Erie, Pennsylvania might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of groundbreaking political change, but Dr. Tyler Titus would be quick to challenge that perception. In 2017, Titus sent shockwaves through Pennsylvania when they became the Commonwealth’s first out trans person to be elected to public office, serving on the Erie City School Board. Now they have embarked on an even more ambitious run for Erie County Executive, a role which they have been preparing for almost their entire career.
Titus, who is non-binary, has been engaged in this work for over a decade. From a young age, they decided to change career paths to social work after witnessing the treatment of their foster siblings by government agencies.
“It broke my heart to watch what was happening to them, to then watch what this unhealed trauma does to a family, especially in a rural area that doesn’t have a lot of services available,” they said.
This path sent them on a trajectory course through working at Child Protective Services and becoming a therapist in a residential facility. It was around this time Titus decided it was time to publicly come out as a transgender man.
With a promising career ahead and a newfound sense of self, they decided they could use their skills and perspective to make change in a bigger way in Erie. They decided to run for the Erie City School Board. In the midst of their campaign, they realized that they would be the first out trans elected official in Pennsylvania. From then on, Titus had another reason to fight for the seat.
“I had to make sure I got into the office because queer people, especially gender expansive youth, needed to see that we have a seat at the table and that people will listen to us,” they said.
Now, three years after their historic victory, Titus has left their mark on Erie and all of Pennsylvania. They now serve as Erie City School Board President, and are the current Co-Vice Chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.
With ample time to think during the COVID pandemic, they recently came out as non-binary, which they say “feels the most like home.”
Titus also made headlines for resigning from their Chair position on the Erie Mayor’s Council on LGBTQ Affairs due to the response of Mayor Joe Schember and his administration to Black Lives Matter demonstrations in their city.
“I didn’t need to be at the mayor’s table to do good work, [especially for] black, brown and indigenous queer people in the city. In fact, there was such mistrust between those communities and the administration that I was doing harm by not using my privilege and holding people accountable,” Titus said.
It all boils down to the same reason they are running now for Erie County Executive. Titus wants to run on a platform of equity. For Titus, this looks like using the position to close the digital divide, which means bringing reliable internet connection and ways to access it to the Erie community. This also includes building and investing in more equitable services, especially service provisions (which include services such as rehabilitation, occupational therapy and health services).
It is clear that through it all, Titus has a core focus on youth, especially LGBTQ youth. In addition to now being a parent of two, they want to be a beacon of hope for young people like them when they were growing up.
“I remember being that 16-year-old kid and having already had two suicide attempts prior to my 16th birthday and being convinced that I wasn’t supposed to be in this world,” Titus said. “What I hope happens is that when queer youth hear my story and see the journey that I had traveled, that they know so much is possible and that there is a whole world outside of those who may not be supportive fighting like hell for them.”
They also want to be a possibility model for the next generation of LGBTQ people, especially trans people, planning to run for office in the state.
“Don’t let anybody tell [young LGBTQ people] they have to wait in line. Don’t let anybody tell them it’s not their turn,” Titus said.
The advice they have for young LGBTQ people who want to get politically engaged is to get involved early and often.
“Don’t back down. Even when it gets scary, even when it gets intimidating, make those links and those connections,” they said. “Find that candidate that you really like and get involved.”