Anyone who knows Brian Sims has a story about him tucked in their back pocket.
Three weeks ago, a canvasser with Working America came to Laura Arblaster’s door. Arblaster, who co-organized the Women’s March in Philadelphia, asked the young man what got him interested in politics. The boy said that after Sims was elected in 2012, which made him the first openly gay person to win a seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, he saw Sims give a speech. The canvasser claimed that it inspired him to public service. “If you talk to him, tell him that he made a big impact on my life,” Arblaster remembers the boy saying.
Sims sat next to Amber Hikes, the recently hired executive director for Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, at a wedding a few years ago. During casual conversation, he waxed passionately to her table about the need for women in public office. By the time Sims was done speaking, the all-female group was fired upand ready to run.
“That’s something that’s really resonated with me,” Hikes says. “Brian uses his own position to encourage those around him to make the change our country so desperately needs.”
Sims’ eloquence, paired with his swarthy good looks, has made him a rising star in the Democratic Party. But the 38-year-old has also come under fire in recent months for the very speeches on which he has made his name. In March, the State Ethics Commission announced that it would be launching an investigation into the earnings from his speaking engagements the prior year. A 2016 report from City & State alleged Sims failed to properly disclose travel reimbursements from the $42,000 in speaking fees he made in the four years since his election.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told the politics website that his financial records “raises questions.”
In an interview with INTO, Sims claims that his role as a paid public speaker was no secret. He was voted in 2011 as one of the Top 25 “Best of the Best” LGBTQ Speakers by Campus Pride. A former civil rights lawyer and board member for Equality Pennsylvania, Sims has a lot to talk about. Sims was the first openly gay football captain in NCAA history, coming out to his teammates during his senior year at Chippenburg University. He was a fellow at Harvard and the Center for Progressive Leadership.
“What’s fascinating is that in the year before I became a legislator, I did more paid lecturing than I’ve done in the years since,” Sims says. “This was my career before I became a legislator, and it’s what I’ve been doing the last five years as well. Not only is what I do ethical, it’s also moral. It’s some of the best work that I do.”
The State Ethics Commission was unable to comment on whether a complaint has been filed due to confidentiality reasons, but Sims questioned the timing of the announcement, given that he will soon be headed into a primary race. Pennsylvania conducts 125-150 ethics investigations every year, and Sims claims those are rarely made public unless there’s a “negative outcome.” The content of ethics complaints, he says, certainly are not “put in a press release and sent out to local media.”
Investigations usually take 6-9 months to conduct, meaning that a conclusion won’t be reached until later this year, at the earliest. While Sims welcomes the investigation and says he has nothing to hide, he claims the inquiry is politically motivated.
“I know the industry I got myself into,” Sims says. “I know how people behave.”
Fighting an uphill battle
Although INTO has no knowledge of the complaint’s veracity, Sims is correct in one respect: He has made his fair share of enemies in the past five years. When Sims attempted to speak out on behalf of marriage equality on the House floor in 2012, Tea Party Republican Daryl Metcalfe shut off Sims’ mic. Metcalfe later claimed the speech would “violate God’s law.”
This political animus is largely a product of hyper-partisanship in state he calls home. Although Pennsylvania trends blue in national elections, the Keystone State is heavily gerrymandered. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania actually sued this year, alleging that the district maps are heavily tipped toward the Republican Party. Anne Wakabayashi, executive director for Emerge Pennsylvania, says that the maps were thrown out by the state’s Supreme Court the first time they were introduced.
The state GOP subsequently holds a supermajority in both the House and Senate. “The Democrats do not need to show up for things to happen,” Wakabayashi says. “They are 16 Senators out of 50. In the House, it’s 82 out of 203.”
Wakabayashi credits Sims as “one of the most liberal voices in Harrisburg,” someone who is consistently on the front lines of fighting against conservative legislation. That doesn’t always make him popular across the aisle. When the 82 percent male legislature put forward a bill in 2016 that would ban abortion after 20 weeks, Sims gave an impassioned speech on the House floor saying that the anti-choice law, if passed, would “put women on the menu.”
“Legislators like each of us in this room have absolutely no business making personal medical decisions for other people,” he said at the time.
Sims understands that he is fighting an uphill battle in a legislature where progressives are few and far between. Of the 17 bills that he’s introduced over the past five years, none have had the opportunity to become law. They don’t have the votes. But one piece of legislation Sims has continued to push, despite the odds, is a statewide nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ people. In Pennsylvania, workers can still legally be fired from their jobs on solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The conversation we are having could get me fired in about 70 percent of this state,” Sims says, noting that cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have their own nondiscrimination ordinances.
Pennsylvania remains the largest state in the nation with no pro-LGBTQ legislation at the statewide level. (Same-sex marriage, legalized in in 2014, was decided by the state courts.) A nondiscrimination bill has been introduced every year for the past 14 years, but with Sims’ effort, it’s inching closer to passage. He says the path forward is bipartisan: More Republicans support nondiscrimination laws than ever before.
Democratic colleagues speak extremely highly of Sims’ work on LGBTQ rights, even despite impossible odds. Deja Lynn Alvarez, a longtime trans organizer in Philadelphia, credits him for never hiding who he iseven despite being only out person in the room. She characterizes Sims as “proud,” “outspoken,” and “in your face.”
“He walks through those hallways with his head held high,” Alvarez adds.
What Sims brings to Harrisburg in terms of visibility is unmistakable. In 2015, Sims’ boyfriend swore him in on the House floor after he missed the initial swearing-in ceremony. Sims was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he says, and his return flight was delayed. The legislator got a do-over the following day, putting his hand on the U.S. Constitution instead of the Bible. He believes this moment made a difference among his colleagues by serving to “normalize” LGBTQ lives.
“If you’re not in the room, you’re being talked about,” Sims says, one of the two times he quotes Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin during the interview. “If you’re in the room, you’re being talked with.”
Trouble in the gayborhood
While Sims commands a passionate national fan base due to his strong social media presence, critics have concerns about his transparency aside from financial ones.
Following a string of complaints of racism at Philadelphia gay bars, Black Lives Matter organizer Asa Khalif confronted Sims in June; he claimed that Sims hadn’t done enough to address the community’s concerns. The legislator was not present at hearings to address a policy at ICandy banning Timberlands, which people of color say was intended to target them. Ernest Owens, a contributor for Philadelphia magazine, writes that the brand has been “long associated with black hip-hop fashion.”
“Silence is violence,” Khalif tells INTO. “Sims dropped the ball.”
Tensions over the dress code boiled over when Darryl DePiano, owner of ICandy, was recorded using racial epithets to describe the bar’s black and brown patrons. Following that video’s release, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Rights ordered gayborhood establishments to undergo racial bias training within 30 days.
In response, Sims published an op-ed in the Philly Metro condemning racism in the LGBTQ community: “It is toxic and obvious. We must end it.” But Khalif says that Sims has not been open about the work he is doing to further address these divides.
While Sims says that he was on the floor of the House during a pivotal meeting of the city’s Human Relations Committee, he claims that his critics “were right.” The representative admits that he “should have been louder” out of the gate about discrimination in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. Sims says that he has been working to rectify that. He claims he has been collaborating with the Black and Brown Workers’ Collective, a radical justice group in the city, to be a vocal ally to queer people of color.
When questioned by INTO about the specifics of how he is working with the Collective, Sims did not give a clear answer. The BBWC, who assisted in penning the Metro op-ed, additionally declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sims says that he has “made changes” on his staff to get better informed about issues of racial prejudice as they occur, but Khalif called on the politician to do more. He suggested that Sims hold town hall meetings with people of color in Philadelphia to heal the divides that still plague LGBTQ spaces. Hikes, a longtime friend of Sims’ from their activist days, adds that she wants “to see more of that work that he’s doing behind the scenes.”
Sims agrees that he still has a lot of room to grow as an ally and a leader.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned in these jobs,” Sims says. “My job is to keep my ear to the groundto keep my mouth shut and listen as often as I can. I now know better.”