A Humanist in Action: Pennsylvania House Representative Brian Sims

By English, James H. | The Humanist, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

A Humanist in Action: Pennsylvania House Representative Brian Sims


English, James H., The Humanist


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.

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"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. …

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