Brian Sims is something of an LGBT hero in Philadelphia.
The first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Sims has made it his mission to fight for LGBT rights in Philadelphia and statewide. Billy Penn talked with Sims about everything from hate crime legislation, to the evolution of the Gayborhood to public education here in Philly. Our conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Here’s what we talked about:
Billy Penn: Anti-discrimination legislation has been in the news a lot lately. What’s the status of anti-discrimination legislation in Pennsylvania, and what role do you see yourself playing in getting anti-discrimination legislation passed?
Sims: The short and disgusting answer is that we don’t have any statewide civil rights protections in Pennsylvania except for marriage. Frankly, Indiana was trying to pass laws to be where we’re at, but there are not any protections. You can’t fire somebody for being white, Christian or using a wheel chair. But you can fire someone because they’re gay.
Billy Penn: Do you see yourself having a role in fixing that?
Sims: There are two things that are holding this back. One is one particular person, but I don’t want to give any one person that much clout. But the other is the Catholic Conference. The PA Catholic Conference and Republican legislators are under the mistaken perception that Pennsylvanians are super-conservative. I like to say that the most conservative place in Pennsylvania is the Capitol Building when we’re in session, whether it’s the Catholic Conference or the GOP having done a very good job of propagating fear among my colleagues that we live in a completely Christian state.
Billy Penn: I assume the one person you’re talking about is (PA state Rep. and majority chairman of the House State Government Committee) Daryl Metcalfe?
Sims: Yes, the legislator is Chairman Daryl Metcalfe. Chairman Metcalfe is the architect of four of five most hateful pieces of legislation of the last ten years. In most legislatures, he would be seen as the far right, the laughing stock that most of us see him as. But here, his seniority has been rewarded with a chairmanship that is too critical to give to somebody like him.
Listen, I’m an LGBT civil rights expert. If I brought nothing except information to other members, I would feel like I was doing a good job. One of the things we have recognized for years is that you have to tell stories. For all of the math that adds up to equality, you have to tell stories and people have to take a personal connection before they can change their opinion. For many of them, they didn’t feel like they knew an out person. I’m giving them that opportunity, and knowing an out person can dramatically change how someone feels about these issues.
Billy Penn: What ever happened with the hate crime legislation that came out of the Center City gay bashing last fall? Do you have plans to re-introduce that?
Sims: My big concern is that any time legislation is being passed that historically has not been supported by lots of people, but an event or pressure is forcing them, you see very tacit support or attempts to undermine their own support, and that’s what I’m fearful about with regard to a hate crime bill. What we need is for that to include people targeted for sexual orientation or gender identity. While I know legislators are feeling the pressure, I don’t want to put forth a bill that just sounds good.
Billy Penn: There have been a lot of changes in the Gayborhood in the past years. Some make it seem like it’s becoming less gay, others are pushing a “Midtown Village” name. Maybe it’s gentrification, maybe it’s just changes. But are these changes good or bad for the neighborhood?
Sims: The Midtown Village thing is a construct of business owners who wanted to make sure that people didn’t know they were coming to the Gayborhood. Like they could convince themselves that it’s OK. I don’t know of anybody who calls it Midtown Village. It was just some business owners who wanted to.
Billy Penn: But you do see the neighborhood is changing?
Sims: I do see all the changes happening, but I love it. The truth is, there are still many places around the country where, for lack of a better word, a gay ghetto is still necessary where LGBT people can feel protected and safe and invisible. The Gayborhood, at one point, that was the purpose, that it gave them a place to go to meet with each other. But in the same ways Chinatown and Italian Market aren’t ghettos, it has become a heritage spot. Philadelphia as a city has become so LGBT friendly and nationally the tone has become more positive, so we don’t need a place to go and hide like we used to.
Billy Penn: You’re in the news a lot for your work on gay rights. But do you ever worry that you come across as a one-trick pony?
Sims: It wouldn’t bother me at all if that was the case. There are 203 members of the House of Representatives. I wish we had more people that had unique expertise and unique specialties. I think I’m the most-needed trick pony right now. We need people who are experts in civil rights and reproductive rights.
Billy Penn: I saw you plan to sponsor legislation again regarding equal pay for women. What might that entail and what do you plan to do differently this time around?
Sims: We’ve had an equal pay mandate for 50 years, but what we haven’t done is removed barriers that would allow a woman to actually discover if she’s making less. An employer can still punish an employee for disclosing their salary. A woman will get fired or leave a job and find out tangentially that she was replaced by a guy with less experience and making $10,000 more a year. So what we’re trying to do, it is already a mandate, we’re trying to remove those barriers to litigation.
Billy Penn: You endorsed Jim Kenney for mayor. How involved are you in Kenney’s campaign, and will you be actively campaigning for him as the primary draws near?
Sims: I’m trying to be as involved as I can. I think that having a strong mayor in Philadelphia is not only critical locally for those of us who live and work here, but also nationally for how people view our city. I was not part of the Street years, but I have been proud to be a part of the Nutter years, and I hope we can continue to show people that Philadelphia is a first-class city, and I think Jim Kenney is adept at explaining the past and, in the same breath, why Philadelphia is so special for where we’re going.
Billy Penn: Philadelphia is seeing a huge influx of immigrants and millennials moving into the city. What are some ways we can keep them here?
Sims: Two things for me: it’s tax restructuring and education investments. I don’t care how beautiful a city is, if taxes are too high, I don’t care how many businesses there are, if none of the employees can afford to live, we simply have to restructure how we tax people.
Billy Penn: And the public school portion of that?
Sims: We need a fair funding formula and a prospective education budget. The way Pennsylvania puts up education funding for debate is shocking to me. Most states do education budgets for three years in a row prospectively. Three or five years out, you can study trends, see changes long before they happen and you don’t get this massive partisan reaction to education funding every time somebody new is in office.
I of course disagree that cutting education would make us better, but I even more disagree with that fact that electing one person as governor will impact students for years like Corbett thought he would. Governor Corbett created an experimental group of kids, and that experiment failed and that should never have happened.
Billy Penn: So does that mean you’re skeptical of the impact Tom Wolf can have? He’s also just one person.
Sims: I’m not skeptical of Tom Wolf. I think it’s both a reflection of Tom Wolf’s very new and very sort of refreshing take on reform. But I also think that everybody statewide, Republican or Democrat, parent or non-parent, has seen what happens when we decide to do this epic cut to education that’s just bad for everybody. And part of the reason Corbett lost his job wasn’t only because of support for Tom Wolf, it was because of the obvious failure of Tom Corbett.