In a two-room, brick facade building
located on Fulton Avenue on Cleveland's west side, councilman Joe
Santiago is telling me about his memories of being in the Navy. How
he quickly moved-up the ranks, and how he enjoyed his ten-years
cooking for high-ranking officials. We are seated at a large wooden
table, surrounded by maps of his ward and elaborate streetscaping
plans. Behind him is his large wooden desk, the wall covered with
photos of people in his life – some famous, others not so much.
Even before entering the single-story
building next to Johnny's restaurant, one would know Joe is not your
usual councilman. A Human Rights Campaign window sticker clings to
the right corner of one window and a poster with a red heart
inscribed with “Acaba con el SIDA – End AIDS” on a black
background fills another. Joe Santiago is Cleveland's first openly
His ward, Ward 14, bounces around
Cleveland, giving Joe bits of prosperity – Ohio City, Tremont, the
Flats – but mostly challenges – West 25th and
Stockyard. It's a diverse group of communities, each of which – by
geography or demographics – is cordoned off from the rest of the
“I have five Community Development
Corporations,” Santiago told On Top Magazine. “Which is
the most of any ward in the city.”
Santiago is into the third year of a
four-year term. In that short time he has had many reasons to defend
himself. Opponents point to bars he has supported as eyesores that
bring about a criminal element, leading to the charge that Santiago
is unconcerned about safety. Still, he fought back and easily won a
recent recall effort headed by the previous councilman.
Sitting in his office – in shorts and
a guayabera – Santiago appears more concerned about how to bring
prosperity to his ward than anything else. He tells me about the
difficulties facing each community and development plans in the works
all over his ward. He mentions some communities have very active
residents and in others they only come out to vote.
He seems proud to be Cleveland's first
and only openly gay councilman. When asked about his years in the
Navy, if he ever felt discriminated against, he answers no. He served openly
and without incident, even before the military instituted “Don't
Ask, Don't Tell” - the military's policy banning gays and lesbians
from serving openly. He adds that he never saw any problems with gays
in the military.
Changing some of that discrimination,
at least in Cleveland, is on the councilman's to-do list. Already he
has looked at adding partner benefits for city employees.
Unfortunately, due to Ohio's highly restrictive constitutional ban on
gay marriage, the effort has been tabled for now.
Still, he is moving forward with plans
to amend the city's charter to include transgender protections.
Winning the votes of some council members will be difficult, confides Santiago. Still, he believes minds can be changed.
“I am optimistic that GLBT rights in
Ohio will come around,” Santiago says. “As we educate people and
people become more aware, we will be able to make significant