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Rep. Brian Sims on the Dangers of Performative Allyship


The out politician says many centrist Republicans support minority rights when it's convenient and then drop them when it's no longer useful.

One of the toughest parts of fighting for LGBTQ+ civil rights in legislatures that have refused them for decades isn't finding allies or support. They usually want to be found. The toughest part has always been distinguishing the obvious enemies, from the secret enemies. The overt from the covert. They, on the other hand, don't want to be found.

The truth is that at no time are the rights of LGBTQ+ people, women, racial and ethnic minorities, or anyone else a joke, a campaign ploy, or a political stunt, and so often that is what they become.

Now spotting these enemies, and their efforts, isn't a new concept in politics and it's not even something I do any better than my women colleagues, or my Black and Brown colleagues who also fight for equality. We see it often, and we most regularly see it before campaign seasons, when it's advantageous to appear moderate on these issues.

Remember that Pennsylvania, the state where I serve as a legislator, is the last great gerrymandered state in America. Republicans have false control over our House and Senate despite nearly a million more registered Democrats in the state. If you think that means they govern from the center, or at least from the center-right, you'd be wrong, and that's true across the nation.

Instead, legislatures with false control, such as the Pennsylvania General Assembly, spend each two-year term pursuing the most aggressively conservative policies that their party can create: bans on trans children receiving health care, "abortion bans" designed to deny a mother and doctor access to critical medical information and treatment, historic cuts to education funding, and so on.

But these aggressive efforts tend to slow, and sometimes even quietly stop, just for a few months every few years, before important elections. And that's where we are right now.

Whether it was Republicans suddenly (but somehow unsuccessfully) supporting Equal Pay for Women the first time in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania just before Hillary Clinton was on the ballot, or pretending to provide adequate education funding after hundreds of millions of dollars in Republican cuts, just before the last gubernatorial election, they have no shame in "finding" an effort that is progressive just in time to send out campaign mailers, and without time to actually advance the policy.

And then it dies.

Every two years our legislature essentially starts over, as it will in January. All new bills, all new efforts, sometimes even new leadership. But the "support" we saw at the end of the term, just before the election, is gone. It always is.

What is left though is worse than what we startled with. The residue of failure after the fake "bipartisan" effort leaves a stain on the authentic effort. Always an effort that has involved countless thousands of hours of advocacy and activism, hundreds of volunteer and professional hours of work, years of collaboration, and planning.

So, I ask everyone who believes in equality, to keep a close eye on the false efforts, and the false support, we're going to see these next few months. If those people who've been in power but stayed too quiet, who pretend to show support but involve no one impacted by that violence and hatred, who have had years of opportunities but did not step up, who have countless authentic vehicles on which to collaborate and join the effort, but have not, suddenly start an entirely new effort on their own just in time for a campaign, they are not an ally, they are an opportunist.

What's worse is that their efforts aren't just to try and pretend that they're better than they have been in time for a re-election, they are co-opting the righteous battle for civil rights not to advance it, but to advance themselves. And doing so leaves us with the residue and the weight of their failed "efforts."

To advance equality across the country, it will take bold allies, allies who are willing to come from behind the shadows and stand for the human rights of others -- even when it is wildly unpopular. That is what I challenge each and every one of us to do.

Brian Sims is a state representative in Pennsylvania, a civil rights attorney, and an LGBTQ+ activist. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSimsPA.

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