Repub. Rep. Mike Fleck Comes Out; Contrast to Gay Rep. Sims
Despite its proximity to the largest concentration of states with open marriage laws in the country, Pennsylvania had no openly gay state legislators before 2012. Now, in the span of just a few months, Harrisburg has gained both a Republican and a Democrat who are openly gay.
While two remains a small number compared to the number of lawmakers representing the 6th most populous state, the two representatives present a stark contrast in politics and public persona, suggesting that progress in LGBT political representation is not limited to one party or one geographic area.
Democratic State Rep. Brian Sims won PA's 182nd congressional district in the 2012 general election. The district comprises the heart of downtown Philadelphia, as well the city's proudly nicknamed "Gayborhood."
Sims, a long-time gay rights advocate and policy attorney, has proven an enthusiastic champion of the LGBT cause. Prior to and after his election, his public presence has been robust and open. He has penned essays and given numerous interviews highlighting his intention to fight for policy changes in Harrisburg.
"LGBT rights is not an ideological thing, it's not a posterity thing, it's a factual thing," said Sims in an interview for Philadelphia Weekly (the front-cover which featured Sims in a football uniform and rainbow colored face paint).
Sims openness and public presence is a stark contrast to Republican Rep. Mike Fleck's political past and persona. Fleck, who was formerly married, is a staunch conservative and deeply religious. He also represents a conservative district at the very center of the state.
Fleck has served since 2006 without making his sexual orientation public. He came out earlier this month to a local newspaper, making him one of just two openly gay Republican state representatives in the country. Despite the absence of any immediate backlash, Fleck remains somewhat reserved about what this will mean for his political career.
He did concede that his political career would be more complicated, and that he would by no means be a "one-issue" candidate.
Sims, meanwhile, formally reached out to Fleck through an essay for the Huffington Post. He wrote:
"The representative is an honorable man who has served his community well, and while I may disagree with him on a number of policy issues, if we are ever going to claw our way back out of this awful partisan divide that so many of our politicians have thrust us into, it’s going to have to start with finding places of mutual respect and common ground."
Whether Sims and Fleck will work to together in Harrisburg remains to be seen -- neither returned calls for comment before press -- but it can be expected that Sims will be more forward and open about his role as an advocate for LGBT rights.
Coming out, of course, is a difficult process, especially for a public figure. Unlike Sims, who attests that coming to terms with his sexuality was easier for him than most, Fleck struggled with his sexuality for many years. He admitted to his local paper that he even pursued "treatment" from a Christian counselor.
Regardless, the representatives now share common ground as the first openly gay PA lawmakers and will be working along side one another in Harrisburg. Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, one of the state’s largest LGBT advocacy groups, is hopeful that their presence will compel initiatives and at the very least discourage backtracking.
"I think when the parties meet behind closed doors, conversations about banning gay marriage or continuing to withhold rights and protections would be pretty tough to have," Martin told EDGE, referring to the presence of openly gay politicians generally.
As Martin pointed out, "if Mike Fleck was renting a house in his district, his landlord could evict him for being gay." A Pennsylvania lawmaker, working with Fleck, would have to reconcile that the policies in place directly affect a colleague’s rights.
This force of presence is only increased by the fact that Fleck and Sims are from different parties. No one party will be able to ignore the human aspect of the issues they might otherwise discuss in purely political terms.