Interview: Brian Sims and Building Equality

We first started to hear about Brian Sims when he became the first openly LGBTQ+ person elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2012. As a legislator, he worked to remove homosexuality from the state criminal code and voted to expand protections for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. As a passionate advocate for human rights, Sims defended access to reproductive healthcare, fought for criminal justice reform, and sought solutions to environmental issues disproportionately affecting vulnerable communities. 

A distinguished policy and civil rights advocate from Philadelphia, Sims, the son of two retired Army lieutenant colonels, has spent nearly 20 years traveling the nation advocating for equality, supporting progressive candidates and causes, and teaching others how to use their power and privilege to advance equal rights. During his legislative career Sims led on issues of Women’s and Reproductive Rights, Racial and Ethnic Justice, and LGBTQ+ Equality. He has received multiple national awards and commendations for the work. A Co-Chair of the Legislature’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and Founder of the State System of Higher Education Caucus, Sims served on the Governor’s LGBTQ+ Equality Commission since its founding. The author of 38 pieces of legislation, including the “Marriage Equality Act,” the “Ban on Conversion Therapy Act,” and the “Comprehensive Sex Education Act,” Sims also focused on equal pay, energy sustainability and gun regulation throughout his time in the House.

Today he continues to serve on the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Board of Advisors, and lectures regularly to businesses, non-profits, and universities about the policy and legal challenges facing the national and global civil rights movements. From speaking to Fortune 100 companies like Facebook and Microsoft about the power of LGBTQ+ inclusivity and allyship, to teaching college students and athletes to use their privilege to be strong partners and advocates for change, he believes deeply in empowering everyone to make change.

Now, Sims will take that fight across the country and around the globe, focusing on the advancement of LGBTQ+ equality, as Managing Director of Public Policy & Government Affairs for Out Leadership.

Out Leadership is the world’s first and only LGBTQ+ corporation whose sole product is equality. With 98 member companies (including Amazon, American Express, Bloomberg, Citi, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, IBM, Microsoft, Nike and Walmart), Out Leadership harnesses the power of business to drive equality by connecting LGBTQ+ leaders across the globe and advocating for inclusion at every level: from entry-level to executive to CEO. As a Certified B Corp, Out Leadership also partners with 56 non-profits (including GLAAD, Freedom for All Americans, Lambda Legal, Transgender Law Center, and many other organizations) and annually donates over 20% of its net profit to global LGBTQ+ nonprofits. Out Leadership has always focused on the Return on Equality™ businesses receive from valuing both their LGBTQ+ talent and the market of LGBTQ+ and ally consumers.

Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people continue to increase, fueled in part by legislative attacks in state, local, and national governments. In the last 18 months, an estimated 162 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in 35 state legislatures in the United States alone. Moreover, in 68 countries around the world, it is still illegal to be gay. The recent horrific attack in Colorado is emblematic of why changes are needed in America’s legislative process. In this climate, the business world has a unique opportunity to lead the pro-equality coalition. 

In this new role, Sims will expand Out Leadership’s advocacy across the United States, leveraging the resources and influence of 98 member firms to convene urgent state-level conversations on LGBTQ+ issues and public policy. This work will build upon the ground-breaking Out Leadership LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index, which for four years has ranked all 50 US states on LGBTQ+ policies, and the business impact on the state. Sims will collaborate with Out Leadership’s non-profit partners, member companies, and other strategic allies to help business leaders and companies drive policymakers to create business environments in all 50 states that drive both societal change and bottom-line impact. 

We sat down to have a chat with Brian Sims to learn more about his career in politics and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role with Out Leadership.


DAVID LOPEZ: Tell me a little bit about your journey into politics. What drew you to it?

BRIAN SIMS: It’s probably no secret to anybody that’s followed my work, that inequality is the reason that I became an elected official. I’m a civil rights attorney by trade, and like a lot of queer people, I found myself living in a state that lacked all LGBTQ, civil Rights housing, employment, public accommodations, education insurance, and I did what I knew to do first as a civil rights attorney to try to make a bunch of change. And Pennsylvania, my state at the time, was the second largest state in the country that had never elected an out elected official to our general assembly. And there’s just a ton of metrics about why that matters.

So I tried to elect a couple of people to our general assembly over the years and then with the help of a lot of friends and a lot of family, took an opportunity in Philadelphia to run myself. And that was just a little over 10 years ago.

DL: Is there anything in childhood or in your upbringing that you, that you feel steered you in that direction?

BS: Absolutely. Public service and women in power are sort of the root of my childhood. My parents are both retired now, Lieutenant Colonels in the Army. They met during Vietnam. My mom enlisted and my dad was drafted and they stayed active duty military for most of their adult lives and raised my brothers and sister and I at Army bases all over the United States.

So public service was sort of both their passion and their career. And it drove sort of the adventures of my childhood, along with the fact that my mom was by and large, one of the highest ranking women on any base I ever lived on. And I grew up in what I always describe as a very co-equal household.

And I saw equality every single day of my life until I walked outside of my family’s front door. It wasn’t a stretch for me when I went off to law school to do work on women’s and reproductive rights and internationally on human rights that would lend itself to doing civil rights work here at home.

DL: So it was just in your blood.

BS: Yeah, I hope so. It’s certainly in my sweat!

DL: How is your new role as Managing Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs for Out Leadership different from any other position you’ve held? 

BS: You know, in many ways, I think it’s sort of the summation of a lot of the learning experiences and a lot of the careers that I’ve had up until this point. After law school, I didn’t go straight into politics or civil rights. I was a disability attorney after being a disability attorney. I worked my way into civil rights work and ultimately into equality policy. But one of the things that’s always been really clear is that in every legislature, every legislative environment from city councils to Congress, there are very powerful players and very powerful entities, oftentimes among elected officials, it’s the leadership positions, but oftentimes among those entities, it’s the most powerful businesses that have an influence in that state or that city or on that government.

What I know is that the members of Out Leadership want to be able to use their clout and their power as major businesses, some of the most powerful businesses in the world to help drive equality in the places where they do business. Among our members are Comcast and Amazon and Bank of America–companies that believe deeply in equality, but also operate in every single state in the United States, including all of those states where equality is still, you know, not the law of the land.

DL: What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

BS: I hope that I’m able to work very closely with the government affairs and lobbying groups of our members to really help them and empower them to use their strength to drive equality in all of those places. In all of those times when they’re advocating for themselves, I want them advocating for equality as the Fortune 100 and the Fortune 500 in the United States are largely expressly supportive of LGBTQ equality and show that in many ways. But I want them to proclaim that equality alongside their ask. When they’re talking about taxes and zoning and supply chains, I want them talking about why.

Equality is good for business, why there’s a “return on equality” as we like to say it Out Leadership and I think that if I’m able to do that over this next year and really engage our businesses both globally and in states that rank really low on the Out Leadership business equality index. States like Kansas and Texas, where we just had a round table where we gathered corporate leaders and equality leaders and thought leaders from around the Texas region to talk about what they can do to drive equality in a relatively low equality state. That’s what success will look like. 

If a year from now we’re having this conversation and we’re talking about all of the countries and all of the states where we drove equality conversations among the states and country’s most powerful players.

DL: I know that with pride organizations across the country and around the globe there’s been this feeling of making pride too corporate because of their inability to reflect the equality that we’re looking for with regard to the LGBTQ+ community. Do you think that the work that you are doing could mitigate or help alleviate some of that frustration with pride organizations– where the queer community feels it might be easier to create relationships with corporate companies or businesses?

BS: I suspect that it will, in part because I share all of those same frustrations, every one of us can spot performative equality from a mile away.

Especially if you work in equality. If you understand the difference between actually doing equality and just talking about it, or being a pungent for equality, we can spot that difference. And every one of us talks about what it means to slap a rainbow flag and now an integrated rainbow flag on the side of your own logo, and pretend that you’re supporting us in pride month or in national coming.

What I hope is that those things are all important and many of them are derived from those companies own ERGs and a lot of LGBTQ work that’s going into those companies to make those visible things happen. But as you know, at Out Leadership, we understand that equality is also part of the name of the game when it comes to driving business as well.

This stuff matters for HR and it does matter for PR, but it also matters for their bottom line. And we want our members, and we want other companies to understand that if they’re gonna operate successfully in a future where they can capture market share, where they can see growth, they’re gonna have to do so with an understanding that consumers and employees believe in and want equality for LGBTQ people, for women, and that we want racial and ethnic justice.

DL: I know you were recently at the White House! As an out politician, what does it mean to you to have been present during President Biden’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act? 

BS: You know, in many ways bittersweet. I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to be at the White House, to join several thousand LGBTQ advocates, and activists that have fought for marriage equality, some for generations. And it was really critically important to see as the President said something that while the Supreme Court had recognized it’s sort of a different game altogether to have elected representatives recognized.

And I agree with him completely, but also there’s the acknowledgement that part of the reason this is happening is because the Supreme Court has made it very clear and their recent attack on women’s reproductive rights, that marriage equality is on the table as well. Some of what we’re seeing led by the efforts of Tammy Baldwin was to ensure that there are more protections for LGBTQ people who are going to get married.

Because we suspect that we’re going to see attacks from both now the House of Representatives and from the Supreme Court on our marriage equality rights. So we have to enshrine them in law better. I was grateful the President and Congress could do that.

DL: Outside of your political career, what kind of a person is Brian Sims? 

BS: You know, my friends would tell you that I’m a lot more solitary. I think people tend to think that I am. You’re actually looking at part of my idea of a perfect weekend.

I have a lot of friends and I like to spend as much time with them as I can, but I also have a really amazing dog and a phenomenal boyfriend, and I like to spend as much time with them as I can as well. I like being outside. I am one of those people that sort of lives on the road and really enjoys being on the road. I like finding people in their environments, not necessarily bringing them into mind. 

Here’s the full video interview:

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