Prizm News / November 2, 2017 / By Giovonni Santiago
Giovonni Santiago won his own internal battle, but the transgender Air Force veteran from Akron fears for those who are currently on the frontline in President Trump’s culture war.
By Giovonni Santiago
Illustration by Christian Cimoroni
So it was the night before I had my doctor’s appointment at the VA. It would be the first time I would tell a physician that I’m transgender and that I needed medical care.
Was I ready to do this? Was I ready to tell someone else I needed help? What questions would they ask? How would I answer? I could barely think now; how was I going to think at my appointment?
Before I could process any of my thoughts, the morning of my appointment arrived. I was shaking the whole drive. I was nervous. I wasn’t even in the presence of this doctor and I was nervous. I arrived and sat in the gloomy waiting room, feeling weird and uncomfortable all because I was in a place I hadn’t identified with ever: the women’s health clinic.
“I was battling internally with my gender identity. While on base, I had to use female pronouns, my female name, wear a female-tailored U.S. Air Force uniform and stay neutral on relationship topics with fellow airmen.
I wasn’t a woman, I wasn’t female, but this is where I had to sit. And then they called my name and I went back.
While I was in the military I was classified as a minority female, which virtually makes you invisible in their world. It was also the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I was identifying as a lesbian at that time, so that really made things tough.
While struggling through an external battle to survive as minority in the military, I was battling internally with my gender identity. While on base, I had to use female pronouns, my female name, wear a female-tailored U.S. Air Force uniform and stay neutral on relationship topics with fellow airmen.
Outside of base, I was extremely masculine-presenting, maintained my short male haircut, wore menís clothing and had a girlfriend. Essentially, I spent every day living a double life, which was exhausting and somewhat demeaning.
I made few friends on base, and they were also minority females, but they somehow understood that I didn’t feel I was the same. Those two women helped me through a time in my life that was so very hard and depressing. They would always say to me, ‘You know you’re not really a girl, right?’ or, ‘You are much more like a little brother to us than a sister.’
Having them validate the feelings I had, even though I never expressed them, helped me find self-validation.
Transitioning was never a thought when I was active-duty military because I honestly had no idea what that even meant. After I completed my service in the military, I learned that there was an actual term for what I was feeling.
At that point I began to not feel so lost in the world. I was finally able to put a face, a term, a movement to the way I felt. I learned more about what being transgender meant and learned that there was a process to make my body align with my mind.
“After I completed my service in the military, I learned that there was an actual term for what I was feeling. Transgender.“
This radical idea of being able to transition physically continued to grow in my mind, and in August 2013 I felt it was time to speak to a doctor and take those steps. Making the decision to finally go to the doctor and begin that process was one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life.
I had only been receiving my healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs for five months prior to my appointment with this new physician. Sitting in that womenís health clinic waiting room was uncomfortable but necessary for the advancement of my journey.
When they called my name and I went back into the room to meet the doctor, I immediately felt like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders. Her name was Dr. Megan McNamara, and she was warm, welcoming and friendly. She explained to me that she had never had a transgender patient but was eager to learn and assist me in any way possible.
To say that she is the most amazing doctor I have ever encountered would be a grave understatement. The VA is not known for giving exceptional care, but I stayed hopeful that my experience would be different. I have to be honest: They did not disappoint.
Every doctor I have encountered at the VA has treated me with great care, respect and understanding. Theyíve helped with everything from changing my name and gender in the system to having various surgeries and also giving me the opportunity to assist other veterans.
In November 2015, the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center opened the very first transgender-specific clinic in the entire VA system. The G.I.V.E. Clinic (for Gender Identity Veterans Experience) is headed by Dr. McNamara, and it is thriving and helping veterans from all over.
“Transgender people are not a burden or a liability. We just want the opportunity to serve the land we also live in and love.”
I am proud to say that I was one of the driving forces behind it. Since 2015, six-plus clinics geared toward LGBT healthcare have opened at VA hospitals all across the country. I believe that help for veterans in the LGBTQ community will continue to grow and also get progressively better.
On July 26, President Trump tweeted that he no longer wanted transgender Americans to be allowed to enlist and serve in the U.S. military. Not only was the comment fueled by ignorance and hate, it was a slap in the face to all of us who have made the voluntary pledge to serve and protect our country.
Transgender people are not a burden or a liability. We just want the opportunity to serve the land we also live in and love. My personal feeling in regard to this decision is one of disgust. But I also have a sense of fear for those who are currently serving in the military and sadness for those who would like to.
My experience is that many transgender individuals join the military to show that we have the same strength and courage as everyone else. Not allowing individuals to join the military because of their gender identity is a travesty and, in the long run, could be harmful to our military.
Our military should consist of people who have the knowledge, courage and intelligence to be there. Nothing else should be a factor.
I am a proud transgender, disabled veteran of the United States Air Force.
Giovonni Santiago grew up in Lorain and served 3 1/2 years as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force. He now lives in Akron, where he founded META Center Inc., which provides a safe space and support to transgender teens.
Visit Giovonni Santiago’s META Center online or call 330-622-3411 for more info.