Champion for Equality
Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s Out and Proud Lawmaker, Is Making His Mark Advocating for LGBTQ Equality, Equal Access to PrEP and PEP, and Pay Equity for Women
by Chip Alfred
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Holly Clark
There’s no denying Brian Sims is a trailblazer. He’s the first openly gay NCAA football captain in history. He is the first out person ever elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. He’s also one of the first elected officials in the country to include photos of himself with his same-sex partner in a marketing campaign.
A charismatic, rising star in the Democratic party just shy of his fortieth birthday, Sims has garnered national attention and racked up an impressive stack of accomplishments and recognitions. But you won’t hear him tooting his own horn. This dedicated public servant measures his success by the impact he’s having fighting for equality and improving the quality of life for the people he represents.
After knowing Sims for nearly ten years, the one thing that impresses me most about this man is his ability to remain true to himself. He’s still the same warm, engaging, genuine guy I’ve always known, passionate about his beliefs and living his life on his own terms. Whenever you hear him deliver a speech, it’s always coming straight from the heart, because he’s addressing issues he sincerely cares about.
A native of Washington, D.C., Sims was an Army brat, the child of two Army officers. Along with his three siblings, including a fraternal twin brother, Sims lived in seventeen states before the family settled in Chester County, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. Sims acknowledges that having a twin helped with the constant adjustments to new surroundings. “I think of the years when I hated having a twin brother around all the time. Now I look back and think thankfully I had somebody my age, going through what I was going through.” From a young age, Sims knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. “When I was a little kid, if you asked me I would have told you I would be a feminist lawyer,” he tells A&U.
He attended Downingtown High School, an institution known for its championship sports teams. Describing himself back then as “kind of a fat nerdy kid,” he joined the football team as a lineman. Sims went on to play football for Bloomsburg University in central Pennsylvania. “A lot of people’s college experiences are the most formative years of their life,” he says. “It was a time where I established some of the best friendships I’ve ever had.”
Sims became captain of the team and led the Bloomsburg University Huskies all the way to the 2000 Division II National Championship game. It wasn’t until his last semester of college that the inevitable question he feared for years would finally come. It happened after a fraternity-run Jell-O wrestling competition at rival Shippensburg University. Covered from head to toe in red Jell-O, Sims was walking back to his car with a few of his teammates when one of them turned to him and just blurted out, “Yo Sims, are you gay?” Needless to say, he was caught completely off guard.
“All those years I played ball I always thought at one point my teammates would ask me. I thought I’d have a really great response by then, and I just said, ‘Yeah, man, thanks for asking.’” Naturally, what followed were a whole lot more questions. “They just asked me everything under the sun you could ask a gay guy.” Sims explains that for most of these guys, he was the first friend they ever had that had come out. “Today, these guys are still my best friends; their children are people I know well. It’s really great the relationships I have with them.”
After college, Sims enrolled in law school at Michigan State University, earning his J.D. in 2004 with a focus on international and comparative law. After graduation, he moved to Philadelphia, where he took the bar exam and started doing legal work. In 2008, he was named staff counsel for policy and planning for the Philadelphia Bar Association. But it was a man named Dan Anders and his introduction to the Victory Fund that would change the course of his career. Anders, the first openly gay man to run for judge in Philadelphia, approached Sims about co-chairing his election campaign. “When Dan ran, he wanted to run with the Pride flag,” Sims shares.
What Sims quickly learned working on the campaign was that Anders had been paying his dues in the LGBTQ community a long time before that. “When Dan got elected to the bench in 2008, he had spent nearly ten years as the LGBTQ lawyer on everything,” Sims observed. Anders had served on multiple boards, and he held leadership positions on several of them. “When he left, there was this big vacuum.” That’s when Brian Sims was tapped to step up to the plate.
Sims took over as chairman of a struggling GALLOP, the LGBTQ lawyers association of Philadelphia. He was elected president of Equality Pennsylvania and spent several years working to rebuild that organization. At around the same time, Sims was approached to join the board of the Victory Fund, a national organization focused on increasing the number of openly LGBTQ officials at all levels of government. Sims joined the Victory Fund board, made some key connections, and learned about what it takes to get an out LGBTQ candidate elected.
Eventually, his professional colleagues started asking Sims if he would consider running for office. At first, Sims was hesitant. “It just wasn’t what I thought I was looking for. I was on a number of boards, I was running a couple of different organizations that all were impacted by our lack of LGBT elected representation and the lack of LGBT rights.” In 2011, Sims threw his hat in the ring for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives representing District 182, which encompasses mostly Center City Philadelphia. In 2012, with donors from across the nation and an aggressive local grassroots campaign, Sims was triumphant, after unseating a twenty-eight-year incumbent in the Democratic primary.
One of the first people to talk to Sims before he decided to seek public office was David Mixner, who he identifies as one of the founding fathers of contemporary LGBT rights in America [see our interview with Mixner in this issue]. “It’s a common thing when we talk about HIV and AIDS to talk about a missing generation,” Sims explains, but Mixner’s perspective gave Sims a clearer picture of the historical context. “Specifically, when it comes to advocacy, we’re not just missing a generation, we’re missing a generation of many of the greatest advocates that the LGBTQ communities have ever known. There was a recognition that they fought for my identity, now I needed to fight for everyone’s.”
Since Sims took office, he has been a devoted advocate for LGBTQ rights and equal access to HIV treatment and prevention. Sims has been a staunch PrEP and PEP proponent from the beginning, focusing on public awareness, facilitating community forums, and educating his constituents and colleagues about the barriers to access. The biggest challenges we face with PEP and PrEP, he says, are making it easier for everyone to access the medications, and making them part of the normal conversation between a patient and a medical provider. “I want PEP and PrEP as readily available as birth control. When my doctor talks to me during an intake about my sex life and the precautions I’m taking or not taking, I want him to make a risk assessment that says, ‘Brian, you might want to consider going on PrEP.’ I want it to be that simple.”
Sims acknowledges we’re still not talking enough about PEP and PrEP. “There is still a sex-shaming component to it all.” He points out that the lack of education and specific trainings for medical providers on how to prescribe PEP and PrEP can also be a roadblock to access. “We need to reengage how HIV/AIDS is taught in medical schools. I don’t think the average medical school professor wants to be ignorant to a thing that has public health implications for a minority population.”
In 2017, Sims introduced a bill that would make it mandatory for all insurance companies doing business in Pennsylvania to provide coverage of PrEP and PEP. At press time, the bill has not yet come up for a vote in the House. Sims concedes this bill will likely face an uphill battle. “This is a state legislature that doesn’t even believe in basic LGBT equality,” he declares indignantly.
Every year he’s been in office, Sims has co-sponsored legislation to ensure LGBTQ non-discrimination in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations. “In Pennsylvania, the fact that we don’t have LGBTQ non-discrimination in our human relations act is a travesty of justice.” he states. And you can be sure Brian Sims isn’t giving up on this battle.
Nor has he given up on his childhood dream of being a feminist lawyer. Sims is one of the few men who has been teaming up with his female colleagues as a key supporter of gender pay equity. “It’s impossible to not understand the power of women in all places and not also understand that this comes hand in hand with having that power devalued or ignored. Often, one of the most identifiable ways is with pay,” he says. Sims has also consistently opposed funding cuts for Planned Parenthood in a state where it’s constantly being threatened. In 2014, Sims was honored with the Champion of Choice award from NARAL, a national pro-choice group.
The following year, Sims was named to The Advocate’s “40 Under 40” list for his commitment to advocacy. The magazine cited Sims for “his rare ability…to see outside his own experiences and connect the struggles of all.” Upon receiving the recognition, Sims told The Advocate, “Not only do LGBT rights and women’s rights go hand in hand, I feel similarly about racial and ethnic justice issues. This is about equality in a larger sense, but it’s also about to what degree do you believe the government should have control of your life.”
Sims, who will run unopposed for reelection for a fourth term in 2018, says he’s focusing his time and fundraising efforts this campaign cycle on identifying and training out LGBTQ candidates in Pennsylvania. He recently supported a two-day training in Harrisburg with representatives from the Victory Fund, and nineteen candidates or campaign staffers from around the state. He stays in touch with all the out candidates in the state right now, and he anticipates eleven of them will be running for the House. Currently the sole out gay Pennsylvania legislator, Sims is hopeful there will be a few more LGBTQ candidates elected to join him next year.
His approach is being as present and accessible to prospective candidates as possible, attending as many public events as his hectic schedule will allow. “Visibility matters. It is proven to be 100-percent true in my life. Every time I go anywhere, somebody walks up to me and says something about thinking about running for office, or they have a friend who is,” he asserts. “I’m in so many rooms where I’m trying to convince people why instead of looking for the perfect candidate, they might become the perfect candidate.”
In late 2015, Sims briefly entered the race for Congress representing Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District. A few months later, he withdrew from the race, citing the challenges of running for reelection in the PA House at the same time he would be launching a campaign for Congress. Is Sims likely to run again? His response, “I don’t know. It’s not something that I’m actively considering.”
For now, his focus is on his next term in the House and pushing forward his legislative agenda. “Access to PrEP/PEP, LGBT non-discrimination, gun control legislation, a ban on gay conversion therapy, equal pay for women; these are issues I care deeply about. I don’t want to have been the guy that worked on them and got them right up to the finish line. I want to see these things pass, so I’m here for that.”
Sims has settled into the life of a state legislator, shuttling between Harrisburg in session, an office in Center City and a Philly Gayborhood apartment. In his spare time, he enjoys running, playing sports, camping, and exploring the city with his partner Brandon. Last fall, as he was posing for a campaign photo shoot in Philly’s iconic Rittenhouse Square, Sims saw an opportunity to get a new picture of him and Brandon, the man he calls his “Disney prince of a boyfriend.” So, he asked the photographer for a favor. “My boyfriend works about three blocks away, can I call him, and will you take a picture of us?”
Brandon popped over and the photo of the couple walking arm-in-arm gazing into each other’s eyes was such a hit with the entire campaign team, it became the official image used in the email marketing campaign. According to Sims, the image and the campaign were very well-received. “So many people who know LGBTQ people know us in a sort of an asexual vacuum. They don’t know our relationships. They don’t know our touch. They don’t know our love. They don’t know what it looks like. Well, it’s an act of defiance to some people; to me it’s an act of familiarity.”
When he’s working, Sims says he’s become accustomed to frequently being the only out LGBTQ person in the room. “In the same vein that I know the amount of responsibility that comes with that, I also know enough to know that I could never represent the LGBTQ community wholly. No one person ever could. There’s a reason the rainbow flag is our flag, because we are literally of everyone. I try not to look on it with such a 10,000-foot view. I mostly just try to be in it, and work.”
For more information about photographer Holly Clark, log on to: www.hollyclarkphotography.com.
Chip Alfred, an A&U Editor at Large, is the Director of Development & Communications at Philadelphia FIGHT.