Part of being a politician is getting your picture taken. That's what Pennsylvania legislator Brian Sims was doing recently in downtown Philadelphia -- getting some new images taken for publicity purposes and fundraising materials.
Sims casually mentioned to the photographer that his partner, Brandon McMullin, worked nearby. The photographer suggested McMullin join the photo shoot, which seemed revolutionary to the 39-year-old politician. The picture came out so well that Sims now uses it in his email blasts to constituents and supporters, with a message acknowledging its importance:
"Before I first ran for office, among the prevailing advice I often heard about LGBT candidates is that they should avoid including their spouses in campaign literature. The exact phrasing may have varied a bit, but in the end it was a form of 'your partner is great, but don't put same-sex couple photos on campaign literature or you'll alienate voters.'
I always understood what they were saying but it was so frustrating to be fighting to elect out, proud advocates of the LGBT community while simultaneously telling them it's in their best interest to shy away from who they are. For so many of today's LGBT candidates, that's happily no longer a reality and frankly, if you've met me, you know that I've always had a tough time not being who I am."
Same-sex spouses and partners of politicians have typically kept a low-profile, especially among out federal legislators, of which there are only seven. None of the six out congress members and one senator feature images of their partners or spouses on their congressional websites (though some of them mention them in their biographies). Compare that to high-profile heterosexual senators like Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake, who feature Norman Rockwell-esque images of their families.
When he first ran for office six years ago, Sims fretted over his image and how out he should be. Besides being warned of taking pictures with a boyfriend, Sims was told voters take note of which partner is the more traditionally masculine or feminine -- and judge accordingly. Much has changed since then, Sims tells The Advocate, including an increasing desire by voters that politicians appear "relatable."
"I like somebody who's proud of the relationship that they're in," he says. Sims represents a mostly Democratic enclave of downtown Philadelphia, but he has many older constituents who are generally liberal, but "LGBT issues aren't exactly close to home for them."
Sims contends these voters "appreciate the authenticity" of seeing images of their state representative with the man he spends his life with.
Public displays of same-sex affection aren't just important for politicians, Sims acknowledges. Any queer couple walking down the street is still performing a quietly courageous act; one that's not just about "shoving our lifestyles" in people's faces.
"We're hand-holders," Sims says of himself and McMullin. When they first started dating about three years ago, Sims admits they partly did that to make it clear they weren't straight. But now it's "a way to show people we have a romantic life we're proud of."
Displaying gay love is an extraordinary thing in 2017, Sims says.
"For those uncomfortable with gay people, it's revolutionary that we're out and comfortable with ourselves," he says. "For people who are gay but not sure about the extent of love and relationships around them, it's a good reminder.
"I'd like to think we do it instinctively now, but I don't think either of us ever forget the purpose. It's also I love the guy and want to hold his hand."
See more images of Sims and McMullin here.