IF YOU aren’t familiar with Brian Sims, a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, he’s a history maker. The first and so far only NCAA football captain to come out of the closet while active, he’s also the first openly gay representative ever elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Don’t be fooled; he may have a career in politics, but by no means is he a typical politician in it for the power. Sims (who’d prefer you call him Brian) is in the game because he wants to make the world a better place to live for everyone, a desire that has guided his professional development from its inception.
In office less than a year, Sims’ reputation as a human rights champion caught the eye of the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and earned him a coveted invite not only to attend her first official trip in December 2013, but also to be a headlined speaker. Discussing racial justice, the rights of the disabled, equality for women, and LGBT issues, Sims spent four days touring Japan, empowering activists, politicians, and students with the same intensity that garnered him board positions with groups as diverse as Ben Cohen’s Stand-Up Foundation and The Center for Progressive Leadership. Yet speaking to him about his experience in Japan, Sims sounds mystified that Ambassador Kennedy even knew who he was.
“I’m not sure how I got on the radar,” he says with a laugh, “but they wanted to bring advocates from Japan and the United States together at all levels. They wanted someone visible… apparently I was on the short-list for a couple of months before they asked.”
Though the invitation surprised him, those who know and follow his career were hardly shocked. After all, he studied international law to argue for the rights of the disabled and disaffected. A self-described feminist, he’s a tireless advocate for women’s issues and a strong voice in the push for LGBT equality. Injustice and misogyny set him on fire. A driving need to combat inequality is what earned him his trip to Japan—a moment that he sees as the culmination of his life’s work to date, even while he strives to ban the practice of conversion therapy in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to end workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and to secure pay equality for women in 2014.
“It was humbling, but fulfilling,” he says of the trip. “It was amazing to see the resources that the United States and Japan are dedicating to advancing human rights. These are contemporary issues, covering the world. I kept thinking, ‘Brian, know your place.’ But if I wasn’t over there having these conversations, then who would be?”
At the heart of humanism is a desire to help our fellow human beings. Beyond the idea of “good without a god,” humanists seek to instill a very real and actionable sense of mutual respect in all members of humanity, free of the bondage of superstition and without regard to an individual’s physical traits and properties or cultural background. Humanists are—or at the very least should be—the most powerful advocates for securing human rights. For Sims, this advocacy isn’t just an aspiration, but rather an all-consuming lifestyle, one that allowed him to relate to myriad issues facing Japan. Although for him one issue stood out above the rest.
“I had a profound realization… there are so many things we have in common, one of those being the prevailing sense of misogyny.” As we speak, he points out the contrast between the two societies even at this level: in the United States, misogyny is largely the byproduct of religious rules and superstitions. In Japan, it is the outgrowth of centuries of traditions, persisting only because of the cultural tendency to not rock the boat. In fact, many inequalities in Japan are a result of this national trait, very different from the scriptural bigotry dominant in the United States. “There are not the same hate crimes and hate speech and bigotry we see in the States, so the conversation can be more high-minded.”
Here Sims makes a salient point. Religious dogma is so often the enemy of equality, yet despite this people cling to faith-based hatreds as though they were precious things, often carefully selecting commands of their faith to support their bigotry while simultaneously ignoring tenets which otherwise would condemn them. Take for instance the case of Michael Griffin, a New Jersey resident and teacher at a Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Catholic school who was fired for applying for a marriage license with his same-sex partner, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in his home state. Seeking advice, Griffin and his students reached out to Sims to find ways to correct this injustice.
“He was fired legally,” Sims acknowledges, “but we’re working to change that. This is beyond an LGBT issue. We learned from the Trayvon Martin
shooting that a judgment can be legal but not moral. The hypocrisy of this case is infuriating… I mean, teachers aren’t getting fired by the diocese for getting divorced, are they?” Neither are they fired for eating shrimp, being women, or wearing blended fabrics.
After we finish discussing the Griffin case, I ask Sims if he would describe himself as a religious person. I expect a politician’s answer, a wordy deflection tailored to neutrality or at least a statement that attempts to avoid suspicion of atheism. Neither of these expectations is met.
“I’m not religious,” Sims laughs. “I usually say I’m agnostic, but I think that’s because I’m too hesitant to say ‘atheist.’ My faith is in humanity. I would never bring the dogma of my politics into the church, and I don’t care for the dogma of someone’s faith being brought into my workplace.”
This answer is intriguing on a number of levels. It highlights the hesitance with which most legislators approach the subject of atheism and demonstrates the invisible barrier that atheists and secular humanists are confronted with daily. This unintentional limitation often excludes nonbelievers from discussion of equality, even when their rights are often trounced by well-meaning individuals working to ensure religious equality. That an openly gay man or woman can surge on to win in elections while openly atheistic candidates are vilified and isolated exposes a hidden disconnect that needs to be addressed. In a very real sense, all of Sims’ good work and advocacy—work that exceeds the charitable deeds of any pastor I’ve ever met—can be eliminated by a single word, an injustice that can only be defeated by solidarity and openness.
When I ask Sims if he would describe himself as humanist, he thinks for a second and states that he’s not certain what that means. Labels, to him, can be limiting and like any good lawyer he’s hesitant to adopt a term whose meaning is unclear to him. Quickly, I describe the philosophy and how it dovetails with his career as a human rights advocate, and while he doesn’t respond with “yeah, that’s me,” he says he has no problem being portrayed as a humanist. After all, how can a man devoting his life to doing good works reject a school of thought that commands its adherents to do just that? Still, he reminds me that he was elected to represent every member of his constituency, without regard to their faith or lack of faith, and to this end he must be sensitive to those who continue to believe and afford them the same respect that he himself commands.
So what, then, guides his personal moral philosophy?
“I’m a very empathy-based person,” he tells me. “I try to be cognizant not to confuse compassion with empathy though. Compassion motivates the amount of energy I bring to my work, but I do the work because I’m an empathetic person.”
Empathy is what moved him into law, landed him a position with the Victory Fund, and drove him into a political career. It’s what drives him to secure equal pay for women, and to make same-sex marriage legal in Pennsylvania, not just because he has a personal stake in the issue, but because it’s the right thing to do. It may also be what keeps him from seeking higher political office, an action many around him are pushing him to take, but something he himself seems less inclined to pursue.
“I’m flattered anytime someone talks to me about this,” he says. “Right now, I’m where I’m needed, where I can most effectively make positive changes. But being in Japan was a wonderful reminder of why I went into law, and I’d definitely consider a diplomatic post at some point. To have the opportunity to pursue equality and justice on an international level? I’d jump at that.”
I pose one last question to him: “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?” This throws him, and he tells me that no one has asked him this in an interview before. Sims is a man who sacrifices the majority of his free time to fighting the good fight. Whether it’s about veteran’s affairs, second chances for ex-offenders, or any of the other issues already mentioned, he’s always chipping away at things that weaken society and striving to replace them with pillars of justice. He is what every humanist should aspire to: an advocate for equality, justice, and for humanity itself. His answer to my question embodies his ethic in the most sublime way.
“I see myself living in Philadelphia, married to the man I love, and respected by my state and government.” I smile at this answer, because in so many ways it reflects the goals of the humanist philosophy, and I tell him so.
Humanism is a mystery to the general public. Though its principles are solid expressions of faith in humanity, the philosophy itself suffers from a general lack of brand recognition that can be expressed in terms of positive alternatives to superstitious faith—a problem that can only be solved when high-profile individuals publicly embrace its values without fear. As it is, many are engaged in labors that are unquestionably in keeping with the humanist school of thought, and Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims is one of them.