Rep. Brian Sims Discusses Marriage Equality in Pa.

by David Perry

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 31, 2013

The unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decision on Oct. 18 to allow same-sex marriage made the Garden State the 14th in the Union to afford gays and lesbians the same matrimonial rights and protections enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts. Senator-elect Cory Booker, then mayor of New Jersey's largest city of Newark, began officiating same-sex ceremonies seconds after the legislation took effect; a move repeated by other officials throughout the state. The move signals the fact one-third of the American population now resides in polities with marriage equality declared as law, and highlights New Jersey's longstanding tradition of social equality.

Also highlighted was Pennsylvania, New Jersey's neighbor to the west, and its increasingly conspicuous lack of any sort of state-level protections not only for same-sex couples, but also LGBTQ people as individuals. While surrounded on three sides by four states - New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Delaware - having safeguards in place based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Pennsylvania is the only state in the American Northeast and above the Mason-Dixon Line to still disallow rights to LGBTQ people on nearly every front.

It is in this vacuum that Brian Sims operates. Representing the 182nd Legislative District that includes several sections of Philadelphia, his election and standing as Pennsylvania's sole openly gay legislator makes Sims a particularly radiant political star in the LGBTQ movement, and puts him on the vanguard of same-sex equality in the state.

State of Independence

"I know it is going to pass," a confident Sims tells EDGE as he discusses House Bill 1686, the same-sex marriage equality legislation he introduced to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the capital of Harrisburg.

"The truth is, and even the opponents of equality, especially marriage equality, will tell you, they recognize that this is going to happen. Marriage equality is going to become the law of the land."

His confidence stems from the fact solid majorities in Pennsylvania support legal same-sex marriage recognition. A Franklin & Marshall College poll recorded 54 percent of the population as being in favor; Susquehanna Polling and Research found a resounding 70 percent being so.

"It is very perplexing," Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May. "I think the Legislature is much more conservative than the rest of the state. You see it on guns, you see it on women’s reproductive rights, and you see it on LGBT rights."

The population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh lean Democratic and progressive, but are located on either side of the state; balancing them out is the vast rural center (by some derisively dubbed "Pennsyltucky") dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and a more conservative outlook. While several counties and municipalities in Pennsylvania passed their own LGBTQ protection ordinances, including the five biggest cities, the "Keystone State," a name prophetic of being a mud-slinging battleground state in presidential elections, has been a case study of incremental gains and false starts for equality at the state level.

Sims’ marriage bill remains pending before the Pennsylvania General Assembly as of this writing. Hate crime legislation passed in 2002, only to be struck down on a technicality in 2008. It was reintroduced in the 2009 session but failed to make it beyond the committee. While transgender individuals may change their gender designation on birth certificates, they, along with gays and lesbians, have no legal protection in the workplace. A notable gain is with regard to adoption: Both LGBTQ individuals and couples are recognized as primary caregivers.

An easy passage of HB 1686 may end up indirectly owing also to the self-implosion of conservative Republican governor Tom Corbett, who infamously equated same-sex marriage to sibling incest earlier this month. Ironically, even with such an opinion, Corbett is seen by some in his own party as not being conservative enough, a viewpoint held by Tea Party hardliner Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who blocked Sims from speaking on the Pennsylvania House floor about the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, citing "God’s law." Party infighting, along with the governor’s removing $1 billion in education while supporting tax cuts to chemical refiners that would cost state taxpayers $1.7 billion, has sent Corbett’s approval rating spiraling as low as 16 percent in some polls.

"I used to tell people that Pennsylvania wasn’t conservative, it was contemplative. Pennsylvanians have bided their time, I think, with a very conservative governor and a very conservative government and didn’t like what they saw. And I think that we’re now going to see changes," Sims says.

If Not You, Who?

Pennsylvania law currently defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. If passed, the three-page HB 1686, also called the Sims-McCarter PA Marriage Equality Act, will amend that definition to being a union "between two people who enter into matrimony." Sims is quick to point out his bill gained more co-sponsors within 100 hours of its introduction than the bill restricting marriage to heterosexuals has even to this day.

"HB 1686 needed to be introduced. Now is the right time," Sims says, "I believe that under the Constitution, I and every other LGBTQ person in this state and this country have the right to be married. But I live in a country that says that my rights depend on someone’s interpretation of their faith and, unfortunately, denying me the right to marry is based solely in faith. There are no secular arguments against marriage equality."

Despite having been in office less than a year, Sims, 35, also distinguished himself by showing political elegance. Regarding Governor Corbett’s incest remarks, Sims restricted a response to his Facebook page , saying, in part, "No one, not even [Corbett’s] own party, would argue that he’s an intellectual heavyweight or even a particularly thoughtful person... Our job isn’t just to be frustrated with the homophobia coming from the Governor’s Mansion, it’s to do everything we can to ensure that his chapter in Pennsylvania’s political history is as sad and short as his record on schools, economic development and civil rights."

Initially coming to prominence as the first openly gay NCAA football captain, Sims, who before his political rise was a policy attorney and civil rights advocate in Philadelphia, admits he entered politics partly because Pennsylvania was the second largest state in the country that had yet to elect an out legislator.

"It needed to have one," he says. "There’s 12 million people in this state; potentially a million LGBT people that had never been directly represented. When you get out people in a legislative body, that body becomes more cognizant of recognizing equality."

Additionally, despite conservative holdouts in Harrisburg, Sims sees Pennsylvania joining the progressive ranks bordering it sooner rather than later.

"I now work with legislators from all 67 counties," he observes, "and I’ll tell you what - this state is on a wonderful trajectory."

David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.