BY KAYLEE DUFF
This nonprofit is celebrating two local activists who brought change to our community through their impactful work.
If you think about a statewide organization who is dedicated to fighting for Ohio’s LGBTQ+ community, chances are that Equality Ohio is one of the first that comes to mind. Founded in 2005, Equality Ohio is a nonprofit that serves the entire state. They focus their education and activism efforts on the legal and lived inequalities that affect the experiences of Ohio’s LGBTQ+ population.
For over a decade, Equality Ohio has served the community in almost every way there was a need. From pushing for non-discrimination legislation at the citywide and statewide levels to providing resources for those looking for affirming businesses or practices, Equality Ohio is there on the front lines.
The nonprofit is now honoring several activists around the state in a series of Allies & Advocates recognition events. These events are “celebrating the people who bring legal and lived equality to life in the places we call home.” Starting on December 5, at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, Equality Ohio is highlighting the work of one ally and one advocate.
Dr. Cecile Unger and Giovonni Santiago are well-known and revered community members in northeast Ohio. Dr. Cecile Unger worked to create a team at the Cleveland Clinic that provides transgender-specific care to patients in the area. Dr. Unger is a dedicated ally to the trans population, and has advocated tirelessly for their health and well-being for years.
Santiago, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was his doctor’s — Dr. Megan McNamara — first trans patient back in 2013, when he began his medical transition. In 2014, the two spoke to a panel of doctors about his case — and about how the VA could better serve their transgender veterans.
“There were probably about a hundred doctors in this room,” Santiago recalled. “I told them they should open up a new wing in the clinic.” They listened. In 2015, the GIVE (Gender Identity Veterans Experience) clinic opened in the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland. The GIVE clinic provides comprehensive services and care to trans vets, including everything from speciality consultations to support groups. The creation of this clinic and their teams is absolutely critical and an amazing step forward for the LGBTQ+ community in the state.
On top of all that, Giovonni Santiago does a lot of work as an advocate in the northeast Ohio — and is no stranger to the spotlight. He has worked with Equality Ohio on passing non-discrimination ordinances in Akron and Cleveland. He’s organized workshops addressing local trans issues, including Trans in the CLE. He serves on the Summit County Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and was the Cultural Diversity Liaison for Akron’s inaugural Pride in 2017. In 2018, Santiago was named one of Cleveland Magazine’s Most Interesting People. He walked in the LGBTQ portion of New York Fashion Week and was on NBC News’s #Pride30 list this year. And he runs his own nonprofit organization, META Center, Inc., which is dedicated to serving transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
Santiago was a preschool teacher when he started META, after hearing stories about kids committing suicide or being bullied for their gender identities on the news and in support groups he worked with. “It was just extremely disheartening. I had to stop talking about it to everyone and just enact that change,” he explained.
Being honored by Equality Ohio for the work he has done is a dream come true for Santiago. “To see that they had me on their radar when I was just doing the work that I felt needed to be done is very fulfilling,” Santiago said when asked how it felt to be a recognized as an advocate. “Because that means I have been doing the right thing and that people are noticing. It just goes back to integrity, and always doing the right thing even when you don’t think anyone is looking.”
He continued: “It makes me feel like I’m doing exactly what needs to be done as a role model. It’s important work. I’m giving information, and the youth are listening and the adults are listening. That’s just something I can always continue to do and only continue to get better at.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Dr. Cecile Unger as Giovonni Santiago’s doctor. The article has been updated to name Dr. Megan McNamara as Santiago’s doctor.
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