EIC Brandy Schillace Speaks with Brian Sims
We are excited to celebrate Pride Month with a podcast! Join Brandy Schillace as she interviews Representative Brian Sims, openly gay LQBTQ rights advocate from Center City Philadelphia, who is running for Lt. Governor. In politics, Sims tells us, we’re very fond of saying this is the most important election of our time. And there is some truth in that year in and year out in that the consequences of good decisions and bad decisions seem to be growing as the country grows, as we face our challenges, as we have more challenges. But certainly for the LGBTQ communities, this last US election was a “game changer.” Sims believes it will be or will prove to be for communities of color, certainly for women, for first- and second-generation immigrants, for the people that were on “the bull’s eye or the target” for the last four years.
Sims also recognizes both the power of the LGBTQ movement, and the challenges it has faced during the Covid crisis. One of the community’s great strengths is our ability to gather. “There is a lot of reality to the truth that the LGBT equality movement advanced in the ways that it did because we got very good at creating our own family,” Sims explains. It’s been particularly hard on these communities to find themselves quarantined; “our ability to gather has been impacted.” Listen in for more, and to hear ways in which the LGBTQ community has moved the needle in American politics—and what we hope for in the future.
TRANSCRIPT BELOW BIONOTE
State Representative Brian Sims represents Center City Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ 182nd legislative district. Elected in 2012 after unseating a 28-year incumbent, Sims became the first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
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), respectively. Sims continues to be a leading advocate for LGBT and women’s rights in the General Assembly while garnering wide attention for his commitment to bipartisanship and collaboration between the Commonwealth’s Democratic and Republican parties.
BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello, and welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. I’m Brandy Schillace, and today I’m here with Brian Sims. He’s an LGBTQ activist, Pennsylvania State Representative, civil rights attorney, and past president of the Board of Directors of Equality Pennsylvania. Sims is committed to discussing and changing policy and legal challenges facing the LGBT civil rights movement and the community at large. And we’re so happy to have you with us today, Brian.
BRIAN SIMS: Well, hello there. I’m glad to be with you guys.
SCHILLACE: So, I want, if we could, to start with just a little bit of an introduction to who you are and what you do. It’s been such a year, I know, for all of us. And I just wondered if you could say a few words about what you do as a State Representative and how you’re feeling right now on the other end [chuckling] of a really strange couple of years.
SIMS: [chuckles] I’m grinning ear to ear as you ask this question, because it’s a complicated question, right? I’m a frustrated progressive legislator in a state that is the last great gerrymandered state in the United States that just so happened to also be ground zero for the 2020 election. But we’re through it. And I actually have this really unfamiliar sense of optimism—
SIMS: —dare I say hope for a couple of months now. And it’s not new-found, I’ll say. It’s just been buried for a while.
SCHILLACE: Mm, mm. Definitely. And I think, I know, we were all sort of riding this wave of different emotions. But particularly, I think, in terms of accessibility for the LGBTQ community, this was not just another election.
SIMS: Oh, no. In politics, we’re very fond of saying this is the most important election of our time. And, you know, there is some truth in that year in and year out in that the consequences of good decisions and bad decisions seem to be growing as the country grows, as we face our challenges, as we have more challenges. And so, yeah, maybe each election at some point or another for people is the most important. But certainly for the LGBTQ communities, this last election was a game changer, as I believe it will be or will prove to be for communities of color, certainly for women, for first- and second-generation immigrants, for the people that were on the bull’s eye or on the target for the last four years. This was a game changer.
SCHILLACE: Right. Right. Well, I wanted to talk a little bit today, not only about the political changes, which are huge, but also the way I think we’ve seen so many accessibility issues made that much more dire by the COVID pandemic. And I feel as though one of the, I have talked to disabled community members who say that their issues have suddenly become writ large due to the LGBT, or I’m sorry, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But I also think the LGBT community has a similar situation. And so, I wonder, how has the pandemic changed representation, access, other situations that were maybe already problematic for this community?
SIMS: Well, you know, the ways, I suppose, are almost as varied as the issues that impact us, which largely are everything, right? While we can easily identify policy issues that are specific to the LGBTQ communities, like non-discrimination, like anti-bullying, like bans on reparative therapy, it’s also incumbent upon all of us to recognize that issues like raising the minimum wage, for example, are a massive issue for the LGBTQ communities, where we’re more likely to be in single-income-earning homes. Issues about education. LGBTQ families are now in 99.8 percent of counties in the United States.
And so, the way I describe it is if you were somebody that was already kind of falling between the cracks or you were already fallen between the cracks, when that crack opened up and everybody else fell down too, there were many people that we know and care about that were already there.
SIMS: And so, as resources we’re getting used up and as people were sort of really realizing the extent of how much we would all be impacted by COVID, absolutely, LGBTQ families.
And one of the ways that is most critical, I think, is that our ability to gather. There is a lot of reality to the truth that the LGBT equality movement advanced in the ways that it did because we got very good at sort of creating our own family, right, your chosen family, your chosen communities. And we were able to come together in that way. And it’s been particularly hard on our communities to find ourselves quarantined, as it has been on lots of people for sure. But our ability to gather has been impacted, which was one of our greater strengths.
SCHILLACE: Right, and I think, too, there’s a whole lot mixed up in that having to do with mental health issues, which I know is an issue, particularly for LGBTQ teens who are sometimes stranded in bubbles with family members who don’t approve of them, who won’t let them be themselves, and now are having difficulty finding those other communities to reach out to, at least physically. We do have the online community. But again, there’s limits.
SIMS: Well, suicide among LGBTQ youth, depending on where you are in the country, is anywhere between one and a half to three times that what it is for their straight and their heterosexual classmates. And that’s a staggering number. And it’s in part due to the lack of resources, but it’s also due to a lack of protections.
You know, in so many places in the country like where I live in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where we don’t have anti-bullying legislation, but we also don’t have anti-discrimination legislation, one of the awful byproducts of living in a place where you aren’t protected is that very often, we tend to turn on ourselves. And so, in the LGBTQ communities, there’s increased levels of stress and depression and self-harm. And all of that has been exacerbated by COVID-19, without question.
SCHILLACE: Mmhmm, yeah. So, I wanna ask, I’m gonna basically leap off of your suggestion that we have a little bit of hope, we have a little bit of optimism. And I wanna ask what is next for civil rights? What kinds of things need to be done, not only in your own home community in Pennsylvania, but nationwide, that makes these kinds of situations better for the LGBTQ community?
SIMS: Well, frankly, it’s the best part of all of this, Brandy, and that is that the things that need to be done are already happening right now. I know that things are going to get better in part because of some of the moving parts that are happening right now. And chief among them is that American democracy, a representative-style democracy gets better in a whole slew of very measurable ways—again, this is political science, not political art—in a bunch of very measurable ways when those people who are making decisions in a representative democracy look more like the people that they represent.
SIMS: And that’s by and large not been the case in American representative democracy in a whole slew of different ways with regard to a whole bunch of different privileges. But in the last two cycles, election cycles in the United States, more women, more second-generation immigrants, more LGBTQ people, and more people of color ran for office than at any time in U.S. history. In many ways, our life experiences, our lived experiences are the antidote to bad, myopic, sort of top-down focused government, if you will. And so, we’re already beginning to see that change.
And it’s not just because we have elected a new president and we’ll have new leadership in the Senate and just generally new leadership from Washington, D.C. all around. It’s also that in more school boards, in more town councils, in more state legislatures, there are now wise Latinas, and there are more LGBTQ people. And we finally got a Black man representing a Southern state in the United States Senate.
SIMS: And those things are, in the same way that microaggressions can be so damaging, micro-successes, micro-inclusions can be equally powerful and impactful.
SCHILLACE: Yeah, I agree. And I also think that it’s been a long time coming. And I think, I hope, that one of the things we’ve learned in the last couple of election cycles in the United States is that local government is not to be overlooked. Now, of course, some of my listeners are also in the U.K., and I think that they’re learning much the same lessons. And that is you can’t wait for the ship to be steered entirely from the top. And so, I think the idea of local, state, community representation changing and people realizing that you should go out and vote in those elections, they’re not optional, [laughs] you know, has been a really powerful shift that I think I’ve noticed.
SIMS: Well, I both agree, and I also really hope that others have noticed it as well. One of my favorite ways to respond when people tell me they’re overwhelmed by political ads is, “That’s really interesting. Somebody thinks that you are very powerful and very important.” Because in campaigns, we don’t waste our money on people. We don’t waste our money on messaging to people that aren’t gonna vote, that aren’t gonna get engaged, that don’t care. We spend our money on people who will and can have an impact as voters, as constituents.
I say this to young people all the time who feel frustrated with politics, and they ask me about, you know, “How do I make politics more about what youth are interested in,” which is something I agree on. And easy to say, “Listen, think of all the millions of dollars that are spent each cycle trying to explain to young people or trying to capture the vote of young people.” And that millions is spent because they know that there is an untapped resource in youth voters who just currently feel disenfranchised.
SIMS: But the reality of the matter is the more campaign material you’re getting, the more information you’re hearing, frankly, it means that a lot of people have spent a lot of time calculating whether or not you are worth sending this stuff to, will it have an impact on you. And if it does and if you do care about it, there’s a different approach. It’s easier to say, “Hey, listen. I’m engaged. I care about these things. Now I want to do something about them.” But campaigns are a really interesting thing. The more people that participate, the better, for most of us, not for all candidates, but certainly for most of us.
And so, those messages, I’d rather just have to send one.
SIMS: When I campaign, I’d rather just, I’d rather said one mailer, and maybe I’ll send you a call. But instead, we find that it takes a lot more to get people to get engaged. And maybe one of the byproducts of this last year is that it won’t take so much.
SCHILLACE: Yeah. I think part of it is people have seen movement. And of course, the difficulty is always that it’s like launching a rocket. It takes a lot of energy to get it into the stratosphere. I think once it’s up there, it’s a little easier to keep it going. And so, I think sometimes people mistake the difficulty in launching change as though it’s not movement at all, when in fact it is. It’s just that it takes a lot of energy, a lot of people doing a bulk of work. But it should be all of us doing something. And I think that that’s really important.
I wanna just say that you yourself are a representative who is representing a minority group. And I wonder, what has that been like for you to be elected in this position and to know now you are a face that people recognize and say, “Hey, he’s like me?”
SIMS: Well, that was always sort of my intention. And I spent a lot of years trying to help get out people elected to office, in part because, yes, the byproduct of having out people in office is better equality legislation. But it’s also better understanding of who we all are. Any time that people that are in the public eye who have a large platform come out, it gives another opportunity for people who otherwise don’t know us to understand us. And the byproduct of understanding is acceptance and support, frankly. And that’s a big part of this. And so, my state was the second largest in the United States that had never elected an openly LGBTQ person. The Constitution was drafted about five blocks from where I am at. I represent Benjamin Franklin’s First District in the state House.
And I knew that I had to make sure that when people began to pay attention to who I was as an out legislator, that what they saw was something that they could do themselves. We don’t really know what we want in politics anymore, but we know we don’t want fake, ivory tower bs people or candidates or issues. And so, for me as an LGBTQ person, one of the things that scares our opponents the most is our authenticity.
SIMS: We’ve had to fight for who we are and to accept who we are and to know who we are. And it was clear to me that part of what was getting elected when I won this seat was sending an authentic, proud LGBTQ person to a space where we hadn’t been before. And so, I had to be clear about who I was and how I would portray that. And I’m glad to say it’s probably easy to look at me and think, man, I could do with that guy’s doing! But I want that. And my life is better when more people who are non-traditional, as in just not the people we have always seen in these jobs, no matter who that is, whether it’s nurses or teachers, whether it’s line workers or grocery clerks, my life gets better when more people who have life experiences that haven’t been represented in government are.
SCHILLACE: Yeah, exactly. And actually, the Medical Humanities Podcast is for the Medical Humanities Journal. And publishing is also a place where there’s not great diversity of representation frequently, in academic publishing anyway. And that’s something we’re also seeking to try and change. It’s difficult, and it actually requires a conscious effort. And I think that’s another thing that I wanna ask you about, or I guess that I wanna discuss with you, is that sense that change doesn’t just arrive. We have to want it and we have to work for it and we have to prioritize it.
SIMS: Well, my favorite member of Congress, a guy named Barney Frank, used to say that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.
SIMS: And it’s not only true, but it’s a reminder, you know, if you don’t have a seat— It’s not just if you don’t have a seat at the table, things are happening without you. It’s that you’re probably there being damaged by it. So, you’re not only, you don’t only have the imperative of wanting good things for you and your community, you also have the double-edged sword of needing to get yourself out of the crosshairs of people coming for you. And that’s, you know, it’s one of the most insidious things that we do to minority communities, is we make them both responsible for both rescuing themselves from whatever -ism the majority is putting upon them, but also then to try to lift themselves up in the exact same breath and the exact same vein.
SIMS: And it’s you know, men do it to women. White people do it to people of color. Native-born Americans do it to immigrants. It’s one of those really frustrating things about privilege, that to your point, when we combat it, we actually do it quite well. You know, one of the things that I like to remind people of is that part of the reason that diversity is so important isn’t just because of the optics. It’s not just because there’s a customer out there or a client or a partner or a lender that wants to see themselves reflected in the businesses that they’re doing business with. It’s also because there are very real-world competencies and strengths that develop when you grow up in worlds that are not created for you.
SIMS: And every single person on this planet except for cisgender, white, straight men of money—and I’m really clear about that money part because the economics of this are critically important—everybody else has had to do slightly different things to survive in this world that was not created for them.
SIMS: And those different things are measurable. It’s called social science. And we know that the strengths that— For example, women are incredibly good problem solvers, and they’re good at triaging problems: as a problem goes closer and closer and closer, knowing when it needs to be addressed with. First- and second-generation immigrants are incredibly good at understanding the various goals and imperatives of a room, say, of 100 people. Their empathy scores are incredibly high ‘cause you sort of become students of the people that you’re in a room with. Those kinds of—the government in the United States, when you’re applying for jobs, calls it a KSA: a knowledge, skill, and ability—that you learn from that. Those things are, those are more of the reason that diversity should matter in business and in industry than just optics.
SIMS: ‘Cause optics does matter. But the real things that we bring to the table, and we call it cutesy things because we don’t wanna recognize it. We call it “women’s intuition” or “Black girl magic” or “trans excellence.” And those are all coded ways of saying that life experience has taught you how to handle some things.
SCHILLACE: Yeah. But then at the same time, a way of kind of trying to push it off as though it’s not important in some ways when, in fact, it’s critically important.
SIMS: Critically important.
SCHILLACE: And of course, the people who don’t wanna see it as important are people who are invested in the cis, straight, white monied way of doing work. And so, you’re right. The people who don’t wanna invest in that are doing so because they have reasons. It’s not, again, I think we sometimes assume that things just happen, but it isn’t true. There’s lots of bias, and there’s activity behind the scenes. And we need to be ready for it as voters and also just simply as citizens and as legislators such as yourself.
SIMS: And it’s exactly true. And every now and again, someone will say to me, “Brian, you would vote for a woman candidate just ‘cause it’s a woman candidate.” And I say, “Well, you know, to some degree that’s partially true. Yeah. Yeah. Like all things being equal.” Because they will never be equal or at least they haven’t ever been. And it means that they’re— And frankly, it depends on the room that I’m trying to send that person to.
SIMS: But by and large, I know the data, the math, the systematic understanding behind putting people in deliberative bodies where people like them with their—and like them, measured in lots of different ways—where they haven’t been, the byproduct of that is good decision making.
SIMS: And so, if we were gonna scrap all of our institutions—every magazine, every newspaper, every journal, every business, every government institution—and rebuild them, but use the social science that we know now about how certain people have certain types of competencies, we would stock our institutions filled with women and first- and second-generation immigrants and people of color. And eventually, a lot of those KSAs maybe would go away as a lot of the marginalization disappeared eventually. But right now, those are real-world strengths that people bring to the table.
SCHILLACE: Right. And you can’t end marginalization unless you actually bring those people to the table in the first place. So, it’s so important from so many different ways of looking at it. And this is, as you point out, it’s an LGBTQ issue, but it’s a much larger issue about bringing minorities forward and fighting for those civil rights because the rights are not there. I mean, yes, they’re promised rights, but in many, many actual situations, we know that the two groups are not treated the same, right? We know this. We know this in terms of policing. We know this in terms of governance. And we can be part of the solution. And so, I really wanna thank you for coming on today, Brian. And I wonder, is there anything you’d like to just leave us with before we say goodbye to our group today.
SIMS: And Brandy, for thank you very much for having me. This was a fun thing to do. We should try to do this again. The thing that I would leave you with is that a lot of people are looking for the right person or the right people in their lives to get behind, to rally, to support, to lift up. And what I’m hoping is that most people are also looking at the mirror from time to time and wondering if they are those people also. Every one of us has looked at people in charge, however, whatever in charge means in your life and thought, “I could do that better than you.” And the truth is, you might be right. And there has never been a better time than right now to explore those opportunities.
SCHILLACE: That’s right. Thank you so much, Brian. And to our listeners, we will have a transcript also available to this podcast on our blog. We hope you will join us next time at the Medical Humanities.