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 gay councilman.

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 city.

“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 changes.”