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By Ariel Jao

Giovonni Santiago, a transgender U.S. Air Force veteran, teamed up with his doctor to open the first transgender-focused clinic within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Santiago also founded a nonprofit in Akron, Ohio, for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth called META (Motivate, Educate, Transform and Advocate), which he fully funds and runs himself.

Image: Giovonni Santiago
Giovonni SantiagoShane Wynn

"A lot of veteran hospitals were having a lot of issues where they weren't getting veterans in at appropriate times for appointments. LGBT veterans were having issues getting seen by appropriate doctors. I wanted to make it easier for those people. I was already receiving my health care from an amazing doctor, but I was hearing about these problems. My doctor wanted to do more about it, so that's how we ended up teaming together to make it happen. Now there are a lot of VA systems which have created what we did."

Could you tell us more about your intersectionality and how it is central to the work you do?

"I started my own slogan, 'Fly in the milk.' I am the fly, everyone else in society around me -- people who are cisgender, non-people of color, heterosexual, non-veteran -- is the milk. It's my job to point to the milk, why the fly is drowning.

"Because I am so intersectional, it makes it that much more important for me to be effective at what I do. That's why I do it, because I didn't see people who thought like me, looked like me, or who was successful in their own right, be that person. To see someone who doesn't relate to you actually be successful -- it resonates a lot more."

What inspired you to start a nonprofit focusing on transgender youth?

"I started META Center because I got tired of seeing all the kids who were committing suicide, being made homeless by their families, or just being subjected to all different styles of discrimination brutalities."

What does "pride" mean to you?

"Living authentically, always. Never being afraid or ashamed of that and not letting anyone else dictate your journey."

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