Keys of Life

A local trans musician went through hell to get here.

By Catherine Caperello
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Apr. 28, 2009

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Organ donor: Desiree Hines gives back to the LGBT community in her work with the Traverse Arts Project.

Vivacious 29-year-old Desiree Hines has a laugh that fills the First Unitarian Church just as grandly as the pipe organ she plays there. As part-time music associate, her hands move across three tiers of keyboards, her feet work pedals and when she pulls out the stoppers, the great hall explodes with sound.

As a transsexual African-American female organist, Hines has encountered her fair share of discrimination in a field dominated by white men. But along her rough road she’s developed a commitment to visibility. The director of the Traverse Arts Project (TAP)’s upcoming LGBT festival, Hines sat down to talk with PW about her long journey.

What made you decide to become an organist?

“I was about 15 and I turned on the TV and there’s this woman playing this beautiful, majestic pipe organ. She had these glittery clothes and glittery organ-playing shoes and big blond hair. At the end of the program she goes, ‘My name is Diane Bish and you’ve been watching The Joy of Music.’ That’s when I had a divine calling to me saying, ‘This is the instrument for you.’”

When did you first know you wanted to change genders?

“I dealt with gender issues all my life. I remember telling my mother, ‘I feel like I’m a girl and not a boy.’ My mother felt it was something she saw a long time ago. At Mississippi College, I would periodically dress as Desiree. One day [the chair of the music department] told me I had been seen off campus dressed as a woman. He asked if I needed to go to the counseling center. I guess with it being a Southern Baptist school, they wanted me to get counseling. That’s when I knew it was time to go. “

How did you end up at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.?

“I didn’t have very much money, and I told [university organist/asst. professor of music] Jim Holloway, ‘I can get a plane ticket, but I don’t know if I have enough money to get a hotel or anything.’ He said, ‘My wife and I have a big house in Washington. Don’t worry about food, don’t worry about a place to stay. Let’s get you up here to audition.’ We had that connection both being from the South, both being from very struggling homes.”

How did you tell him you wanted to live as a woman?

“Jim knew that I had a preference for men, but I didn’t tell him I was trans and had been dealing with gender-identity issues. So the PLU faculty person for the GLBT group initiated the conversation and Jim said the thing would be preparing the campus for my being the first transsexual student to actually live at PLU. He took initiative and we got in touch with housing and made certain arrangements.” 

Did you ever get to work with Jim?

“No. I remember very vividly the morning of May 17th. I was at home in Mississippi cooking my mother breakfast. It was 9:47 in the morning. The phone rang and Mama picked it up. It was Dr. Paulson from PLU and I was very giddy, very happy—oh, they’re calling from PLU! I heard Mama go, “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” She closes her eyes and tears start coming out. [I take the phone and they tell me] the day before a gunman had come onto campus and shot Jim. And I’m just like running around the house with the phone. And I sit down and I just say, ‘Dr. Paulson, is Jim dead?’ She said yes, and I threw the phone—you know, the typical African-American reaction of death to people that they love. I had lost a brother, I had lost sister and I had now lost Jim.”

Was it hard to go to PLU without Jim advocating for you?

“The director of housing at PLU was a wonderful man and he rallied to have me housed in traditional female dorms though I had not undergone sex reassignment surgery. But about a week before school he says, ‘Well, I have some bad news. If you’re going to live in the dorms, you have to live in a male wing or we have to put you in South Hall,” which was apartment-style living. It inflated [my cost of living] tremendously. Not only was I dealing with bereavement of Jim’s death but I got about six weeks into the semester and I had absolutely no money. I had no job. I had no food. I had nothing. I went to the counseling center at the school and just had a nervous breakdown. [But] the student life office had a program where they could loan students emergency money. That provided a good buffer. I had a good bit of friends—if they had a 20-meal-a-week plan, they’d say, ‘Here, two swipes—one for Desiree.’”

How did you progress with your gender transition?

“The staff who ran the medical center created an agreement with a doctor in Seattle. I would go once a semester for major checkups and the school health clinic gave me my hormone shots, prescriptions for my pills and took my hormone levels. Student insurance paid for it so they were very supportive. But the [VP of student life] told me in a meeting, ‘We understand you would like to live in a traditional dorm, but this is what’s best for everyone,’ which translates to: Other people don’t want you there.

Is that why you left?

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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 30, 2009 at 05:51PM

“Thank You so much for this wonderful article.. While no one else like to talk about transgendered or transsexual people, it's about time that all cultures stop remaining blind to this contingent of the GLBT Community. People are often so ignorant to the T part of the community, with completely misconstrued ideas about trans people. It is also commendible that Miss Hines referse to herself proudly as Transsexual, which is only one type of Transgendered person. It is great to see an African-American trans woman with the courage to put herself in a mainstream paper and show people that there are Trans people of color that do have dreams, they go on to fulfill those dreams, and are not escorts or what is stereotypically associated with trans people of color. Miss Hines is obviously a college-educated person, who stood above the discrimination she has endured, and set aside the bullshit to achieve a professional career.”

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