Family Portrait: Brian Sims

Brian Sims has an impressive résumé.

He holds a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Bloomsburg University. At Michigan State University School of Law, he worked as an extern and law clerk for Legal Aid of South Central Michigan. He also served as the senior law clerk at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. He is president of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia and sits on the board of Equality Advocates of Pennsylvania. At Bloomsburg, he was a scholar athlete and the captain of the 2000 National Championship Division II football team. As the first-string defensive tackle, the All-American athlete became the only openly gay college football captain in NCAA history and the most notable college player to ever come out. None of this helped him on Aug. 4 as he faced his greatest foe — a 3-inch ball wrapped in yarn and covered in leather. For the seventh anniversary of Gay Community Night at the Phillies, Sims was chosen to throw out the first pitch.

PGN: So what was it like? BS: It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done since taking the bar. My twin brother and my older brother were both pitchers in high school, but I am one of the 10 percent of American boys who grew up without playing any baseball. It has been a running joke that despite being an athlete, I can’t dribble a basketball or throw a baseball. I can’t even throw a football.

PGN: How were you chosen? BS: GALLOP has been a major sponsor and has always been involved in selecting who threw the first pitch. So for the seventh-year anniversary, Larry Felzer, who coordinates the event, asked if I would do it. I was ecstatic for the first few months — what a great opportunity! — but then, as we got closer to the date, I started to get more and more nervous about it. It’s a big thing and potentially embarrassing.

PGN: How’d it go? BS: The pitch wasn’t great, but it got there and that’s all that I needed it to do!

PGN: Where are you originally from? BS: I’m from a little bit of everywhere. My parents were both colonels in the U.S. Army. I’m an Army brat through and through. At last count, I think I’ve lived in 17 different states. I like to brag that I can pack up a four-bedroom house and have it in the back of a hatchback in 30 minutes. We moved here in the early ’90s, and I went to high school in Chester County and later I went to Bloomsburg University up near the Poconos. So other than the three years I was in law school, I’ve been in Pennsylvania for the last 16 years. I consider myself a Pennsylvanian.

PGN: So where are some of the places you’ve lived? BS: I lived in Alaska, I lived at West Point Academy in New York, where both of my parents were professors. I lived in Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas, which houses the largest federal prison in the country. For a while my father worked at the Pentagon, so we also lived in the D.C. area for a time.

PGN: How many siblings? BS: I have three: an older brother who is married with three kids; a twin brother, who is married with one son — they both live in the D.C. area; and a younger sister who lives here in Pennsylvania, finishing up a degree at Chestnut Hill College.

PGN: So both your parents were colonels in the Army — that’s pretty amazing. BS: It was awesome. Growing up on an Army base, usually everyone’s dad is an officer or soldier and their moms are homemakers, nurses or teachers. My mom was an officer. I have a ridiculous feminist streak from having such a high-ranking mother. It was a really neat thing. Most kids would brag about their dads coming home in camouflage gear and Army boots, and I could say the same thing about both my dad and my mom. They had a very equal marriage. I never remember hearing, “Wait until your father gets home.” My mom was definitely enough. And what’s also cool is that my brothers have each married women who are very strong, smart, proactive women. Definitely alpha-women.

PGN: So did people snap to attention when your mother walked into a room? BS: Oh yes, but the good thing about both my parents was that they were not really leathernecks. They weren’t typical rough-and-tough Army personnel: They were both more Army academics. They were both very smart, very educated and very socially liberal. But yes, people definitely snapped to attention when she passed by.

PGN: How liberal? BS: Well, they were more Republican when I was younger, but they were always very socially conscious. I remember when I was a very little boy, I made some stupid comment as kids will do with their peers, about an African-American kid in my class. I was about 5 and my dad pulled my brother and I aside and had a teaching moment with us. He explained that we had no idea of the struggles that this person or that person might have had to overcome or what someone might have gone through. That everyone had a right to be where they were, the same as I did. That I had to learn to judge people based on how they treated me and how they treated other people. He was a Southern Baptist Republican doctor, which stereotypically does not lean toward tolerance, but he believed in equality. Both of them have always been very socially responsible people.

PGN: Are your other siblings involved in the military? BS: No, none of us. Both of my grandfathers on each side were in the military and I believe both of their fathers were as well, but my parents steered us away from it. I think one thing they found frustrating is that a lot of times the military is not based on performance, it’s based on a certain structure that’s not always fair. For example, if you joined the Army, but I joined right before you, even though I might be a lousy soldier, I would still get promoted before you, just because I joined an hour before you. They wanted us to fail or succeed based on our level of commitment and our level of hard work.

PGN: What is one of your favorite places you’ve lived in? BS: That’s easy. Without a doubt, Alaska. Living there was like living in a postcard. I talk about it all the time. I was a Boy Scout back then. In fact, my mother was our Scout leader, and being a Scout and living in Alaska was incredible. My parents bought a motor home while we were there and we spent every weekend on the road traveling throughout Canada and the Yukon, seeing central Alaska and visiting places like Mt. McKinley. We were there when the Exxon-Valdez ran ashore and we went down to see the destruction, the beaches covered in oil, and watching the soldiers from the base in Ft. Richardson scrubbing the rocks with toothbrushes, trying to clean it up. It was very memorable.

PGN: What was an early inkling that you were gay? BS: I never remember coming to a point where it was like, “Oh man, I like guys and I’m supposed to like girls.” I did have a girlfriend in high school and a boyfriend, but I never really had that “Aha!” moment; it just happened. Looking back, I think I would have pegged myself as gay, even though I was a big kid and athletic. I think the sports helped me pass and we were always the new kids at school, so I learned to identify those things that would help you make friends and do well quickly. Being nice to people, being polite to people, doing well in class — those things really got me through.

PGN: What sports were you involved with? BS: I played a lot of soccer. I played in a league in Alaska. My brothers and I were on a ski team and, when I moved to Pennsylvania in eighth grade, I started playing football. When you’re big in eighth grade, you automatically get recruited as a linebacker, and that’s what happened. It was an invaluable experience.

PGN: How so? BS: I think the discipline, the camaraderie and the teamsmanship that come out of team sports is absolutely invaluable. For many kids, their coaches and their peers are really the only outside influences that can influence their behavior in a positive manner. During your teenage years, your parents are the last people you want to listen to, but you will take advice and structure from your coaches and teammates. The confidence and the discipline that I learned playing football has never left me. It has absolutely helped me excel at anything I’ve ever done in life. PGN: You seem to have certainly done that. What’s your business history? BS: In 2004, I started working for a law firm that did disability work for disabled doctors and lawyers. Then a year ago, I started my own law firm. Throughout that time I was mildly active in LGBT activism, and then I started working to help elect Judge Dan Anders. It was a crash course in LGBT activism and politics and I got completely sucked in. A year ago, I joined the board of GALLOP and became the president, and I am also the current board president of Equality Advocates, though we are currently going under a major restructuring and, if I have anything to do with it, we will hopefully have someone who is smarter, better and more attractive statewide than me to take over. I’m also the staff council for policy and planning at the Philadelphia Bar Association, the oldest metropolitan bar association in the country. They are extremely active politically. We comment on laws being drafted, we help legislators with policy issues and having access to the kinds of resources I have with them has been tremendously helpful with my work in the LGBT community.

PGN: What’s next? BS: Although we don’t have a total statewide nondiscrimination clause, it’s coming. When you poll in Pennsylvania, you find that Pennsylvanians fundamentally support nondiscrimination. Even in the most rural parts of the state, the support is still at least 59 percent. What a great place to start from, to be able to tell legislators that this is what their constituents feel. It’s about educating them. I don’t tell people that their religion is wrong, or that they can’t have an opinion. No one wants to be yelled at or told that what they feel is wrong, but if you explain things in a calm and rational manner, most people ultimately believe in fairness and can be enlightened.

PGN: OK, changing gears, what stupid human trick can you perform? BS: I play the harmonica, though not well. I can walk on my hands and I still hold Pennsylvania’s bench-press record. I pressed 500 pounds in college and every year I get a call from a school saying that somebody’s going to break my record, but so far they’ve all failed.

PGN: If you could witness any historic sporting event, what would it be? BS: Hands down, Jackie Robinson’s first game, when he broke the color barrier. Pop culture, sports and the media have such an effect on our culture. There was plenty of advocacy and activism around and in the halls of academia, but until things changed in the sports world and in entertainment, it didn’t really touch people. When Jackie Robinson broke the barrier, when you began to see people of color in lead roles in TV and films, when LGBT celebrities became visible, that’s when you started to see public sentiment change. Pedro on the “The Real World” and even “Will & Grace” brought the issues to mainstream America. I think they accomplished more than any amount of protesting or flag-waving we could do. I would have loved to have seen Jackie Robinson’s start.

PGN: What’s the song you’re embarrassed to admit you like? BS: Right now it’s Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” My fiancé’s going to love that I admitted that!

PGN: Who’s your fiancé? BS: His name is Paul and we’ve been together for five years. We met my last semester of law school at Michigan State. He was a member of the crew team. Paul is a great athlete; he’s a national-level rower.

PGN: Something you’d really like to learn how to do? BS: Well, I’ll tell you something that I did just learn how to do. I just ran my first ultra-marathon: 50 miles. I’ve had both of my knees rebuilt and the idea that I could basically run the equivalent of two marathons is amazing to me.

PGN: Did you have a blankie or stuffed animal as a kid? BS: [Long laughter.] OK, I admit I had a blankie that my mother made for me. I carried it around like Linus for much longer than I should have. I think one of my brothers made sure it got lost on one of the moves.

PGN: Do you like being a twin? BS: Yeah, especially being an Army brat. No matter where we were, I always had someone who was my age, in my grade who was the new kid right along with me. We are complete opposites, though. He’s five times the athlete that I will ever be. I’m a jock, but he’s an athlete. He had a six-pack when we were 12. We had different friends in high school, but in college our relationship got really even stronger. We are polar opposites but, in a way, I think that helps us stay close.

PGN: Any twin weirdness, like feeling a pain in your foot if he stubs a toe? BS: No, I’m a lefty and he’s a righty. I’d be poking my pen in my hand right now just for fun if I thought he could feel it. No such luck.

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