Transgender Vet Who Counsels Akron Kids Says Trump's New Military Policy Shows Ignorance, Contempt

Jul 31, 2017

Giovanni Santiago says the president's tweet revealed ignorance of transgender people and the military.
Credit M.L. SCHULTZE / WKSU Public Radio

President Donald Trump’s tweeted decision last week to ban transgender people from the military confused a lot of people in the military and politics – and beyond. For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze spoke with a transgender vet about the impact of that tweet not only on him, but on the teens he counsels.

Giovanni Santiago is a 31-year-old Lorain native who spent 3 ½ years in the Air Force as an MP before a back injury forced him out on disability. He joined as a woman, but says he knew since he was 5 that he identified more with male, than female. He also says he loved the discipline and experiences the military gave him – even in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell days of the mid-2000s.

“I tell people all the time that more of my issues when I was in the military were not because of the fact that I identified as gay at that point. It was because I was a female and I was a minority and I was in Texas.”

Overall, he said, people didn’t ask. “I didn’t hide who I was. … People just didn’t ask, they assumed or they just kind of knew. I’ve always been extremely masculine. I had the short haircut. So if you didn’t know it was kind of like you lived under a rock.”

'Most people who are transitioning just want to kind of transition and live. No one is running around telling the world all the time that that's what they do.'

When word broke Wednesday of President Trump’s tweet banning transgender people from serving in any role in the military, Santiago said in one way he wasn’t surprised. Rather “I was more appalled at the fact that he was actually doing it.”

A distracting expense?
Trump cited what he said is the high medical cost of transgender men and women and the disruption they cause in military units.

Santiago counters both arguments.  “It just makes me laugh because he is sadly misinformed about everything he ever speaks on. As far as the cost, it’s a minute amount of money that they spend on veterans or active duty members as far as hormone replacement because they don’t do any surgeries at all.”

As for causing distractions: “Most people who are transitioning just want to kind of transition and live. No one is running around telling the world all the time that that’s what they do. Obviously it’s case by case, but overall that’s not how people live.

“Furthermore, not every transgender person wants to medically transition, so that’s another blanketed statement that he’s made. A lot of people who are transgender just want to be able to identify and be able to live.”

How will the military respond?
Santiago expects the military will struggle as it has with other social changes, and that the struggle was made more difficult by Trump.

“I think the military is going to continue to stumble as they have over every issue that involves a minority group. Whether it was integrating black and brown men. Whether it was integrating women. Then being open about LGBT people.

“So I think they’re going to kind of fumble through, trying to figure out how to backtrack on the statements that he’s made. Because clearly everyone does not agree with him. People who are military officials or even people in his own camp.”

'It's hard enough being a teenager and different. And then having a president who is so blatantly ignorant and disrespectful and hurtful toward your entire being adds another component to that.'

Santiago works with about 12 to 15 transgender youth, and he says even before President Trump’s tweet, they were “terrified.”

“A lot of people were extremely sickened and terrified once he won the election. A lot of the youth are trying to navigate life already as teenagers, which is hard enough, and then it’s hard enough being a teenager and different. And then having a president who is so blatantly ignorant and disrespectful and hurtful toward your entire being adds another component to that.

“They’re confused, they’re scared. They don’t know who to talk to or how to navigate through the world and live.”

For now, Santiago says he would not recommend the military to transgender young people.

“I always told everyone that the military is not for everyone anyway. So that’s always subjective. But I tell people in this time right now I’m very conflicted with being trans and being a veteran.”

Giovanni Santiago left the military in 2009. He’s been undergoing medical transitioning through the VA  and now runs a non-profit for transgender teens in Akron called META - Motivate, Educate, Transform and Advocate."