Editor’s note: Tyler Titus refers to himself using his former name and female pronouns when discussing the years before his transition, and recommended this in telling his story.
In the rural town of Titusville, Pennsylvania, if somebody catches wind of a rumor, everybody knows that rumor.
Nearly two decades ago, an out-of-breath 16-year-old girl found herself cowered over a toilet seat, clenching the walls of a bathroom stall. She outran the 10 sophomores chasing her down the halls of Titusville High School, yet again, away from the “living hell” that was her rumor-clad existence.
She spent most of her hours hiding—from the bathroom stall at school to her bedroom at home, endlessly awaiting her almost-absentee father. Her life felt like the trappings of a story she had never read—there was no map, no guide, no book that could explain the constant suffocation following her around.
And when she felt she had enough, she wrote her goodbye letter (or rather, her goodbye instant message) as she confronted her impending suicide. But her five best friends—Krystal, Rose, Jennifer, and the two Kellys—read her letter and objected.
They refused to let her go, and instead, rallied behind her—often literally—walking her to classes and forcing her involvement in school activities. She lived to see another 14 years, mostly ridden with hiding. Although she bested her own suicide, it wasn’t until 2014 when clarity struck and Tyler Titus found his map.
It’s been three years since Titus (whose name shares nothing but coincidence to his hometown of Titusville) came out as transgender, decidedly breaking free of the bathroom stall and ready to become the representation of LGBTQ power in his own community.
This coming November, 33-year-old Tyler Titus is running for one of four open seats for School Board Director in Erie, Pennsylvania. If chosen, Titus would become the first openly transgender person elected to office in Pennsylvania.
“I forget that I’m trans until someone reminds me,” he said, evading the milestone factor of his election.
For Titus, a father of two boys (aged 8 and 4) and a roaring advocate of trans rights who leads by example, the school board position is not about him or his gender. It’s about youth advocacy within his community.
A licensed professional counselor, Titus is contracted by public and private schools throughout the Erie district to offer consultation. In short, he acts as the town’s very own youth superhero—he appears at the first sign of discrimination, conflict, or bullying and offers counseling and support to those marginalized students. All the while, he is educating their educators in making schools safe and progressive environments.
“Even our private Catholic schools have brought us in to talk about the infamous bathroom issues and how to support name changes,” he said. “They often just don’t have the tools that they need. It’s not for a lack of want, it’s a lack of resources. And if there’s something I can do to equipped them, then I need to.”
In February, the U.S. Department of Education, under the advisement of President Trump, rescinded protections for transgender students under the Title IX law. The law, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded school programs was revised in 2014 to extend those protections to gender identity only to be re-revised three years later, effectively removing those protections.
Tyler Titus was in Chicago when this happened. After presenting at the Family Focused Treatment Association to address suicide risks for non-binary and transgender kids in care, he received the news that those kids were no longer legally protected in their own schools.
“When you get a message from the leader of this country saying that you are a distraction, or you are too big of a cost to carry, how do you not lose hope?” he said, getting louder with each word. “When you have a youth whose already struggling, how do they not go darker into that hole. And that is my biggest fear, that is what keeps me going, and it’s why I’m running for the school board position.”
Titus is not a man who fears much. But when he talks about students at risk, trans students, or any young person who feels disenfranchised, his fear becomes palpable. His voice heightens in speed and volume.
Much like Titusville, Erie, Pennsylvania, is a patchwork of opinions. A county that tends to be Democratic-leaning turned red in the 2016 presidential election—a first for them since 1984.
Despite his proud advocacy movements and support from most of his family and friends, Titus still fears the streets of Erie. His campaign, though widely supported, still collects a number of discriminatory messages and slurs.
In one instance, a local person in his neighborhood posted on his election Facebook page: “Lol. You people are sick. All the people supporting you are just as sick. You are a freak.”
He said this is the comment that plays over and over in his head when the darkness creeps in.
“I’m afraid to use public restrooms still. I do it, and every time I’m terrified ‘is this gonna be the time that someone decides to teach me a lesson?’” he said. “I’m not gonna not do it, because there are kids who can’t, and we need to show them that we are here and we are not going away.
“But, on the other side of that fear, I won’t take my own children to rallies, I won’t take my own children to certain public places because I am afraid that people will recognize my face and that something might happen to my kids,” he said.
In messages where Titus is called a “freak” and a “pervert,” his children are often the subjects of threats. One Facebook message suggested that someone should call child services and have his family stripped from him entirely. And some of those messages have come from members of his own family.
But, it’s evident beyond his own children that his life’s passion is to protect and serve as many young people as possible. Titus’ own mother fostered over 50 children in her life, nine of them (currently ranging down to the age of 5) in addition to his four biological siblings, makes him one of 13. But, he considers each child brought into his home over the course of his life to be his family.
“I saw the system from the other side and I saw how it was failing,” he said. “Fighting an impossible battle is literally something I’ve done my entire life. It’s in my genetic makeup to do this—all I know to exist in the world is to keep fighting for what is just and right.”
If elected, Titus’ plans for the Erie school system to extend to reallocating funds and strengthening the overall quality of education in the county.
“That’s a piece that I can bring to the board thats still missing,” he said. “And I’m young, I’m passionate, I’m not tired, and I’ve got a big mouth.”
When asked about his gender being such a large part of a political campaign that, really, should have no bearing on whether or not he is elected, Titus laughed. He forgets that part, because it’s the thing he loves most about himself, the thing he isn’t at all afraid of.