Thursday, December 24, 2009

Moving the Agenda: Expanding Gay Rights in Pennsylvania

2009 Pennsylvania Political Leaders Fellow Brian Sims Leads the Road to Greater Equality for the LGBT Community in the State

When you first meet Brian Sims, you see the all-American “guy’s guy”: a handsome, popular, well-mannered former football star from a military family. What you may not know, however, is that he was the first openly gay captain of an NCAA football team and a passionate outspoken advocate for gay rights.

Brian’s story isn’t the typical story of coming out as a young person, especially as a star athlete, but it is the uniqueness of his story that makes him an incredible advocate for LGBT rights and equality.

A Not-so-Likely Story
While Brian was a student at Bloomsburg University, he led his football team to a championship victory as their starting defensive tackle and team captain. Midway through the 2000 football season, Brian chose to tell the rest of his teammates that he was gay. At first, Brian was worried about how it would affect his friendships, fearing that he’d be ostracized by his team. To his surprise, his teammates accepted him and his sexual orientation, and for the rest of the year did not hear one negative comment about his sexuality. He found unlikely supporters in his teammates and colleagues, making his story very different from the coming out stories many people may be familiar with.

“I didn’t come out to my team,” Brian says when reflecting being an openly gay college football player in a recent article. “My team came out to me.”

Brian’s story is not one of defeat but one of hope. “I don’t have a story [that involves] being ostracized or wronged,” he says, which is a common thread in many facets of identity politics. “When I talk to people about LGBT issues, my story allows me to go into a room advocating for equal rights under the law because it’s the right thing to do. If my team was able to rally behind me, then imagine how I can influence other groups.”

Protecting Gay Rights in Pennsylvania
A 2009 CPL Political Leaders Fellow, Brian is now a lawyer, serving as general council of the Philadelphia Bar Association. He first became actively involved with LGBT issues when Dan Anders, a 2006 candidate for the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, asked him to serve as Finance Chair for his campaign.

Anders went on to become the first openly gay elected official in Pennsylvania, and Brian became more involved with LGBT advocacy, becoming an active member of Gay Democrats. But Brian’s main motivation for becoming more involved was the power gap he observed in many facets of LGBT leadership. “When I first started, there weren’t very many young people fighting for gay rights,” he explains. “[LGBT] issues needed someone [my age] involved, and that person was not in the room.”

Brian now serves as President of the Board of Directors at Equality PA, the only statewide organization that works to achieve equal rights for LGBT Pennsylvanians through policy reform.

Along with the campaign to pass anti-discrimination legislation in the state, Brian is leading the way in expanding the base by opening new offices and building the capacity of LGBT organizers and smaller advocacy groups across the state. “We’ve been very active in Harrisburg and the surrounding areas,” he said. “We held a summit to bring together LGBT leaders and volunteers to teach them how to contact legislators and push for municipal anti-discrimination bills in their cities and townships.”

As the President of the Board of Directors, one of Brian’s main responsibilities is identifying board members that are reflective of the state of Pennsylvania. “I have a devotion to racial and ethnic diversity, so I’m hoping to build a board that includes men and women of color and transgendered people as well,” he says. “People deserve to hear from other people who know them—who understand their struggle and share the same background that they do.”

Brian believes in the strength of the “unexpected ally”—a spokesperson for an issue who many may not believe is affected by the same oppression they are trying to fight. In many cases, banning gay marriage is painted as an issue that only white gay males care about. Because of this, Brian makes finding a diverse group of leaders a priority to send the message that discrimination against gays affects everyone regardless of ethnicity, class, or gender.

Finding His Voice

The Center for Progressive Leadership has helped Brian become comfortable with telling his story and connecting it to his values—an important part of a successful progressive political campaign. “CPL really helped me figure out what my message is better than ever before. I can speak from my heart and my head and I now know how to do that in a room of experts.”

Brian gained more as a CPL Political Leaders Fellow, including skills he can take with him as he continues his political career.“We have a need for gay rights laws in Pennsylvania, But in order for that to happen we have to have LGBT people in its state legislature who will fight for us.”

1 comment:

bigotsneedtogetlaid said...

Everybody sing!