Walking down the 1100 block of Rodman Street, sweat visible through his fitted blue T-shirt, Brian Sims isn’t slowed down by the heat as he darts from doorstep to doorstep, placing fliers on porches and encouraging anyone he sees to vote. It’s the day before Philadelphia’s primaries, and Sims has election fever.
Bellowing to every passer-by that he hopes to “see you at the polls tomorrow!” the 210-pound former Bloomsburg University defensive lineman oozes machismo. He punctuates almost every sentence with a charming smile. “Beautiful lawn! Are you registered to vote for tomorrow?” he gleams at a woman who is walking into her home near the corner of 11th Street. He’s hoping she says yes and nods his head in satisfaction when she does.
Sims isn’t running for office, but the 32-year-old lawyer is making politics his business, hoping to give a fresh, young look to LGBT rights by breaking down stereotypes and false perceptions that too often stymie the movement. Sims, a self-professed “professional gay,” who gets paid to tell his coming-out story at colleges around the country, says he isn’t trying to redefine what being gay means, but contends homosexuality is “an everybody thing.”
“The rainbow flag is a symbol of the LGBT community because we are a broad community,” says Sims, the president of Equality PA—a group that fights for LGBT rights on the state level.
Which means that as hard as Hollywood and the media try, not every gay man has a shrill voice and effeminate mannerisms—an image that many Americans associate with homosexuality. “I get told that a lot: ‘You don’t fit the stereotype!’” says Sims, who suggests taking a break from canvassing the neighborhood and grabbing a beer at the Venture Inn, a small bar on South Camac Street that some call the gay Cheers. “That’s a very ’80s or ’90s question. What’s the stereotype?”
It’s an interesting question coming from a man who is every bit the American male stereotype. Brawny in stature and preppy in dress—if not leaning toward a 30-something, golf-swinging dad—Sims prefers a cold beer as his drink of choice and can’t recall the last time he went shopping. He doesn’t know why he’s gay or why his twin brother is straight, and refuses to prejudge anyone—especially on the idea of sex.
Sipping on a Lager, Sims—who at 15 knew he was gay and was never overwhelmed by his sexuality (“I had a freakishly supportive family. It wasn’t a horrible thing that I struggled to come to terms with”)—says, “I’m just emotionally and physically attracted to men. That’s it.”
But even as Sims challenges external perceptions about gays, he also must confront the internal stereotypes that exist within the queer community. The term LGBT represents all people of color, religions, nationalities, genders and political parties. But some in the community don’t even fit within the mainstream gay culture. Some gays may look down on those who identify as bisexual. Some transsexuals may consider themselves outside the LGB spectrum. And divisions sometimes occur along racial lines, too. (At Woody’s, for example, black and white gays sometimes dance on opposite sides of the dancefloor).
“All the work we do is aimed at challenging stereotypes,” Sims says of his work at Equality PA, which has a board that’s “representative of all walks of life.”
“It’s important to have people of all faces support the movement,” he continues. “If you’re a straight ally of gay rights, you have a much more powerful voice than I do. But look, man, I’m working to bring equality for everyone. There’s not a surplus of loving, caring relationships in the world, so why would someone be opposed to mine?”
Back on the streets, scurrying past 10th Street near Pine and zigzagging around another corner, Sims is covering a lot of ground while canvassing, not at all minding the grunt work.
“What I’ve learned from football is, there is no substitute for doing your homework,” says Sims, who’s also chairman of the Gay & Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia. “That work is studying other opponents, seeing what they’re thinking, where they’re gonna go, who they’re gonna play—and trying to understand an issue from all sides and taking a strategic approach to argue that issue. And to me, it makes no sense that there is disparity in pay, disparity in race or disparity in gay civil rights.”
Pennsylvania currently imposes some of the strictest and least gay-friendly laws in the country. It does not recognize gay marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships, although Philadelphia has offered domestic partnerships for city employees since 1996. To Sims, it’s just a matter of time before lawmakers acknowledge a need for change. According to an April 2011 Public Policy poll, 63 percent of Pennsylvania voters support legal recognition of same-sex couples, which shows that even in a conservative state with a Republican Governor, House and Senate, support for gay rights isn’t directly associated with a political identity. Sims expects that number to grow, and he’s determined to help the cause and hopes for an eventual federal marriage equality bill.
“Right now there are places where you can be married, you can be civil unioned … domestically partnered, and you can have those things recognized,” he says. “But you can’t be from there. Or, you have to be from here—but you can’t divorce there. Or once you cross the state border you lose all those rights.”
Though laws remain muddled and way too complicated, Sims says it’s only a matter of time before gays get their freedom. “I see more people that have just never been in the closet. You know, they just knew, and no one cares. LGBT rights is not an ideological thing, it’s not a posterity thing, it’s a factual thing.”