The past three years have brought a series of firsts for 32-year-old Tyler Payne.
In 2019, for the first time, he told someone he was gay.
In 2020, he came out to his family, another moment of catharsis. Later that year, he met Bradon Bergman — a man he found through the online dating app Hinge — and started his first serious relationship. Payne is from Treasure Island and Bergman was living in Fort Myers, so the two met halfway in Venice for their first date. The conversation felt easy. They fell in love.
In 2021, Payne ran for mayor of Treasure Island and won, becoming the city’s first out mayor and the only out mayor in Pinellas County. And this past month, in response to requests from residents, he issued the city’s first Pride proclamation — declaring June to be Pride month in Treasure Island.
“I have a lot of people that tell me that I’m the happiest they’ve ever seen me, and I definitely would agree with that,” Payne said. “It’s relieving to not have to hide anymore from family and friends. You can truly be your authentic self.”
When Payne presented the idea for the proclamation at a City Commission meeting, the other members responded warmly, as did the public, said Deb Toth, Treasure Island City Commissioner for District 1.
“I think it’s important for all cities to be inclusive and to let everybody know that they’re welcome in our city,” said commissioner Beth Wetzel, who represents District 4.
Sunset Beach is an area of the city that is popular with the LGBTQ community, and many Treasure Island residents identify as part of that community, Payne said.
“I felt like, being the first gay mayor, that I was probably the person that would bring that up and carry that torch,” he said.
Payne didn’t spend his childhood in Treasure Island. Until age 10, he lived in nearby Causeway Isles, within the St. Petersburg city limits. But he comes from a family deeply tied to the island city. His great grandparents, grandparents and parents have all lived there.
Payne studied at the University of Florida for his bachelor’s degree and graduated from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport before moving back to Treasure Island. He began working for his father’s optical products manufacturing company, IcareLabs, where he is executive vice president.
In 2016, then-mayor Bob Minning appointed Payne to a position on the city’s charter review committee.
A couple years later, a spot opened up on the City Commission, and Payne ran on a platform of bringing a fresh perspective to city hall. In 2021, he decided to run for mayor, beating incumbent Larry Lunn with 1,602 votes to Lunn’s 968.
“I treated it like a serious campaign and I think that’s not something you really see out on the beaches,” Payne said. “People don’t really typically raise too much money. They don’t put too much into advertising. So I was like, ‘I’m not losing.’”
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Payne splits his time between his responsibilities as mayor and his job with IcareLabs, often starting his day by grabbing coffee with constituents.
One evening in March, he pulled into his garage as usual, but the house was strangely dark and quiet. His two dogs — Rocky, a black lab, and Murphy, a goldendoodle — were shut in their kennels. Then Payne looked out through the sliding glass doors at the back of his house and saw Bergman down on one knee. The two are now engaged and live together.
“That’s a whole new world, having someone to come home to and cook dinner and live life together,” Payne said.
Both Payne and Bergman are conservative and Christian, but they’ve found a church that affirms their engagement and sexual orientations.
As a conservative Christian and a Republican, Payne has grappled with how to reconcile his sexual orientation with his deeply-held convictions regarding faith and politics. There are moments when he feels uneasy, like when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in March that prohibits public school teachers from instructing kids about sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I think the struggle with being a gay Republican is the party has not typically been super embracing of LGBTQ issues, when in reality they’re supposed to be the party of small government,” he said. “So why are we trying to tell people who they can and can’t marry if that’s a governmental function?”
Though his day-to-day job as mayor isn’t very political — most of his work is infrastructure-related — Payne said he remains a Republican because he agrees with the party’s positions on small government and other issues.
When asked about Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Payne said he believes life in the womb starts with a heartbeat and thinks that the government has “some sort of interest in limiting the time at which someone can get an abortion.”
Though he doesn’t always fit comfortably with his party, he said he is comfortable being himself.
“Just telling people who you are — your genuine self — doesn’t change everything about you,” Payne said. “You can be a gay Republican Christian still. You don’t have to change how you dress. You don’t have to change how you talk. You’re just telling people who you truly are — and that shouldn’t be scary for people.”