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For Pennsylvania lawmaker-to-be, Obama's declaration was an emotional moment

Brian Sims was late for his train from Washington to Philadelphia on Wednesday. He had been in a meeting at the Gay Lesbian Victory Fund, where he learned that President Obama was about to make a major statement.

Brian Sims
Brian SimsRead more

Brian Sims was late for his train from Washington to Philadelphia on Wednesday. He had been in a meeting at the Gay Lesbian Victory Fund, where he learned that President Obama was about to make a major statement.

Sims took a seat in the cafe car and found the Huffington Post site on his iPhone just in time to hear the president endorse same-sex marriage.

"The woman sitting across from me tapped my arm and asked if I was all right," Sims recalled during an interview Thursday. "I didn't realize I was crying."

The 33-year-old lawyer, who defeated longtime State Rep. Babette Josephs in the April primary, is about to become the first openly gay member of the state legislature.

When he takes office next year (he is running unopposed in November), he will do so with one of the more eclectic life stories among his colleagues.

The son of two lieutenant colonels in the Army, Sims was born at Walter Reed Army hospital. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a civil rights lawyer and took the Law School Admission Test at 16 just for practice. He was captain of Bloomsburg University's football team one year when it made the national playoffs, and he has a football tattooed on his back. In his 20s, he worked at a Santa Cruz, Calif., grill where he learned to cook a 200-pound pig, and every year on St. Patrick's Day, he is invited back to do the honors.

He has a twin brother with blond hair, blue eyes, and a six-pack who looks nothing like him. Another brother who works as a speaking engagement agent. A sister who tutors a Saudi princess in Riyadh. And a 6-year-old Newfoundland named Hannegan.

As of January, Sims will also have a voice and a vote in Harrisburg, an achievement, he says, that will be critical in the state's inexorable crawl towards civil rights for all Pennsylvanians.

The LGBT community has had great allies such as State Sen. Daylin Leach, who repeatedly sponsors legislation to legalize gay marriage. But allies alone cannot achieve civil rights for minorities, Sims says.

"I like to quote Barney Frank, who said unless you have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu," he says. Also U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.), who, in 1992, became the first openly lesbian member of that state's assembly. "She says if you're not in the room, you're being talked about. If you're in the room, you're part of the conversation."

President Obama's endorsement for gay marriage moved him, he says, "because I was watching history. There was this sense of justice."

But he says he sees the victory as mostly symbolic for now. "For Pennsylvania, it means nothing," he says. "I wish it did."

Sims says he does not believe Obama's claim that his position has been evolving.

"He had his mind made up a long time ago. I'm not going to give him a pass for not getting there earlier. But I want a president, I don't want a martyr. If we're going to criticize our friends and allies for not becoming friends and allies fast enough, we're also criticizing every one of us who struggled with our own coming out. And our friends and family who struggled with the process, too."

Sims says he did not come out of the closet until his senior year in college, primarily because he did not want to distract his teammates.

In 2009, he told Outsports magazine that he was outed by a jilted lover who wanted him kicked off the football team. But speaking Thursday from his bare-bones campaign office across from the Union League, where he had just had a business lunch, Sims skipped the jilted-lover part. Instead, he recalled that the epic moment came after he outwrestled a cheerleader from Shippensburg University in a match in 400 gallons of red Jell-O. (She is now his sister-in-law.) Walking back to the car afterward, one of his teammates asked, "Yo, Sims. Are you gay?"

"Yeah, man. Thanks for asking," Sims said. "It was the dumbest answer ever."

In Harrisburg, Sims intends to focus on jobs, the economy, and public education, not just LGBT equality. He says opponents of gay rights, such as State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, represent an extremist minority.

"Most of us are in the middle, and the more we can highlight rationality and expose fanaticism, the better," he says.

It's only when politicians can't fix people's real problems, like the economy, he says, "that they start addressing their perceived problems, scapegoating and blaming. Hence, this war on women and this attack on gays."

Yet he considers himself lucky to be living as a gay man in this era, now that pop culture - rather than any presidential statement - has done so much to change public attitudes.

"Right now, there's never been a better time to be gay and a better country to be gay in," he says.

If his opponents want to fight this losing battle against LGBT rights, Sims says that as a former football jock, he's as well prepared to beat them as anyone.

"If your opposition is dumb machismo," he says, "I speak the language."