Why He's Interesting: The military veteran started the Akron-based nonprofit Meta Center Inc. as a way to advocate for transgender youth. While going through his own transition, Santiago also worked with doctors at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center to open the Gender Identity Veterans Experience [G.I.V.E.] Clinic, the country’s first transgender-specific VA clinic, in 2015.
For Giovonni Santiago, there’s still a war to be won. When President Donald Trump announced a proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military last year, the former Air Force police officer knew it was more important than ever for him to be outspoken about his trans identity.
“I live a stealth lifestyle,” he says, “but I feel like I have to be extremely visible and vigilant for those who cannot.”
For years, he’s been working behind the scenes as an advocate for minorities. While serving in the Air Force from 2006 to 2010, he identified as a lesbian and was often overlooked and underserved. As an officer, he was assigned solo overnight security shifts guarding grounded aircraft at the Randolph Air Force Base in Universal City, Texas.
In addition, the military lacked a responsive chain of command and mental health services to pilot him through his service.
“I was a minority on two levels,” says Santiago. “I was virtually invisible unless I was being willfully targeted.”
But when a back injury caused Santiago to leave the Air Force, he switched gears and became a certified integrated preschool teacher and youth sports coach. Working with children inspired him, Santiago says.
“I loved being able to help mold those little people and watch them grow, and see them change and being able to make an impact on the world,” he says.
After the birth of his first nephew, Santiago decided to make a change. He started his transition in 2013 at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but doctors recognized a lack of resources. As his doctor’s first transgender patient, Santiago worked alongside medical professionals in 2015 to develop a program and transgender support services. It resulted in the G.I.V.E. Clinic, the first transgender-specific VA clinic in the country.
In 2016, Santiago launched Meta Center Inc., a nonprofit devoted to educating, motivating and inspiring transgender youth in need of resources and support.
Santiago now works with up to 25 transgender youth from throughout Northeast Ohio, holding support groups, birthday parties and social gatherings in which transgender youth can be their honest selves.
“I want to empower them to be strong, not only individually, but together,” says Santiago. “Being a vessel is what I intend to do every day.”
Interesting Fact: The G.I.V.E. Clinic now sees more than 70 transgender patients annually.