma mater Hillwood High closed this year, and was replaced by a new school named after civil rights activist and professor James Lawson, who was thrown out of Vanderbilt for his activism in 1960. How does the new high school reflect the ways in which Nashville has changed since then?

OH: I think it’s absolutely amazing that we took a high school in a predominantly white neighborhood and named it after a Black civil rights leader. I think it’s phenomenal. I just love the fact that Nashville was brave enough and forward-thinking enough to do it. I wish we did more things like that.

LGBTQ Nation: What’s the best thing about your new job?

OH: My most favorite thing is to give back to people. I love that I get to meet new people every day and I get to help them with the things they’ve got going on, whether it’s small stuff, like their trash didn’t get picked up or help fixing a pothole, or big things about transit. I am just extremely happy that I get to do things for folks.

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