The out Democratic member of the PA House of Representatives is blazing a trail for all of us.
Brian Sims has a lot of “firsts” in his resume. In college, he was named co-captain for the Bloomsburg University football team in Pennsylvania, making him the first openly gay college football captain in NCAA and U.S. history.
In 2012, after a grass roots, door-to-door campaign, Sims became the first openly gay legislator to be elected in Pennsylvania and in November 2020 Sims was re-elected to his fourth term.
Now Sims is running to be the first openly gay Lieutenant Governor of the pivotal swing state that clinched Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
In a phone interview with Queer Forty–Sims literally stepped off the floor to speak with us during a grueling two-week budget fight at the end of June–he talked about his decision to run for Lieutenant Governor, about the importance of empathic governance and a myriad of other political and personal issues.
“Decisions are made by the people at the table,” Sims said succinctly of his candidacy. “We need more people at that table.”
Sims wants to be near the head of that table. “I am as excited as can be to be running for lieutenant governor,” he said. “We [Pennsylvanians] are a state that doesn’t have an equal rights law. Our protections are not covered in this state.”
If elected, Sims would be one of the first out LGBTQ lieutenant governors in U.S. history. Sims’ candidacy has not gone unnoticed nationally. The Victory Fund, the only national organization dedicated to electing LGBTQ leaders to public office, announced its endorsement of Sims in his 2022 race in June.
Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund and former mayor of Houston, put Sims’ political career and historic run in perspective. In a statement, Parker said, “As the first out LGBTQ person in the state legislature, Brian became a fierce and outspoken voice for equality not just for the LGBTQ community, but for all marginalized Pennsylvanians.”
Parker cited the backlash Sims had gotten in the purple state, “[Brian] remained on the frontlines despite homophobic slurs and death threats, exposing politicians opposed to equality and defending those who stood up against them. That courage is what Pennsylvanians need in a lieutenant governor – a leader like Brian who can focus Harrisburg on issues that improve people’s lives, not wedge issues meant to divide.”
Sims’ district is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s most populous city and one that is almost wholly Democratic: 8 in 10 registered voters are Democrats and Philadelphia hasn’t had a Republican mayor since 1952.
But Philadelphia has long been a city with serious problems – it is the poorest big city in the U.S. As Sims explained, “Philadelphia is the economic engine of the state,” but Harrisburg – the state capital – has worked to isolate the city from the other red and purple counties. Another reason for Sims’ candidacy – to get Philadelphia seen.
Sims points to one of the most critical issues for Democrats nationally: “The insidious nature of gerrymandering.”
Sims says that Americans live in a representative democracy and that a representative democracy should include more diverse people making that democracy work and building that democratic framework. Sims says LGBTQ people are empathy-driven and that “good public policy is about empathy. We [LGBTQ people] are good at empathy.”
“A big part of our work is empathy,” he explains. “Minorities in the US – racial, women, immigrants, LGBTQ – we are living lives that demand empathy.” But, Sims is quick to point out, it’s not innate. “Empathy is not biological. It is the competency you build to survive and thrive.”
That political and social “competency” is, Sims says, “literally about putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, to determine whether a law or a strategy will impact them.”
Sims has been putting himself in others’ shoes for 20 years – since he came out in college at 22. Sims has gotten a lot of attention for his historic coming out as a football player, but he said “football players get to come out of the closet not because of athletes, but because of that kid in ballet or theatre who was always out.”
He said, “A kid at my high school had been out since he was 15. His best friend was that bad-ass girl. As a football player, I was able to come out because of that queerest of guys at my school.”
Sims has made LGBTQ issues paramount throughout his career as an attorney and politician. He served as the President of Equality Pennsylvania, and as the Chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia (GALLOP). He was selected as one of the Top 40 LGBT Attorneys Under 40 in the U.S. by the National LGBT Bar Association in 2010.
After the brutal fight for the White House in 2020 in which Pennsylvania played a pivotal role as one of the key swing states and the one to clinch the election, Sims knew he wanted to have more influence over what happened in the next national election.
The Pennsylvania state legislature is, Sims asserts, “among the most radical right in the country, among the most extreme right in the country.” That was “part of the calculus” that led him to decide to run for the Lieutenant Governor’s office.
Known for his outspokenness to and on his GOP colleagues, Sims is succinct as he talks about those men and women and the Republican Party at large.
“I absolutely have Republican colleagues who are moderates, but it’s kind of like privilege,” he explains; gender privilege, white privilege, cis-het privilege; “You still benefit from it, even if you don’t engage it.”
On the day Queer Forty spoke with Sims, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, considered a contender for the Republican race for president in 2024, had just tweeted that President Biden and the Democratic Party were now fully Socialist. Sims laughed at the comment, saying, “Biden is the furthest possible from Socialism. And Nikki Haley is supposed to be one of the [GOP] moderates. This is where we are. These people are not moderates.”
Issues of voter suppression and the stranglehold the Senate filibuster could have on moving Biden’s progressive agenda through the Congress was top of mind for Sims: “The real voter suppression legacy of Trump-era politics/policies is that you have 51 micro democracies setting rules on voting.”
All these different policies on voting – and the restrictions that impact historically marginalized communities most–are, Sims said, “hard to keep track of.” He added, “People forget gerrymandering is only part of all the suppressive efforts out there. If it takes a second or a minute longer to vote, that might not impact the person at the front of the line, but it means the person at the back of the line might not vote. Limiting time to vote means people won’t vote. Fewer mail-in votes or drop boxes means people won’t vote.”
Sims is declarative – Republicans want to steal your vote one way or another. “This is all an intended effort to stop people voting. It’s intentional.”
Voting is one of the most critically important issues for LGBTQ people, women and racial minorities, said Sims. When the electorate is more diverse, there is a more representative government. Something he hopes will fuel his own candidacy–people wanting “a representative at the table who speaks directly to and for them.”
Victory Fund’s Parker agrees with that assessment noting, “While a statewide victory for Brian in a key swing state would be a milestone moment in LGBTQ political history, more importantly, it would be a win for all under-served communities throughout Pennsylvania.”
Sims is also impatient with Democrats who are stymying progress. He was succinct on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the first openly bisexual member of Congress and then the Senate. “I am not one of those people who appreciates whatever nuance she and [Sen. Joe] Manchin [D-WV] think they are upholding,” he said.
Sims said, “As someone who has endorsed and supported Kyrsten Sinema in the past, I am so disappointed and wish I could withdraw every support I have ever given her.”
He did not mince words. “I think what she is doing is selfish and reckless. There is thoughtful moderacy in this country. That is not what I see from her. I see narcissism and selfishness.” Sims said, “She is completely ignoring the importance of where we are right now.”
The importance of voting rights, policing regulations, infrastructure and the Equality Act all are, Sims said, contingent on Sinema and Manchin joining other Democrats. “The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It is truly a rule that needs to be broken.”
In 2022, Pennsylvania will also elect a new senator to fill the seat of retiring Republican Pat Toomey. Sims said, “It is already the most diverse race in the country.”
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Phila.), the second openly gay member of the state legislature, is among those running for the seat. Sims said, “My only prediction is that it will get bigger and grander and more important and whoever wins will play a national role.”
Reticent about his personal life, Sims says that “people would be surprised to know it is not in my nature to be surrounded by people. I am that guy alone at the end of the bar who knows the bartender. I need a lot of solitude.”
Sims says, “I camp a week out of every month – I like to end my night at the campfire. I don’t derive energy from crowds. Being front and center is not in my nature, it is something I have cultivated to do this work.”
The coming months will demand Sims draw on all he’s cultivated for his race to win the post of Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor.
“I am confident I can win statewide.” Sims said that despite Pennsylvania being a purple state, “Pennsylvanians are center left. I know I can win.”