(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — The ground floor is empty, rough, old. The elevator isn’t any better — the scissoring doors are closed by hand, the motor is controlled by hand (rather than by a button) and stopping the elevator exactly level with the floor is more art than science. The fourth floor is slightly better than the ground floor. The walls are fresher.

Down the hall is a door, a handwritten paper sign says “Compton’s Table.” Inside, a colorful mural is the main art on the walls between two windows. A windowpane is broken out — it was once covered with a wood board, but that’s mostly gone now as well. A replacement pane is on order. It’s better than it was — the windows were bricked over. Tyler Titus (who prefers the pronoun they/them) said they had to knock out the bricks to expose the windows.

Tyler Titus poses for a photo at Compton’s Table in Erie.

The windows still look aged and weathered, but now sunlight spills into the room. During the afternoon hours, overhead lights are all but superfluous. The walls are freshly painted, a lavender purple. The floor on Aug. 1 was covered in a clear plastic drop sheet. Even with bare walls, voices don’t have enough room to echo much. The space is a work in progress.

Tyler Titus says it’s the space they would have wanted growing up as an LGBTQ youth. Now Titus has grown into an accomplished member of the Erie community — they are a licensed professional counselor, consultant, and they were the first openly transgender elected official in Pennsylvania in 2017. They also ran a high-profile campaign for the Erie County Executive seat (ultimately losing to Executive Brenton Davis). They’ve been busy, and they’re often approached to be a spokesperson for the local LGBTQ population.

“The very least I can do is just keep using my voice. If pushing up against people makes them uncomfortable, that’s OK, because that’s when change happens. It doesn’t happen when we’re all sitting and just all OK. Change and evolution, and movements, and sustainable, lasting change happens when we sit in the discomfort and we hear and learn about another person’s lived experience and we humanize it,” Titus said. “That’s what we, as the adults, are hoping to do, is to take the pressure off the youth so they’re not the ones having to fight to just exist, but that we can carve out that safe space for them while we go out and do the grunt work.”

Compton’s Table has been in the works for about two years. In 2021, a sponsor (Hugh Lane) came on board and Compton’s Table received a state grant for its Affirm support group work. But it goes back further than that — back to Titus’s doctoral work at the University of Southern California. And even further back still, to 1966 in San Francisco where Compton’s Cafeteria supported the local gender-expansive population in the face of legal opposition. Naming the Erie space “Compton’s Table” is an homage to that early safe space nearly a continent away.

But Compton’s Table was more of an idea than one concrete thing. That is, until it secured its new space in the PACA building (Performing Artists Collective Alliance at 1505 State St. in Erie). The group continues offering Affirm services. Now with the physical space, they’ll offer a second-hand clothing boutique, art studio space, and a general hangout area. The hangout area is a primary focus.

Titus explained that LGBTQ youth face two big issues that lead to increased suicidal ideology: social isolation and familial rejection.

“We can’t necessarily make families accept their youth, but what we can do is create a safe space for them to have a social network, and to find ways for them to be their most authentic selves in a way that is affirming and uplifting,” Titus said. “We know that the presence of one affirming adult can reduce suicide by 40%. A bunch of us got together and said, ‘Let’s be those adults.'”

The boutique aspect (known as “Compton’s Closet”) also serves a specific need. Maybe the youth don’t have money to buy clothes they feel comfortable in that also match their gender identity, or maybe they don’t feel safe or comfortable shopping for clothes they feel comfortable in that also match their gender identity. Instead of going without, they can come to Compton’s Table and get the clothes that make them feel like themselves.

Support is important for LGBTQ youth. Titus notes that LGBTQ youth are over-represented in foster care and the juvenile detention facilities. They also are over-represented in homeless populations.

“Our goal is to reduce that by creating resources for them, where they’re seen in all their radiant wonder, and that they’re given the coping skills they need to become their most authentic selves and level up in their own world, for whatever that means to them,” Titus said.

Erie seemingly can be a town of two personalities when it comes to LGBTQ support. A recent story posted to the JET 24 Facebook page about a pride flag that was set on fire in Erie was met with several laughing emojis. Compton’s Table announced a “youth drag show” and was accused of “grooming” by a local Facebook group. That’s the bad. The truth, however, is there’s a lot of “silent support” for the LGBTQ community in Erie, according to Titus.

“Overall we have come really far as a region, but we have a really long way to go, especially when it comes to helping our youth make it into adulthood,” Titus said. “When I was a youth, I really thought we’d be a lot farther… not seeing characters like me exist in books that we were reading in class that wasn’t some joke or punchline made me believe that I was ‘less than.’

“Think about going into a school that’s not affirming… being in a sex education class and not having your body represented so you no longer know how to take safe actions, or (where you’re taught) that your body isn’t even supposed to exist in the world. So you engage in behaviors that aren’t honoring you or protecting you because you never learned about them.”

Titus says that becomes a compounding problem. Youth begin to see themselves as “less than” and they may begin to engage in risky behavior. As the trauma worsens, trust breaks down, and they stop trusting all adults. Seeing a laughing emoji on transgender stories posted to Facebook has a different impact for different people.

“That doesn’t hurt my feelings, but when a child or youth or young adult sees that, it affirms the messages they’re already getting from other sources — that you don’t belong, that you’re not worthy, that you don’t deserve to be treated with dignity or respect in a loving, affirming way. It heightens that inner critical voice that they’re picking up from everywhere else. Anybody who can do that to a child — a developing mind — and then somehow spin it like we’re the ones doing harm, it leaves me baffled,” Titus said.

Emojis and baseless accusations aside, the support has poured in for Compton’s Table. The Library has offered its support to the group and its new space. Even Macy’s has partnered with Compton’s Table to offer a “back to school shopping spree” to 10 youth where they’re able to shop the store for free while the store is closed.

“It’s like everyday we’ve acquired a new sponsor,” Titus said.

And as further proof of the support the group receives, Compton’s Table is staffed entirely by volunteers. (All of the adult volunteers must pass clearances.) A coffee barista has offered their time and expertise, and an artist has offered to help the youth create stickers. Local artist Jon Box created a few artworks that now grace the walls of Compton’s Table.

Art by Jon Box at Compton’s Table.

The space wasn’t finished when JET 24 visited on Aug. 1. The windows were still on order. But Titus said they hoped to host an in-person event on Aug. 2 and planned to participate in PACApalooza (on Aug. 12). The idea that was first had so many years ago, was finally taking on a physical presence.

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“Honestly, Compton’s is what I wish I would have had as a youth. Just a space to be myself, a space to just talk with others who are like me, to just connect and know that I wasn’t alone or wasn’t broken. And to just laugh and be silly. That’s what kids do — they just want to be somewhere and make art together or drink coffee and be loud and play loud music and talk about it. And we want to create that space for them. A space where they just get to be,” Titus said. “And that’s really the point of Compton’s — you just get to be you.”