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By Brian Waddle
Photo by Kyle Cassidy
At 38, Brian Sims has already made a national name for himself. The Democratic state representative has pushed the boundaries of the NCAA, the Pennsylvania Legislature, and advanced the rights of all LGBT Americans. From charming voters with a carpool lip-sync of a Little Mermaid tune to smacking down Republican smear-meisters, Sims is all unvarnished appeal and untarnished reputation.
He will bring his trademark inspirational message and fierce intelligence to Houston on April 8 as the keynote speaker for the University of Houston LGBTQ Alumni Association’s Red Dinner. Sims spoke with OutSmart about his strong support for the goals of this UH fundraiser.
Brian Waddle: What did the act of coming out as your authentic self while in college—and as a leader on the football team—mean to you personally, athletically, and academically?
Brian Sims: Coming out in college changed my perception of myself, and in ways I didn’t expect. I had reached a point in my life where I said “f–k it,” as far as my authenticity [being overshadowed by] everyone else’s expectations of what they thought I was supposed to be. I thought my world was going to come apart when I [finally decided to] come out, but I was very fortunate, and that wasn’t the case. By and large, my friends became better friends, my allies became stronger, and I reached a place where I could do this on my own. It was better than I expected.
But not everyone has that type of experience. And as you know, “the college experience” has become so expensive and competitive, and the expectations on 18-year-olds and 20-somethings make college life like living in a pressure cooker. Many LGBT college kids stifle their own personal growth if they have disapproving parents who would cut off financial support. What would you say to college-age LGBT kids about this precarious step of balancing coming out while not alienating parents who disapprove of homosexuality?
Well, first, there are a lot of people who don’t understand how the coming-out process can negatively impact a college student’s financial situation if their parents are not supportive. It reminds me of people who don’t understand the difference between “homeless” and “housing-insecure.” Couch-surfing with friends is not an adequate sleeping situation, or conducive to being academically successful, and this impacts you in college. Yes, it is possible for people to make it through a university without one ounce of emotional or financial support, but those are almost insurmountable odds. What we’re trying to do with this Red Dinner is to make this journey easier—with a successful ending—for University of Houston students.
Secondly, there is a misconception that you have to come out to everyone simultaneously. Come out to yourself first, and then you’ll have the power to come out to others in your life. How and when we choose to share is something we all go through our entire lives. When, if, and where you choose to do that is your personal choice.
Do you think someone like Betsy DeVos, the new Education Secretary, has any idea this goes on?
I heard that she just learned elementary schoolteachers have to pay for their own school supplies. If that rudimentary truth has escaped her to this point, [then this coming-out issue] is way, way, way over her head.
As you know, the Red Dinner was inspired by an email from an engineering student to the University of Houston LGBTQ Resource Center. He was reaching out and looking for assistance after his parents kicked him out of their home and subsequently refused to help him continue his education. A couple of weeks ago, I met the student who wrote that initial email. His story is remarkable—he’s a dreamer, both literally and figuratively. He was brought to the United States when he was seven, and is laser-focused on proving everyone wrong—that he can graduate and have a career as an engineer. He was bullied in middle school, but laid low in high school to save himself mental anguish. Then as a sophomore at UH, he came out. Because of all the turmoil in his life, his grades suffered. He had no stable home, he was working to pay for his car to drive to school—the list of obstacles and hurdles goes on and on.
The good news is he is now back in school, a junior, and committed more than ever to making his dream a reality. What would you say to our UH student?
Two things. First, thank you for being so inspiring. People who have never been challenged or tested don’t know how to overcome anything. I have no doubt he will be a leader in our LGBT community and an inspiration to college students across the nation, gay and straight. He is literally the quintessential American story. Our goal is making sure other students don’t have to overcome quite so much as he’s had to.
And I want him and other students in his situation to know that while he and his family may be opponents right now, [he has the support of] so many more neighbors and community allies. That will far outweigh the negativity of his supposedly closed family relationship. The Red Dinner is proof of that. A common [trait] of our community is that we get to choose our gay family, and we just need to reach out to them more. Throughout human history, there is a rich cultural heritage around chosen families. You can create the community around you. We are re-defining the meaning of the American nuclear family, and we prove every single day that we know better, and we do better.
So, have you been to Houston before? I’m curious what Philadelphians think about Texas and Houston—do they assume we’re all in 10-gallon hats and driving convertible Cadillacs with longhorns as hood ornaments?
No, you’re not Dallas. I have been to Houston before, and I say this with the utmost respect—I think of it as the Chicago of the South, a world-class, cosmopolitan, beautiful city with not an accent or cowboy hat in sight.
You should visit during the Houston Rodeo when we dress up like all of the stereotypes! What is your message to Houston’s LGBT community that doesn’t have the luxury of living in a traditionally more progressive, liberal blue state—especially in light of the November election outcome?
I feel your solidarity—yes, Philadelphia is very gay-friendly, but Pennsylvania has the same protections as Texas: not a single LGBT civil-rights protection. The path to equality in Texas will look like the path in Pennsylvania. The more liberal-leaning states and governors have already done this. Our challenge is to find a path that works for Republicans who are running for office.
Going back to our “firsts” conversation, there are thousands of ElizabethWarren/BrianSims2020 hashtags all over social media. What do you see as your next “first step” in your career?
Are there really [Warren/Sims hashtags]? No, that can’t be true. Seriously? That’s interesting. Well, I’m still the only “out” elected official in our state assembly, and until there are some gains on the LGBT front in Pennsylvania, I’m right where I belong.
Brian Waddle is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.