Tyler Titus said he sometimes forgets that he’s trans — until someone reminds him.
“It’s very apparent right now,” he laughed.
The 33-year-old won the election for one of four school-board seats in Erie earlier this month, becoming the first openly transgender person to be elected in Pennsylvania. While Titus said he did not run for office because of his identity, he is aware of the history-making nature of his election.
“The great thing about me being trans and being elected right now is because everyone is paying attention to, ‘Oh, hey look, Tyler is trans.’ But by doing that, they are bringing a lot of attention to the Erie School District, which is exactly what I wanted to have happen,” he said.
Titus said one of the things he wanted to bring attention to is the effort to “make the schools the focus again,” noting that Erie is a failing school district.
“I realized that somebody had to do something and my mom always raised me to [think], You don’t come to the table with complaints. You come to the table with solutions,” Titus said. “I can stand back all day long and complain about it but, at the end of the day, I really needed to get in and make a difference.”
Titus added that he wants to see the public conversation about the district evolve to, “Look at how we have failed our schools.”
“That’s a complete dynamic shift. I come from a trauma-informed approach where you don’t say what’s wrong with the kid but you say what happened to the kid,” said Titus, who works as a licensed professional counselor and consultant for Erie schools.
“That’s the same approach that we’re going to have to take with the schools. We have to see as a community how we have let our school district down.”
Titus also aims to pull Erie’s resources together.
The town has “booming industries” and successful colleges, whose students, Titus noted, could intern or work with the school district.
Additionally, Titus said the town’s marginalized populations tend to get pushed aside while wealthier families receive bigger tax breaks.
“People will say it’s not a race thing [but] it absolutely is a race thing,” Titus said. “It absolutely is a money thing and it’s very frustrating to see that happening.”
While Titus did not make his trans identity the focus of his campaign, he still recognized the difference trans visibility has made in the lives of others. He said teenagers who have experienced suicidal ideation and depression have emailed him saying that his win gave them hope.
However, Titus is not the only elected trans person in the nation this year. Other successful candidates include Danica Roem in Virginia’s state legislature; Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham for Minneapolis City Council; Lisa Middleton for Palm Springs City Council; Stephe Koontz for Doraville City Council in Georgia; Raven Matherne for Stamford city representative in Connecticut; and Gerri Cannon for school board in Somersworth, N.H.
“I want to go to dinner with all of them,” Titus said. “I want us all to sit down and have a drink together because I don’t think anybody else is going to understand what it feels like right now to be one of us. It’s mind-blowing. I’m glad it’s happening especially after the negativity that has been going on with this administration. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.”
Titus has not always had such a positive outlook.
He identified as a lesbian at age 18 and did not come out as trans until age 30. When he was a teenager, Titus was teased for “not acting like the other girls” and recalled hiding on top of toilet seats in the school restrooms.
“Essentially, I think they figured out I was trans before I did. They just didn’t tell me in a really nice way.”
Titus contemplated suicide at age 16 and wrote an instant message saying goodbye to his friends — but then they rallied behind him.
“It gave me a subset of superpowers that I now have to be able to relate [to others],” he said about such experiences. “I’m really good at being able to handle the negative backlash that I’m getting all over social media right now because I’m trans. You can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said to me and, lucky for you, I already built up my sense of confidence that I don’t really need your affirmation.”
Titus laughed off some of that backlash on social media and said he reached out to state Rep. Brian Sims, the state’s only openly gay state representative, for advice.
“He has been amazing in saying that this will never go away so you can’t lose sight of the whole reason you put your hat in the ring to begin with,” Titus said. “And that’s what I keep going back to. I didn’t do this because I wanted to change everybody’s perspective of trans people. I did this because I wanted to make a difference for the kids. I have to stay focused on that or else I’ll be consumed by it.”