PA State Rep. encourages equal rights advocacy, activism and action

October 21, 2022

PA State Rep. Brian Sims addresses the audience during LGBTQ+ advocacy event

If you asked Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims at the age of 10 what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wouldn’t have hesitated before replying, “a feminist lawyer.”

“In sixth grade, I would’ve explained to you that a woman could be a Marine or lead a Fortune 500 company or become president,” said Sims. “It was largely the influence of my mother and being around this wildly powerful woman all the time. It made it very clear to me that women should be in power.”

This ingrained commitment to civil rights has propelled Sims throughout his professional and personal life. As an LGBTQ+ equality and civil rights advocate and attorney, Sims is the first openly gay elected state legislator in Pennsylvania history, having served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for Philadelphia’s 182nd District since 2012.

“I’ve been following Brian Sims on social media for the last few years, and I’ve found his message to be very empowering but also relatable,” said William Jellison, Quinnipiac professor of psychology and women’s and gender studies. “When he posted that he would be open to speaking at universities, I contacted a few of my colleagues and asked them, ‘Should we invite him to campus?’ The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

In recognition of LGBTQ+ History Month, Sims was invited to share his story with the Quinnipiac community on October 18, as the featured speaker on “LGBTQ+ Advocacy, Activism and Action.”

“This is not a conversation that every college in America is willing to have with their students,” said Sims during his opening remarks. “My hope is that I will be able to tell you a little bit about my background and that you’ll learn what it means for a person to do contemporary advocacy and civil rights work in our country.”

A staunch advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) civil rights, Sims has been credited with successfully lobbying U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to publicly support marriage equality and the LGBT-inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). Sims has garnered attention for his commitment to bipartisanship and collaboration between the Commonwealth’s Democratic and Republican parties.

In a discussion that was both insightful and inspirational, Sims talked about his life and career while helping to shed light on today’s complex and changing political environment.

The son of two retired Army lieutenant colonels, Sims came out to his football team in 2000 after leading them to the Division II national championship game as team captain. He remains the only former NCAA football captain to have ever come out and is one of the most notable collegiate athletes to do so in any sport. Years later in 2012, he would again make history when he ran for and was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

“As an attorney, I took cases that I hoped would have precedential value to change our laws for LGBTQ+ people. It didn’t work. That was part of the reason I ran for office,” said Sims. “I wasn’t from Philadelphia, and I didn’t think the city would elect somebody who wasn’t a Philadelphian that could also beat a 28-year incumbent. But I spent 10 months raising about a quarter of a million dollars from all 50 states and won by 253 votes. I got elected.”

Sims quickly became known as the person who would speak out when legislation was racist, sexist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic or transphobic. During his remarks at Quinnipiac, he encouraged those in the audience to do the same and use what he calls the “privilege of privilege” to advocate for people who are the negative recipients of privilege.

“Let me explain it this way. A broken, sexist mind will discount everything a woman says because he has a broken, sexist mind. But that same broken, sexist mind will give a pass to another man when they are talking about sexism,” said Sims. “It means that men have a higher capacity to change opinions of other men than the women who are the recipients of their sexism. Because of that, we are required to use our privileges to combat privilege. It is one of the places where we can be the most politically valuable.”

Sims urged the students in attendance to recognize their own political power and influence and cited their ability to discuss sensitive issues such as politics, sex and money as an advantage in shaping the country’s political landscape.  

“You have a lot of political power right now because you have political influence. It used to be reserved for a generation slightly older than me,” said Sims. “Political influence means that a core demographic of people can bend or flex the people in politics around them. Right now, it’s young people, more than it has ever been in this century.”

Sims recounted a recent event at the White House when he was asked if he felt optimistic about the future of politics.

“I think that women, people of color, second-generation immigrants and LGBTQ+ people are the antidote to our broken American politics. In the last four years, more have run for office in the United States and won than in the past 24 years,” said Sims. “In the next eight years, we will have more control over city councils, state committees and hearings than we’ve ever had before. And I honestly believe that what I know about this generation makes me incredibly optimistic.”

As he took questions from the audience about issues such as book banning and the recent rise of hyper-conservativism, Sims spoke about the difference between fighting discrimination and pushing back against a culture that allows discrimination to take place.

“Slurs are not supposed to be a part of politics. We need to call out bad behavior. Every single one of you is carrying a bunch of privilege right now. You have the power to stop a situation and say, ‘That’s not funny. That’s wrong,’” said Sims. “It might make you uncomfortable, but I promise most people want to do the right thing. Or maybe because they don’t want to be shamed again, they won’t do it again. We can change each other’s behavior.”

As he concluded his remarks, Sims spoke about the shifts in demographics and the domination of the country’s two-party system. He noted that the current generation of 18-to 25-year-olds have access to more information by their 18th birthdays than their parents had at the age of 39.

“And that means when you vote and interact with other people, you’re doing it with a significantly broader information base,” added Sims. “You communicate in ways that are vastly different than my generation or my parent’s generation. And what’s happening is that the older modes of communication that were effective in campaigns don’t have any impact on an entire swath of the voting population right now.”

As he wrapped up his talk, Sims spoke again with optimism about the future.

“If you’re 25 years old, capitalism and democracy haven’t really worked for you. I don’t know what that next step is, but I don’t think I’m the future of American politics. If this doesn’t make you shift your politics towards something different, something better, I can’t imagine what possibly could,” said Sims. “I think the 18-to 25-year-old demographic will look nothing like a standard democrat or republican in about 20 years. At least, I hope not. So, I say to you, ‘Change it up. Do it better.’”

Stay in the Loop

Sign Up Now