Although he is still under 40, LGBT activist, politician and lawyer Brian Sims has already accomplished so much in his 38 years. For a start, he was the first out LGBT college football captain in NCAA history and the first openly gay elected state legislator in Pennsylvania history.
My colleagues and I were therefore thrilled when Sims agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to be a special guest at the upcoming Wine Train Pride Ride that happens on March 18. I hope that you will consider attending the memorable event, too. This annual extravaganza, which transports guests through the Napa Valley via a scenic train ride while gourmet food and fine wines are served, supports Bay Area LGBT communities and benefits the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation. The foundation works to raise funds for HIV/AIDS, hunger and youth services.
In a recent interview with me for the San Francisco Bay Times, the Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (D-182) shared his uniquely informed perspective on nationwide social justice issues and how the LGBT community here in Northern California compares to such communities within his present home state.
Cheryl Stotler: Who were some of your early mentors and role models?
Brian Sims: I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where a lot of my role models were real people that I really was able to associate with. My mom and dad are both retired lieutenant colonels in the Army, and from a very early age it was clear to me that public service was a part of our family’s take on American values. I was also a big Ben Franklin fan, and grew up with an idealized version of Ben Franklin as maybe being America’s most pivotal founding father. When I moved to Philadelphia, I did get to exercise all of my Ben Franklin nerdiness because this is certainly his city. I now represent Ben Franklin’s first district in the Pennsylvania State House.
Cheryl Stotler: Equality in sports seems to be moving at a slower pace than in other fields. What do you think has to happen before we start to see more openly gay individuals in professional sports?
Brian Sims: I think, first and foremost, what needs to happen is that we see more openly gay and LGBTQ individuals in college sports, and we’re just beginning to do so. Just in the last few weeks we’ve heard stories of three out college football players. We’ve heard stories of the most important LGBT football player in the U.S., who is a seventeen-year-old who is about to play football on a full scholarship. We had a trans man win, unfortunately a women’s wrestling tournament, because they wouldn’t let him wrestle biological men. But I think that we have seen from athletes and, to some extent, from coaches and owners the idea that LGBT people and athletes can be embraced, yet it’s still something we’re having a hard time seeing from fans. Presumably every athlete in the U.S. by this point has played on a team with an out person, but fans somehow still have this oddly heterosexualized vision of professional athletics that I think is beginning to fall away pretty quickly.
Cheryl Stotler: In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues facing the LGBT communities in Pennsylvania now?
Brian Sims: It’s a complicated question, because the over-arching pressing issue is what’s happening at the federal level. In Pennsylvania, there are not any statewide LGBT civil rights other than marriage, which we got through the courts. The bulk of civil rights that LGBT people enjoy, if they are not lucky enough to live in a city that has municipal LGBT protections, they enjoy because of the federal government, and those are now beginning to crumble. And so I think for all Pennsylvanians, ensuring that there is statewide LGBT non-discrimination, ensuring that there is a ban on reparative therapy, ensuring that there is anti-bullying legislation is in place are all important. These are all, however, predicated on a strong federal (supportive) presence in the equality movement that we might not now see.
Cheryl Stotler: Please compare and contrast the LGBT communities and related political environment in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with that of the gay communities here in San Francisco and Northern California. How are they the same, and what are some key differences? How might we best learn from each other?
Brian Sims: This is a really interesting question because I have traveled the country, my parents being in the military. I have lived all over the U.S.: from Philadelphia, of course, to Monterey, California, to Eagle River, Alaska. One of the things I am proud to know is how similar people are all across the country. We may call soda and coke and pop and cola something different, but the truth is, I think that most Americans, regardless of where you find yourself in the country, have a lot in common. I see that particularly in the LGBT communities that I visit.
One of the things that I think Philadelphia and San Francisco have in common is a commitment to diversity, but a commitment that isn’t always readily apparent. San Francisco is a city that, like Philadelphia, helped lead the movement for LGBT equality. Philadelphia is a city that I think tries desperately to stay on the forefront of the conversations about racial and ethnic justice in the same way that liberal San Francisco does. Do we always get it right? No, but one of the advantages we have as cities that have seen progressive movements thrive is we can have tough conversations.
What do we have to learn from each other? I hope that San Francisco and (the rest of California) are paying attention to what Philadelphia, what Pittsburg, and what Pennsylvania are doing right now in response to President Trump, in response to a failing federal government. We are rising up. We are rallying. We are marching. We are raging, if you will, against the Trump agenda, and hope that is something that other states, cities and municipalities can learn from.
Brian Sims: I think this is simple. I think that in response to the Trump era, in response to attacks on all people, not just LGBTQ people, what we are going to see for the very first time is all of this talk of intersectionality becoming action. Intersectional action. The Left often gets accused of having too big of a tent, so big that it sometimes falls over. I think right now our big tent is one of our biggest strengths. The LGBTQ movement has, for years, really battled issues of racial and ethnic diversity, gender equity and immigration. Civil rights are part of these larger equality conversations. I see in LGBT communities all across the country the best-equipped people to rise up in response to the Trump era. We’re going to win because of it.
Cheryl Stotler: We are looking forward to getting to know you more at the upcoming Wine Train Pride Ride. What drew you to this event?
Brian Sims: I have family in and around the Napa Valley area. It’s where my mother comes from, and I have been coming to a little town called Los Gatos, California, pretty much every summer since I was seventeen or eighteen years old. Through college, through law school and as a working adult, I’ve returned especially every March. That was, in part, how I knew California, but it also meant that I knew to come when I ran for Congress and originally when I ran for the State House; I turned to Californians for support. And I think what happened specifically with the Wine Train Pride Ride is that the organizers were looking for somebody who was both (connected) to California but who also could speak to the ideological draw, the ideological background of the Wine Train Pride Ride and I believe that’s why they reached out.
Cheryl Stotler: What are some of your favorite places to visit when you are here in Northern California? Please share any memories that you might have of your times here.
Brian Sims: St. Patrick’s Day at C.B. Hannegan’s restaurant in Los Gatos is my happiest place. There are no memories that I have that are better than my years spent working there and celebrating there. It’s even frankly my dog’s namesake! So for me to come back and see family and friends is an amazing part of my California experience.
Cheryl Stotler: What personal and professional goals do you hope to achieve in future?
Brian Sims: That’s a complicated question. I think right now I am, like everybody else, evaluating what my future holds in an era where our country could elect somebody like Donald Trump. My work, and the work of so many of my friends and family for the last ten to fifteen years, has been so geared toward expanding progressive values and ideology. That’s not going to change, but it does look very different than what I expected it would look like at this time. What people can expect to see from me is a redoubling of my commitment to equality across the board, and making sure that, by the time I’m done here, I’m not living in a state that doesn’t want to or isn’t able to protect me, my friends, my family, my neighborhood.
I would like to add that we are in a time when many are looking around and wondering what can we do to help perpetuate change, how can we be agents of change, and how can we help to make a difference in our towns and communities. One of the things we can all remember is that letting your dollars follow your values is a really important thing. People that support the Wine Train Pride Ride are doing so because they know that this larger message of equality, this larger message of equal rights, this larger message of unanimity in the community is an important one to spread right now. I am extra thankful to the Wine Train and the Pride Ride organizers for recognizing that right now what we can do best is what we have done best in the past, and that’s to come together and loudly proclaim in one voice—or in many voices—that we will not be ignored, that our rights will not be sidestepped, that we are here, and that we are taking our seat at the table.
For tickets and more information about the Wine Train Pride Ride, please visit: http://winetrain.com/package/gay-pride/
To learn more about Representative Brian Sims, go to: http://www.pahouse.com/Sims/
Cheryl Stotler is the Wine Director and Retail Buyer for the Napa Valley Wine Train.