A stocky former football player with a substantial beard is not what you'd expect a reproductive rights advocate to look like. But it makes sense that Democrat Brian Sims, Pennsylvania's first out gay legislator, can sympathize with the plight of women, so often judged solely by their appearance. The accomplishments of the 37-year-old Philadelphia-based assemblyman — onetime civil rights lawyer, former board president for Equality Pennsylvania — are often overshadowed on the gay blogosphere by those aforementioned physical traits. But Sims, who recently announced his run for Congress against a scandal-ridden incumbent, is unquestionably a powerhouse.
He's fought vociferously for numerous pieces of pro-LGBT legislation, such as conversion therapy bans and a statewide nondiscrimination bill, while his work for Planned Parenthood funding and against Harrisburg's numerous assaults on abortion rights netted him a pro-choice award last year.
"All those people who talk about small government but support legislation that puts their ideology front and center," Sims tells The Advocate, "that's something I find very difficult to understand."
Sims is still unguarded enough to tell a reporter he abandoned the Catholic Church ("my faith is in humanity"), so it's not a huge surprise that he wasn't lining up to meet a certain Argentinian who just swung by Philly. "No, I didn't see the pope," he says. "I saw the president in New York."
The dogma tied to organized religion clearly chafes Sims, who doesn't miss a beat when asked about Francis's maybe-buddy Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"[People like Davis] need to be relieved of their positions," he says. "We're not talking about a disability that she has. We're talking about an inability. If you're unable to perform your job in a secular government in a secular way, I don't think an accommodation [for them] is appropriate. Period."
As Sims gears up for the spring primary fight, his blunt left-wing talk should only do him good. Pennsylvania's Second Congressional District is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, and the primary winner will almost certainly head to Washington. While Sims acknowledges he'll be discussing ethics for the foreseeable future — his opponent, Rep. Chaka Fattah, was indicted in July on charges of misappropriating funds — he'd rather discuss other issues that some politicians would never touch.
"I'm going to be talking about education funding," he says. "[The election will be] a larger discussion about tax reform, a larger discussion about the safety of neighborhoods and guns."
Sims often emphasizes the importance of nondiscrimination protections and hate-crimes laws, pointing out just how dangerous life remains for LGBT people. In his district, a male couple was beaten to a bloody pulp last year in an alleged antigay mob attack. The high-profile case attracted national attention — one of the assailants is the daughter of a Pennsylvania police chief — and served as impetus for Philadelphia passing its own hate-crimes legislation (the three defendants are expected to make a plea deal later this month).
Sims is aware that all the bills in the world will not change the frequently frightening experience of walking down the street holding a same-sex partner's hand or what it's like for a transgender person to simply operate in society. Kiesha Jenkins, a 22-year-old black trans woman, was beaten by five or six men in North Philadelphia Wednesday before being shot to death.
"The LGBT civil rights movement is moving at full steam, but if you're a trans woman of color right now, your life right now is not the cover of a magazine," Sims says, adding that the numerous murders of trans women — 20 reported so far this year — are making some inured to the violence.
"We have to talk about those real issues [of safety] before we can talk about the intricacies of LGBT civil rights in the future," he says. "Right now we've got to talk about the day-to-day because it's very real for too many people."