Pennsylvania's first elected openly-gay state rep finds that bridging the political divide is slow work—but he's determined.
Virtually all of Sims’ teammates and housemates had similar moments with him. None of them said they had a problem with his sexuality, and Sims remains friends with many of his former teammates even today.
Things came to a head later that season when a Bloomsburg position coach made a gay joke on the field during practice— as coaches are wont to do—at Sims’ expense, although he hadn’t a clue about Sims’ sexuality. During a drill in which players were down on all fours spinning in circles, the coach barked: “Yeah, this is Sims’ favorite drill!”
As Henrie recalls, the entire team turned on the coach, and Sims himself had to encourage everyone to calm down.
“It was quite the sight,” Henrie says. “A lot of people knew [Sims was gay], and the coach didn’t. But it was—” He pauses. “You just didn’t know what the next step was.
You didn’t know what was going to happen. But there was this massive show of support. Just one of those things you won’t forget.”
After practice, Sims came out to his coach. The coach said nothing, and ignored him the rest of the day.
The next morning, the coach climbed up on a table before practice to address the team. “Yesterday,” he said, “I said something really fucking stupid. I’ve spent my career teaching you guys what it means to be teammates, and yesterday you guys had to teach me what it means to be a teammate.”
“It was a learning experience, especially for someone like me,” Henrie says. “I lived in a small town. I grew up with very narrow thinking. It personally opened my eyes. I’m not going to lie: I had misconceptions, which was part of that small-town mentality. Brian was an individual, who, just by being Brian, showed me the light.”
After graduating from Bloomsburg, Sims went to Michigan State Law before moving to Philly, where he began to work as a civil-rights attorney and LGBT activist, often going on the road to share his coming-out story to high school and college students. He became the board president of a faltering Equality PA in 2009, turning that organization into the lobbying powerhouse it is today. He remains close with the organization’s executive director, Ted Martin, who has successfully lobbied for anti-discrimination ordinances in more than two-dozen municipalities around Pennsylvania.
“Brian has done a tremendous job of bringing the issues a human face. He’s made people understand or at least helped people understand that there’s a real human behind all this,” says Martin. “The fact that Brian can talk to legislators in a legislator-to-legislator, colleague-to-colleague sort of way breaks down all kinds of stereotypes and misconceptions and erases a lot of the discomfort.”
Martin, Sims and Equality PA are also responsible for putting together the 58-member strong LGBT Equality legislative caucus.
And coming from a grassroots organization like Equality PA put Sims in a unique position: Unlike many state legislators, he wasn’t a politician’s protégé. He’d been Rep. Babette Josephs’ treasurer at one time, but as they both explain it, it was an unpaid, in-name-only position. Rather, he was a suburban kid turned big-city lawyer with experience lobbying in Harrisburg and talking with citizens all over the state—the first-ever legislator to come directly from an LGBT advocacy group. It’s a combination that made his mid-winter transition into Harrisburg politics a dive rather than a dip.
The first week of the year in the state Capitol is a cold one for freshmen legislators. Lawmakers greet each other under the guise of friendliness with back pats and hat tips, but in the end it’s less about making new pals and more about sizing people up. Sims wasn’t naïve; he knew January is for pleasantries and little else. Amongst his initial fears: Would he be stuck in a box in his colleagues’ minds as just the gay legislator? The city liberal?
Then he met state Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Lancaster County, and one of the most reliably conservative-voting members of the Legislature.
“From the beginning, he came up and said hello, he made me feel comfortable, and he said, ‘We need to get together, let’s grab some beers together,’” Sims recalls. “It was sincere and I wanted to do it as well. And we kept running into scheduling issues and whatnot, but eventually and we walked into his office and had a beer—a six-pack, actually.”
From the beginning of his campaign against former Rep. Babette Josephs, Sims had promised the constituents of Pennsylvania’s 182nd District that he’d reach across the aisle—something he claimed his predecessor refused to do. (She, in turn, interpreted Sims’ promises of bipartisanship to mean he’d get steamrolled by the Republican Party on issues like forced ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.)
Upon meeting Cutler, he decided there was no time like the present to fulfill that campaign promise. The two bullshitted for a while, but the conversation eventually turned to politics. Arguing seemed out of the question; there’d be plenty of time for that over the next two years. So Sims and the baby-faced, anti-abortion, pro-gun, tweets-about-low-taxes-all-the-time Cutler decided to find common ground. Maybe it was first-week jitters, or maybe it was the guzzled cans of Yuengling, but Sims and Cutler ran straight into that bipartisan Eureka! moment of which all lawmakers dream: They realized there’s something they both detest, and it wasn’t each other. Rather, it’s the popular-vote method of picking judges.
“He’s a supporter of merit selection of judges, and so am I,” Sims says. “There are plenty of reasons to support it; he’s got his, I’ve got mine, but I said, ‘You support this and I support this and I’ve supported this before and maybe we can get a bill on this moving.’”
That bill, which would replace the popular election of state judges with selection by a panel who review candidates based on merit, is still in the co-sponsorship memo phase—that’s the memo legislators write in order to get their colleagues on board with the proposed legislation—with Cutler as prime sponsor. Sims says he’ll be a co-sponsor of the bill when it’s introduced sometime in the next couple months.