Olivia Hill, Tennesssee’s first transgender elected official: “My main goal is to just do my job.”
With a professional background in infrastructure and a “geeky” policy focus, Hill aims to tackle Nashville’s utilities and serve as a role model.
Metro Councilwoman-elect Olivia Hill, photographed on Sept. 21, 2023, outside Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Olivia Hill had no ambition to run for public office when she walked up to the microphone at a Washington D.C. gala last year to thank the keynote speaker for an inspirational talk about the power of voting.
And she didn’t anticipate that Danica Roem – the first openly transgender woman elected to state office in Virginia and one of Hill’s idols – would ask Hill to give more than gratitude.
“She called me onstage in front of all those people and she hugged me,” Hill said. “And she said, ‘Olivia, if you really want to make a difference, run for office.’”
Next week, Hill will be sworn in as the first openly transgender elected official in Tennessee, winning an at-large seat in a historic election that also ushered in a first-time majority of women on Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council.
Unrelentingly positive, Hill says she’s been “overcome with joy” since election night. At a photo shoot last week, she said “I was able to sit in my council seat, and it just hit me. I made it. I’m here.”
Hill’s swift journey from political newbie to nationally known LGBTQ pioneer – featured last week in People Magazine, The Guardian, local TV and news publications – has been an intense turnabout from the way she has lived most of her life.
“I always felt broken growing up and in my life, and I was always just concentrating on what I needed to do to excel in life,” Hill said. “I was never part of the limelight. I was never the popular kid in school, so the attention has been a bit overwhelming. I’m not used to being recognized in the places I go. And now I am.”
As Hill spoke, seated in a sidewalk cafe outside the downtown Nashville Hermitage Hotel one evening last week, Davidson County District attorney Glenn Funk walked past, did a double take then came over to give Hill a hug; minutes later, Metro Council Member Sheri Weiner made a beeline to do the same. A driver in a passing car yelled “Olivia” and drove on.
Hill is a fourth generation Nashvillian, a great-granddaughter of HG Hill Food Stores founder Horace Greely Hill. After graduating from Hillwood High School, she served a ten-year stint in the Navy and saw combat during Desert Storm, she said. Hill returned to Nashville, married her high school sweetheart and had two children. The couple is now divorced.
For more than 25 years, until her diagnosis of gender dysphoria and subsequent transition, Hill helped run Vanderbilt University’s self-contained power plant, serving as acting manager until she filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit in 2022. Hill and the university later settled.
She had been unprepared for the workplace culture she returned to after transitioning in 2019, Hill said.
“I tried everything to get ready for the transphobia I thought I was going to get,” she said. “But the majority of people accepted me as 100 percent a woman. The problem is they treated me as such. They’d tell me ‘you don’t want to go into the power plant because it’s hot, or ‘go answer the phone.’ These were men who worked for me.”
It was a bruising experience. Her career was not the only casualty of her gender transition. She lost friends and family, too, including all contact with her two grown children and her four grandchildren. There is no one left in her life today who was there before her transition, Hill said.
She channeled her workplace frustrations into advocating for women’s rights and volunteering with the Human Rights Campaign, which hosted the gala at which Roem urged Hill to run for office.
Hall’s campaign messaging has focused on her decades of hands-on experience in utilities and infrastructure. Hill has worked as a plumber, pipe fitter, welder, high voltage electrician, diesel mechanic and boiler specialist.
Much like incoming Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell, often described as “nerdy,” Hill can also launch into lengthy technical explanations when asked about her policy aspirations, describing deposits narrowing the width of water pipes that have led to limited water pressure in new high rise apartments, aging electrical transformers that have left southeast Nashville without power and the deference she sees Nashville Electric Service showing to developers.
My main goal as a trans woman on Council is to just do my job, and other trans people will see me doing things, accomplishing my job, being normal, and they will feel like, ‘wow maybe I can do that too.
– Metro Councilmember Olivia Hill
“As weird as it is, that’s my jam,” she said. “I want to improve Nashville’s underground and help it grow at the same rate all the developers are trying to grow the above-ground.”
The “geeky” focus, as Hill calls it, has earned her supporters like Heather Carver, owner of Carver Construction Company. Carver said Hill’s infrastructure expertise has been a missing component on Metro County.
Carver also recounted how she routinely experienced sexist interactions with Nashville Department of Transportation inspectors who persisted in communicating with her husband or her male employees instead of her, the sole business owner.
“Nashville doesn’t take women seriously in infrastructure,” Carver said. “Olivia is a step in the right direction.”
Hill’s election comes nearly a year to the day after right wing commentator Matt Walsh first unleashed a torrent of virulent public attacks on Vanderbilt University’s Transgender Health Clinic. State GOP lawmakers picked up the mantle, enacting a series of anti-LGBTQ bills signed by Gov. Bill Lee – the most anti-LGBTQ legislation enacted this year of any other state except North Dakota.
Political observers say Hill’s election, along with a hefty slate of women to the Nashville Council, is a direct response.
I think we were underestimated from the beginning. Twenty-one people were in the race and it was an uphill battle. . . At the end of the day Olivia won because she was more than qualified.
– Spencer Bowers, Hill's campaign manager
Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which backed Hill, called her election a “testament to people in Tennessee fighting back as the state legislature continues to attack LGBTQ people.”
Hill did not put her transgender identity at front and center of her campaign, focusing instead on campaign pledges to tackle infrastructure improvements, transportation and increase affordable housing stock.
Still, campaign manager Spencer Bowers said the question of whether Hill was running solely on her gender identity trailed the campaign.
“Everybody had that question, but you run on your qualifications,” he said. “I think we were underestimated from the beginning. Twenty-one people were in the race and it was an uphill battle. Olivia wasn’t the donors’ first pick. At the end of the day Olivia won because she was more than qualified.”
Hill acknowledged the potential to be a role model to transgender youth – and a dispeller of inaccurate stereotypes that she tries to take down in one on one interactions – is not far from her mind.
“My main goal as a trans woman on Council is to just do my job, and other trans people will see me doing things, accomplishing my job, being normal, and they will feel like, ‘wow maybe I can do that too,’” she said.
“What that does is change others’ entire perception of the trans community, which in turn stands up for the trans community without standing there waving a flag, if that makes sense.”
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