Pennsylvania's first elected openly-gay state rep finds that bridging the political divide is slow work—but he's determined.
The first thing you notice after 5 p.m. in Pennsylvania’s state capital is just how intense the bar scene is. Harrisburg’s a ghost town by day, its modest downtown almost exclusively serving those who work at the Capitol complex. But nighttime is a very different story. Second Street, the central main drag, turns into a swollen frat party, serving not only the 50,000 who populate the city itself, but many of the other -burgs, -towns and -villes that dot the Susquehanna River landscape. Cab drivers regularly make hour-long trips along highways 81, 83 and 76 to bring barflies back to their rural homes.
The second thing you notice about Harrisburg is how gay it is.
Seriously. Stallions, the Brownstone Lounge and 704 Strawberry Café are all prominently displayed gay bars along Harrisburg’s Third Street, directly overlooked from the Capitol lawn. Just as in Philly’s Gayborhood, rainbow flags fly proudly, notwithstanding some of the conservative political rhetoric that comes from meeting rooms and dark hallways just a few hundred yards away. Gay ads line the town’s newspaper back pages, and there’s an LGBT organization housed three blocks away from the main row of lobbyists’ offices, a plaque for everyone from the Teamsters to the Catholic Conference.
Philadelphians are accustomed to thinking of the whole center of the state—what lies between us and Pittsburgh—as an ocean of red-county social conservatism. But the Capitol’s own culture often belies that picture. So on one early Tuesday in May, it’s not surprising that there’s a huge turnout in the Capitol press room, packed with state legislators who’ve come to introduce a set of bills sure to cause a stir: a state non-discrimination act that, finally, would prohibit employment, public and business discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation.
Between the names that have signed onto the bills and the men and women who are here for the announcement, this is the largest gathering of lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-supporting legislators in the commonwealth’s history. Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from Allegheny County and co-chair of the General Assembly’s LGBT Equality caucus, is joined onstage by a bipartisan cohort of state politicians ready to bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century, including Rep. Mike Fleck, who came out of the closet during the winter session break this year, and who’s one of the few openly gay Republican politicians in the country—and Philadelphia’s freshman Democrat Brian Sims, the first openly gay legislator ever elected to the state House.
This act is the sort of legislation Sims worked to support for years as an activist before taking office himself this past January; seeing progress become tangible, he admits, is more emotional for him than he expected. “As a gay man, I know firsthand how important these protections are,” he says, “how fundamental they are to the safety and security that so many Pennsylvanians take for granted.”
Sims has spent the past few months getting acclimated to the Capitol: holding meetings with his Republican colleagues, working with his former colleagues at the LGBT-centric nonprofit Equality Pennsylvania, and sitting on the state government committee opposite its chair, the staunch conservative Daryl Metcalfe.
These two will butt heads before the legislative season ends. In a lesser-reported announcement, Metcalfe will announce an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution today, too.
But for now, the point is made again and again: Not only have a majority of state senators signed on to the nondiscrimination bill, but the House is getting there—and the people of Pennsylvania are there already. Equality PA’s latest poll shows 72 percent statewide support for a nondiscrimination ordinance. Later polls will show Pennsylvanians are slowly becoming OK with gay marriage (54 percent of us either “strongly” or “somewhat” favor those rights—an 11 percent increase from just last year). Even Sims, who has been in the Capitol for a mere five months at this point, says he regularly hears whispers from people who work in and around the Capitol campus, telling him to keep pushing for equality while often citing an LGBT sister or brother.
Still, it’s when this morning’s press conference ends that the real fight will begin: getting these bills a vote. Anyone can write a bill. In fact, almost 1,500 have been written this year alone. But getting your colleagues to vote on one, let alone pass it—that takes patience, skill and a little compromise.
Those are the skills Brian Sims has been putting to the test during his first half-year as a state legislator.
A civil-rights attorney and LGBT activist, Sims has found his new political life as a legislator rife with challenges not faced by most other freshman lawmakers across the country. Because while the accelerating social progress of gay acceptance in America is what made his election possible—and why today’s new nondiscrimination bills might actually stand a chance—he’s still an openly gay member of the minority party in a state whose current laws are the most gay-hostile in the entire northeastern United States.
As he’s found, sometimes the only way to accomplish anything politically is to find common ground—whatever that might be—with those who stand against him on a whole lot else.
Making nice isn’t a new concept for Sims. As a military brat with two officer parents, in childhood he was often forced to build new relationships quickly: Before moving to Downingtown, Pa., in 1992, Sims, his parents, sister and two brothers lived in numerous states, including Virginia, New York, Kansas, California and Alaska. A self-described “eighth-grade fat kid” when they arrived in Pennsylvania, he quickly learned that in the hills of Chester County, you play football. Whether you want to or not.
The sport sent Sims’ life in a completely different direction—especially after the Downingtown Whippets won the state championship in December 1996, his senior year. He dreamed of playing after graduation at Cornell or Columbia, but since his parents preferred that he and his siblings attend state schools, he went to Bloomsburg University in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he became a lineman, topping out at 285 pounds, becoming an All-American at the Division II school and serving as captain.
Sims knew his entire life that he wasn’t straight, even though he dated girls in high school. By the time he got to Bloomsburg, his sexuality was evident to other people, too.
“I was his roommate at the time,” says Manny Henrie, a fellow Bloomsburg football alum who lives in York, Pa., “and [Sims being gay] was one of those things that I was observing, kind of. It got me thinking a little bit, and one day before practice, I approached him about it and I said, ‘Hey Brian, not that it bothers me or anything, but are you gay?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah I am.’”
At that moment, all the offhanded gay jokes Henrie then realized he’d made around his friend in the past came back to him. He immediately apologized. “I could be inappropriate at times,” he says. “It was something I felt bad about.”