Meet Rep. Brian Sims: Philly's Brains and Brawn With a Cause

Pennsylvania's first openly gay elected official on being an out athlete, Russia's antigay Winter Olympics, and serving the Northeast's lone marriage equality holdout.

BY Roman Feeser

August 30 2013 7:00 AM ET

Above: Sims, circa 2000, when he became the first openly gay football captain in the NCAA's history and led his team at Bloomsburg University to a Division II Championship.

How hard is it to be a college athlete and conceal something so personal?
As an NCAA athlete, I did have concerns about being outed, but I was living a [relatively] closeted life — I just wasn't exploring what it meant for me to be a gay man at the time. I have a good friend named Wade Davis who played professional  football, and one of the things he’ll talk about is how hard it was for him to have to  say "she" when he meant "he," to have to wash over his weekends and life experience in a way that his teammates wouldn’t catch on to the fact that he was  gay.

As athletes, we know that you’re at your best when you’re able to bring your whole self to the court or to the field. And when you’re in the closet — when you’re holding  back — I don’t think you’re giving your best to the team. I don’t think you’re giving  your best as an athlete because it’s such a distraction.

Was fear ever a factor for you? Did you ever feel like you were in danger?
I don’t remember feeling that I was so much in physical danger; I was the captain of  my football team! I wasn’t going to get beaten up … although there was that question on the field. If I came out and [after a] play would [end up] at the bottom of a pile, would someone take extra shots at me? Football is an inherently violent sport, and opposing teams are always looking for motivation to get their momentum going. So I don’t know that I feared for my safety, but of course I feared for the network I had — the community I had, the friends I had. And I know so many out athletes fear both for their physical safety and their mental well-being.

Between physical intimidation and inner turmoil, it sounds like gay athletes are at a disadvantage whether in or out of the closet. So why is it necessary for gay athletes to speak out?
I don’t mean to sound trite when I say this, but the single most important thing that we can do as LGBT people is to come out. We know statistically that when organizations and institutions gain openly LGBT members, it has a dramatic effect on the well-being and civil rights of others in the community. It’s why people like Dick Cheney support marriage equality: His daughter came out. A few years ago a Brazilian volleyball team had a player who came out. They had an away game right afterward, and the fans of the opposing team started a chant, a "maricón" chant, which is [essentially] the word ["faggot"] in Spanish, and it was pretty awful. But his home fans and teammates responded by completely decking themselves out in pink for the next game. 

I think that athletes are significantly more supportive of their LGBT teammates than has been reported, or than many people think. There just haven't been opportunities because historically athletes haven't been coming out.

This year Nike unveiled its #BeTrue line in celebration of LGBT pride, and the NFL Players Association followed suit, offering Pride T-shirts with the names of LGBT-supportive players on the back. Why are professional sports organizations jumping on the LBGT bandwagon when so few professional  players are out of the closet?
I don't really know if it's a "bandwagon" yet. I hope it is! I hope that eventually  companies like Reebok and Under Armour jump on board — then we can say it’s a bandwagon. Right now Nike is taking a very proactive lead helping the LGBT athletic community at the K-12, college, and professional levels really come together with some common goals; they're helping us unite.

Now, is corporate America standing up for the LGBT people and rights because there’s a necessity there? Fortune 500 companies across the country are significantly more supportive of their LGBT employees than most states are of their citizens, so it's no surprise to me.    

What about the NFL Players Association?
There have been rumors flying around for years about the idea of an NFL player  coming out. You hear, "When is an NFL athlete going to finally come out?" and I'm  quick to remind people that we've had out professional athletes in this country for  40 years ... but most of them were women. So you might as well have in place public polices that show you are going to be supportive — policies of solidarity.     

Is America ready for a gay NFL player?
America was ready for that a long time ago. The question is whether the owners and the fans are ready for it. America is supportive of LGBT athletes, as we've seen with Jason Collins and Brittney Griner.The issue of why we haven't had out pro athletes is about owners; it's about sponsorship and fans. This is not about America. America was ready for this a long time ago.

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