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 6:00 AM ET

As an attorney and longtime outspoken advocate for LGBT equality, Philadephia's Rep. Brian Sims knows the right thing to do is not always accompanied by the right to do it. While trying to speak on the Pennsylvania House floor about the Supreme Court's decision to strike down section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in June, the gay state representative found himself silenced by a procedural move

As the former captain of an NCAA Division II championship football team at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, the 35-year-old Sims is not used to getting sidelined. A true believer in the judicial system, he continues to pursue LGBT rights in the Keystone State, an effort that extends far beyond marriage recognition. The fiery Democrat took time out of his active political schedule to discuss gay athletes, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and why it’s hard to keep a good man down. 

The Advocate: Brian, you came out to your team after a Division II national championship. What was the catalyst for the timing?
Brian Sims: The truth is that the catalyst was them: the team. I’m very fond of telling people my teammates came out to me, I didn’t really come out to them.  

How does a team come out to its closeted captain?
I was visiting Shippensburg University — one of our sister schools, [and] one of our rivals — with members of my team. While there, the quarterback pulled me aside and asked if I was gay. I told him that I was! We had a long drive home with a couple of other guys from the team. [My teammates were] curious, and the whole time they sort of peppered me with a ton of questions — all good, all respectful.

When we got back, they asked if it was all right to talk to the rest of the team. And I  don’t want to say "to my surprise," it went really well … because I hope that’s going to become more the norm for young, out athletes. My teammates were looking out for me; they were doing the thing that teammates are supposed to do.

You mention the team had a lot of questions for you. Were they questions you could answer at that point in your life?
Some were and some weren’t. Some were about my personal experience as a guy in the closet at a school that didn’t have much of an LGBT presence. Those were just basics I could answer about myself and my experience. Larger questions about the LGBT community. Larger questions about my role as a gay man … I didn’t have any answers to those.

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.

What are your feelings about Russia’s recently approved anti-LGBT bill that makes "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” accessible minors punishable by jail time and fines up to $16,000?
First of all, I wouldn't want to be gay in Russia right now for anything. Unfortunately,  it's not unique to Russia. There are currently 70 to 80 countries in the world that have outlawed homosexuality in some form or another. That being said, I have a degree in international law and know that countries around the world, including the United States, quite frankly view LGBT civil rights as a human rights issue. 

There are a number of human rights conventions we adhere to. More importantly, the general values of the [International Olympic Committee] are about friendly competition; you build respect for a nation, you build respect for a people, by having respectful competition.

The Russian government recently sent a letter to the IOC claiming it won’t punish athletes who make political statements during the Winter Olympics in Sochi. What is your take on that?
Like throwing a glib "fist in the air?"

Exactly.
These laws are clearly a violation of international standards for human rights. Listen, I think that LGBT athletes know their way around civil disobedience. I'd be excited to see the kind of tension would be drawn to that. I'd love to see them try to suppress a Johnny Weir. Good luck!

What would be the best approach for America regarding the Olympics in Sochi?
The idea of asking the U.S. or other countries to pull out of the Olympics, I think, is more hurtful than helpful. I think a boycott only hurts athletes who have been training their whole lives to compete at that level. I'm reminded of a quote by Barney Frank. He said, "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu."   

What’s next for you in Pennsylvania?
I'll tell you what: It's not just the marriage discussion. Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast not to recognize LGBT relationships in some form or another. We actually don't have basic LGBT civil rights in Pennsylvania. We're an island. An enigma. But right now there are more pro­‐LGBT legislators in Pennsylvania than at any time in its history. Our goals are simple.

We are looking to pass a bill that provides teachers and school districts with tools to curb bullying, including anti-­LGBT bullying. And relationship recognition. Damn it, marriage equality is going to be the law of the land one day, and I join the million or so Pennsylvanians in that state who are sick of being told to wait for their civil rights. 

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ROMAN FEESER is a playwright, writer and producer. He is currently finishing his first book, a memoir titled A Stranger at the Table: Why God Hates Gay Mormons, about his year undercover in Salt Lake City. He currently works as the director of corporate productions at Scholastic in New York City.

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