Rep. Sims Sworn In: LGBT Community Will ‘Hold Heads High as Equal Citizens’

An image from Buzzfeed, upon Rep. Sims' election to the House.

An image from Buzzfeed.

Rep. Brian Sims is not just the only new Philadelphia legislator headed to Harrisburg this legislative session, he’s the first member of the LGBT community ever elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature. (And one of two gay members of the state House; Republican Mike Fleck came out after the 2012 election.) On Thursday afternoon, members of the state House, Philadelphia City Council and local activists joined on the sixth floor of City Hall for the ceremonial swearing-in of Sims, who, as of Jan. 1, represents the 182nd District of Pennsylvania, including parts of Center City and the Gayborhood.

Among those present were Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Frank Dermody, Rep. Cherelle Parker, Rep. Mike O’Brien, Councilman Bill Green, Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal, civil rights activist David Mixner, Victory Fund board member Harvey Hurdle, Equality PA’s executive director Ted Martin and Court of Common Pleas Judge Daniel Anders.

The atmosphere was casual, but all the speakers were extremely passionate, and they had one thing in common: They were there to celebrate the historic nature of Sims’ election — to celebrate that the LGBT community now has one of its own at the table. That’s one seat at a table of 203, of course — many of whom are savage in their anti-progressive ideologies — but a seat nonetheless.

The first of the assembled luminaries to speak was state Rep. Cherelle Parker, leader of the Philadelphia delegation in the House. While making some jokes about Rep. Sims’ good looks — she called the politician “S.S.G.”: “He’s smart, he’s savvy, and he’s good looking; and that’s the combination you need to go out on a date with Cherelle Parker” — she also offered advice on how to handle Harrisburg. “There are great expectations of you, now, particularly from the community that I know you’re going to advocate passionately for,” she said. “But … never allow anyone to put you in a box.”

Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, referred to Philadelphia as the country’s “most gay-friendly city” before reflecting upon the political history that led gradually to Sims’ election, including a successful non-discrimination bill introduced Philadelphia City Council in 1975 (Philadelphia became one of the first cities in the U.S. to put the law into place in 1982) and a similar piece of legislation which failed in Harrisburg, and currently only exists as an executive order for government employees.

Civil rights activist and author David Mixner gave one of the most impassioned speeches of the afternoon, noting how far the LGBT community has come since his secret civil rights meetings in California and his having lost “300 friends to AIDS” in the ’80s and ’90s. “You cannot, Brian, be as good as all these other legislators,” he said, “with all due respect. You must be better, because you are the first [to show the state] what we bring to the table when we’re allowed to serve.”

When it was Sims’ time to speak, he began by admitting he hadn’t prepared any words. “I sat here for the last hour and thought about what I wanted to say to them and to all of you,” he said, referring to the speakers in City Hall as “…the architects of who I am today,” before acknowledging each speaker singularly.

One thing many may not know about Sims is his relationship with Councilman-at-Large Bill Green, who, Sims noted, offered him office space during his campaign. “You helped give me a voice in City Hall,” he told Green. “You helped give me legitimacy in the city in a way I hadn’t had before.”

After formally recognizing all those who’d spoken on his behalf, Sims told the crowd that he’s one of several voices of a new generation of Philadelphians to participate in politics; he noted that his work for the community will be difficult, but promised to be a tireless voice in the Capitol. “I don’t mind saying that the leadership in Philadelphia has been very old, and very white,” he said, “and yet, I know that the next generation will not be. And I know that from working with … the Center for Leadership, from working with William Way, from working with Zoning. I know that there are so many well-trained, qualified individuals out there who are stepping up to the plate, and I am honored to have been one of them.

“My job is to work my tail off,” he said. “I will never, ever forget that the right time for equality is always right now. I’m not going to go to the state House and fight for my rights. I already have my rights; I’m going to fight so they are recognized.

“If you want the best from me, then continue to give me the best of you … What’s next is equality, non-discrimination — and what’s next is for all of us in this room who are denied the equal rights that our constitution guarantees us to hold our heads high as equal citizens in this country and in this commonwealth.”

An attorney and civil rights advocate, Sims has already been appointed to three state House committees: State Government, Commerce and Professional Licensure. He’s also been appointed to serve on the State Government Subcommittee on State-Federal Relations and as Democratic secretary of the Commerce Committee.

The figures in this piece have been updated for clarity.

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