Three Members of Erie's LGBTQ+ Council Resign
Following protests, Marshall Blount, Caitlin Handerhan, and Tyler Titus leave the city's advisory group
Intersectionality affects us all. The discrimination of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community are – while being their own struggles – forever intertwined. From Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans woman who threw the first brick at the Stonewall riots in 1969, and every day forward, marginalized people have a densely complicated framework to navigate.
After the protests on Saturday, May 30, the city's response left many feeling dissatisfied. For three members of the city's LGBTQ+ Advisory Board, it let them down enough for them to resign.
For Marshall John Blount, it was angering. An outspoken advocate for the asexual community, Blount has also been a longtime supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the handful of people of color on the board, Blount was the first member to resign.
Tyler James Titus, a Licensed Professional Counselor and the first trans person elected to office in Pennsylvania, not only serves on the Erie School Board, but chaired the advisory board. Titus made his announcement early on Wednesday, garnering local attention from the press.
Caitlin Handerhan, who holds a Master of Public Administration, is the Executive Director of Penn State Behrend's Public Policy Fund, and has also helped run several successful political campaigns, weighed the decision as well, deciding to follow suit.
All three members who resigned, it should be noted, have also been recipients of Erie's 40 Under 40 honors.
As June begins, Pride Month comes into focus. We talked to them about why they did what they did, and what kinds of things people can do to help make things better.
Marshall John Blount
Nick Warren: When did you decide to resign?
Marshall Blount: I actually wanted to quit for a bit of time, however, when the weekend of the protest happened, I decided that my work was done with this city's administration. I could not stand by and work with someone who just does not get it and also who would try to make the assault of a young lady by EPD less than what it was. We all saw what happened and it was brutal and disgusting
NW: As one of the few POC members of the council and an active voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, how does this affect you in particular?
MB: It affects me whenever I see or hear the injustices of my community and we need to be heard. Protesting is a right and should never be denied. It only makes me want to be louder.
NW: What are some of the things you wish the mayor's office did differently?
MB: The mayor's office needs to listen to the people and stop talking. Listening is such a key to understanding.
NW: Do you think this will be a permanent split for you or not?
MB: Yes, the split is permanent from this administration, however my activism with the LGBTQIA+ community continues here … I am currently on the Asexual Outreach's board (A non-profit organization) which is about empowering and strengthening Ace communities across the United States and Canada. So this is not the last anyone will hear from me in this city and beyond
NW: How has erasure damaged these communities, from Stonewall 'til this week?
MB: Listen to us, don't erase us, we need to be heard. Erasure has caused a lot of misinformation and ignorance. It has also led to the Whitewashing of history.
NW: How has this decision sat with you since you made it?
MB: I'm still very glad I left. To me, it's about taking a stance against injustice. Staying was just not an option.
NW: How do you feel about the other board members following suit?
MB: I'm very proud of them. And I have their back.
Tyler James Titus
Nick Warren: Can you speak to the intersectionality of race and LGBTQ issues for the for the greater community?
Tyler Titus: Yes. I'm very passionate about this. And this isn't a new spin or new understanding, but the queer movement itself was started by black and brown trans women.
NW: Like at Stonewall
TT: And it has really morphed into a very whitewashed Elite, exclusionary space to be these queer spaces, especially here in Erie, we haven't really got to the spot where black people, and brown people feel comfortable coming to them, or they're not equipped for people who are differently-abled to come to them, or people who are asexual to come to them. So I think that we need to do a better job of saying, hey, come to our table, and start going to their tables and their spaces and figure out what we need to be doing to lift up their voices instead of them adding diversity to ours, us going and lifting up the hard work that they have been doing for decades.
NW: Do you think that you did accomplish certain things in your time on the council?
TT: I think that I definitely got conversations moving that needed to have happened. I do think that I was able to open the door for some who had had the door closed on them multiple times to have a voice in our table and I feel I feel kind of gross even saying that like for them to have a voice in our table. They built the damn table and we kicked them out of it. But I feel like I was able to kind of point out 'we're not doing this right guys' and that some people were starting to pivot. I guess for me, I'm not in the space in my advocacy, and I don't think we're in a time any more were gentle conversations need to keep happening, at least not for me – they need to happen to other areas – but I'm really not interested in doing essentially ego strokes. I'm not interested in doing that anymore. I'm not interested in being tokenized and having our black members tokenized to say we're doing diversity work, you're either doing diversity work or you're not.
NW: And you and you feel that members of the Council have been tokenized?
TT: Absolutely, and that is why one member stepped down.
NW: Yes. Marshall?
TT: Yeah. And he's, I'm pretty open about that on his Facebook feed.
NW: And I also have a conversation going with him right now, he's great. Okay, so where – metaphorically or literally, is your table? Where do you want people to join you?
TT: We look to Erie County United, we look to the NAACP to see where we can lift them up, we look to Erie Black Wall Street to see where we can lift them up. I think we need to go to their tables, find what resources they need, from their white allies and white partners. And if we have to create a new table with black voices at the helm, I'm 100% for it, but I think that those tables already exist, they just haven't been brought to the forefront.
NW: Do you feel this has a greater impact during Pride Month?
TT: I think it was pivotal to make the stance now.
NW: Or was it more of a coincidence?
TT: Honestly, it was, for me, and for my resignation. So I had made the determination Tuesday that I was going to do that, but I wanted to honor Blackout Tuesday, I wanted to honor and not to take the discussion away from black voices. And so that's what yesterday was about. And so I waited until almost midnight and then I sent in my resignation letter and at that point, I felt like today, I could use my voice, but yesterday was not my day.
NW: Are there any important sentiments you want to make sure get out there?
TT: I think it's just really important for people to know that we have got to stop expecting brown and black people to tell us [what to do]. Like it almost makes me irate because black and brown lives have been sacrificed to show us what to do. They have, they have put they have done the work for us. They have literally handed it to us. And so every time I hear out, especially a white person say I don't know what I can do to help. I become irate because it's a simple Google search. It is a simple And then we've got to stop relying on those who are being marginalized and oppressed to give us the answers. We are the best-resourced country, we are the best-resourced race. If we can't figure this out, we've got a bigger issue to talk about.
NW: And absolutely. Do you think that most of the decision to resign was made because of the mishandling following this weekend's protest?
NW: Okay, perfect.
TT: That's absolutely why.
NW: Do you think that there's, is there anything in particular that the mayor's office could do to easily rectify this? What are a list of things that you wish they would have done differently?
TT: What I wish they would have done is put black lives and the pain and the suffering that they experienced day to day generation and generation at the very forefront of every discussion. They acknowledge that they can't fathom or imagine what it is like to be a black person right now in these times and do what they said that the People's Supper was going to do and that was to bring people and to lift up those voices and those lived experiences and create collaboration and partnership. There are great things that they could have done, like Campaign Zero, working with the police department, [the recently announced plans for] body cams should have been implemented a long time ago. But having those conversations where they are calling out police brutality. I had this discussion with my sister, who is a police officer. By lifting up black lives, we are not saying that blue lives don't matter, we are saying that they and ill-equipped to deal with a problem and we need to do a better job because we are putting everybody in danger when police officers cannot successfully navigate through mitigation and helping calm a situation. And when they elevate and they escalate, it is putting everybody's lives in danger. And they have to take ownership of that. The mayor and the police chief have to take ownership of that.
Nick Warren: Can you just tell me a little bit about what affected your decision?
Caitlin Handerhan: Sure. I understand that there's debate about whether you can affect change best from inside from within the organization or from without it. And I just felt that there wasn't the appropriate or the proper actions taken by the mayor, in particular, he did not come out early on this. He waited. He was not a leader in that moment where we were all shocked and stunned and angry and grieving on Sunday morning.
NW: We're talking about the protests and the aftermath?
CH: Right. And the fact that the first statement was made by the police chief, I thought that was a real lack of leadership for the mayor. I know he takes a lot of pride in his inclusivity and intersectionality, but I think this was a moment that really put him to the test, and by my measure, he hasn't lived up to that. The fact that that officer was not placed on administrative leave while he is being investigated, was really problematic to me. I think the mayor's tone in his press conference wasn't sufficient for the moment. He did not acknowledge the systemic racial issues that plagued this community. And I know he's taken actions, and he's had events like the People's Supper, but I want to know what concretely he's done. And this is a moment where he could really not only step in front of this and own that there are still issues in this community. But he didn't. He tried to smooth it over, and truthfully, I found his whole press conference really disturbing. This isn't the decision that I made lightly. I think the LGBTQ Advisory Council is a step in the right direction and that's a positive thing. But by and large, I'm really looking for this administration to do more.
NW: What would you have them do? Is it a timing thing, or is it just is it a matter of 'too little too late' at this point?
CH: I mean, it was I'm never gonna say it's too little too late. These opportunities pass. I think there's always a way to course-correct it. I don't know that a photo op at a demonstration is the way to go. Personally, I would like to have more concrete policy actions Taken. And you know, I don't want my position on this or my statement of resignation can be in any way perceived as disapproval or criticism of the police. I think the situation escalated and those actions were taken, but the fact that the officer in question was not placed on administrative leave until his name could be cleared or the situation could be remedied, that was really troubling to me, and then all of us are still on active duty, as far as I know. So to me, that was really troubling. So I think there's a way to handle that situation. That was not met. And again, I'm only speaking from what's been made public, maybe he has been placed on leave, but that's not been discussed. And I think mayor Schember is a good guy. I think he's tried. But, this is a moment where we need true leadership. And I don't believe that he's delivered on that.
NW: Can you speak to for a moment about like, you know, the intersectionality between the LGBT community and, you know, the Black Lives Matter movement and everything like that?
CH: Yeah. I mean, listen, when people complain that the riots don't accomplish anything, or protesting doesn't accomplish anything. The reason that we have pride month started at a riot at the Stonewall Inn was by queer people of color. So I think that history is really often disregarded and forgotten. Marginalized groups have had to come together and support one another. I think that those who were very quick to dismiss rioting and protesting as unproductive or untoward, don't remember their history ... I just want to convey that this wasn't a decision I made lightly. I think that this community is really hurting. And that as a white person, I need to use that privilege where I can.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Nick Warren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org