Last June, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed a historic equal pay executive order demanding employers base salaries on job responsibilities and clearly explain pay ranges on job postings, as well as prohibiting companies from requiring applicants to provide salary histories. The new law is a huge step in the state toward ending the gender wage gap that can disadvantage women when buying homes, paying for college, and caring for their families.
It was also an important moment for Democratic Rep. Brian Sims, a staunch pay-equality advocate and the first out gay legislator elected in Pennsylvania’s history. The executive order was based on legislation Sims had introduced. “Governor Wolf recognizes the impact pay inequity has on women and families across the commonwealth and through this executive order Pennsylvania takes a needed step towards rectifying this longstanding problem,” Sims said the day Wolf signed the order.
The son of two Army lieutenant colonels, Sims has seen women in powerful roles all his life. Inspired by his strong-willed parents and an uncle who was a judge, he’s made fighting for gender, racial, and LGBT equality his life’s mission. In fact, if you asked his teenage self what he wanted to be when he grew up, without blinking, he’d reply, “A feminist lawyer.”
“My parents reminded us when we were kids that the Army judges based on your performance, not on your identity,” says Sims of his upbringing. While clarifying that that’s not necessarily everyone’s experience in the Armed Forces, Sims adds that frequent moves enabled him to observe the imbalance of power — socially and economically — in many communities. “If you’re in the military, odds are you have seen more, heard more, tried to understand more than somebody who has not had the benefit of leaving the area they were raised in.”
Still, Sims argues, “I didn’t know about the systematic sexism of American government or the American military. I just knew that my mom was in a job that other women were not, and that there were people that thought she shouldn’t have been there because she was a woman, and I knew how foolish that was.”
Sims’s passion for social change led him to serve as president of Equality Pennsylvania as well as on the Victory Campaign Board, which helps the LGBTQ Victory Fund elect more out queer and trans people to public office. But it wasn’t until his friend, activist David Mixner, told Sims he’d make a bigger impact if he ran for office that Sims decided to enter politics.
“The empathy it takes to wrap yourself around all this negativity and try to understand it and encapsulate it and do good with it is tough,” he says. “And yet you look at somebody like Mixner, who’s been able to do it his whole life with grace, and it reminds me that I can do the same.”
Sims, the only out LGBT politician serving in the Pennsylvania capital, says, “I put myself in a lot of situations where I know homophobia already exists.”
He connects antigay sentiments with latent misogyny: “The same mind that thinks gay is wrong is a mind that already thinks that women are lesser, that femininity is weak. And so, what I see is most homophobia is really anger at a person because their sexuality veers from what somebody [else thinks] it should be.”
Sims adds he’s seen the impact of internalized homophobia as well. “I serve with over a dozen closeted members, whom I would never identify to anybody else, and when I joined the legislature, many of them were co-sponsors of anti-LGBT bills. Some of the most intense misogyny I see towards women comes from gay men. Whereas I would think that living a life where others marginalize you would teach you how to combat marginalization and how to recognize it, oftentimes, it teaches people how to be good at it themselves.”
It’s hard to hide one’s secrets these days, thanks to social media. Sims argues the same forces have triggered an incredible need for authenticity from elected officials. “We used to pretend that we were electing the best version of ourselves. But no, the best version of ourselves often is just ourselves: with our mistakes, with our foibles, with all of it.”
While one might see the recent wave of newly elected LGBT politicians, and slew of candidates of color, as a reaction to voter demand for more authenticity, Sims has a different perspective.
“I think all of this is in response to the hijacking of contemporary American government by the far conservative right at the behest of large-scale anti-American corporate interests,” he explains. “I know that sounds almost conspiratorial, but I don’t think that we would be having this conversation … if we hadn’t had to face such an overwhelming attack on those values. I think we would have continued to kind of putz along at way too slow a rate of change, and instead the extreme anti-American-values right has, I think, pushed a whole bunch of people into action.”
The out legislator also calls for a stronger resistance within the Democratic Party. “Democrats are the party of women,” he says. “They are the party of LGBT rights. They are the party of racial and ethnic equality. However, they were being … the party of politics for too long, and where I’ve seen the Democratic Party get better is when they were pushed there and pulled there by young people, by Black Lives Matter, by Latino Victory, by the Victory Fund, by HRC.”
“We’re suffering not from a broken government, we’re suffering from a lack of engagement in a neutral government,” Sims maintains. “These campaigns, these blue wave campaigns around the country, are being staffed by people that are learning how to create winning campaigns. We’re doing the things, right now, that we need to do to take back government.”
When it comes to leading social change, Sims says we cannot forget the advocates in Middle America. In fact, they’re the ones who need our attention most.
“When we win full equality in the United States, it will be because of the Iowas and the Nebraskas,” Sims argues. “My message to them is that you are the champions of equality that are going to win the movement. It may feel like you’re playing catch up to all of us. You’re not. You have tougher fights than all of us.”
David Artavia is managing editor of The Advocate.