Brave Story: Giovonni Santiago

The Brave Story series features different personalities that have demonstrated courage and commitment to a cause, an initiative, or movement. We share their stories hoping that their journey and the lessons they learned along the way can serve as motivation and inspiration to us all in whatever path we choose, personally or professionally.

In February we celebrate love and Black History so for this Brave Story we’re discussing the journey to self-love with Black Trans-activist, and military veteran Giovonni Santiago. 

A former Air Force police officer Giovonni served in the military from 2006 to 2010. That was during the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) days, which was the official United States policy on LGBTQ+ identities within the military until 2011. In 2019 President Donald Trump and the defense department approved a policy that banned members of the military from transitioning. As of 2019, Santiago was one of an estimated 14,700 troops on active duty and in the reserves that identify as transgender. 

Giovonni began his transition process while still in the military. He learned that he was his doctor’s first transgender patient. Before long he was advising a panel of military doctors on how to better serve trans veterans. Which eventually led to him helping develop the first clinic for transgender veterans in the United States. 

Voted one of the Most Interesting People of 2018 by Cleveland Magazine, Giovonni has a long list of impressive accolades. From walking in New York Fashion Week to appearing on national television but above all else this renaissance man enjoys mentoring Trans youth and guiding them on their journey towards self-love and acceptance. 

The current administration recently lifted the transgender military ban. Can you speak to what that might mean to a Trans person in the military now?

Lifting the transgender military ban means being able to serve without feeling like you have to live a lie or hide who you are. It also is showing that your leadership believes in your ability to do your job and recognizes you as a whole person. 

How can we all, as a nation, help push these protections to become law so that solving these issues isn’t dependent on who’s president?

Calling your state and federal representatives is always a great start. Holding the people that you have elected accountable for protecting you and others is very important. 

What does self-love or self-acceptance look like for you? 

Self-love looks like maintaining a healthy lifestyle, so practicing self-care, mental awareness, and making decisions that focus on your personal betterment. Self-acceptance means living authentic and true, without caring about the ignorance of others. 

How did being a member of the Air Force impact your journey towards self-love?

Being in the Air Force was a bit of a culture shock for me because once I got to my permanent unit there weren’t many black people or people of color there. It taught me to love and look out for myself even more. 

Why was creating Meta Center Inc. an important step for you? 

I created Meta Center Inc. because there were not a lot of Black/Brown transmasculine individuals being represented in the world. Even more so, I wanted to help the youth understand that there was light at the end of whatever tunnel they thought they were in. I never had to worry about being homeless or hungry because my family loved and accepted me. I wanted to do the same and help others as much as I could. 

Why is it important for you to teach self-acceptance to Trans youth?

It’s important to teach self-acceptance because if you do not love and accept yourself in a healthy way, then you are more apt to let others treat you poorly. We teach people how to treat us. 

Why is it important to normalize the Trans experience and how do you do so and avoid voyeurism? 

Normalizing the Trans experience is a rock and a hard place because you want to be able to show that transgender individuals just want to live their lives while recognizing that exploitation is a real thing. The best way to do it in my opinion is by letting those who are willing to tell their stories do it themselves. We are just normal people, we are your friends, children, siblings, aunts/uncles, parents, and grandparents. We work hard, pay taxes, and deal with normal life issues. 

How has being a partner to your wife impacted your journey towards self-love?

Being a partner to my wife has shown me that the journey towards self-love never ends, it in fact gets harder sometimes. I think that having a wife who has had a great self-love journey also helps keep me on track. 

Share some of the highlights and low-points you’ve overcome during your journey towards self-love and/or self-acceptance. 

The main low has been having to have my chest reconstruction done more than 1 time. Going through major surgery is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing, and having to do it more than once because your surgeon messed up is in a word, devastating. 

A notable highlight for me was being able to work with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Hospital in opening The G.I.V.E Clinic, which is noted as the first U.S. clinic within the Veterans Affairs system that caters to transgender veterans. 

Starting the META Center, being recognized by NBCNews Out, Cleveland Magazine and Equality Ohio have been amazing. The best high of it all is when I have a parent of one of the youths or the youth themself tell me how much I’ve helped them. That always reminds me that I am doing it all for the right reason. 

What does bravery mean to you?

Bravery means taking a stand for yourself and others even if you are standing alone.

You can follow Giovanni on Instagram here, and support the Meta Center here.