The first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania House Of Representatives, Brian Sims is the sexy face of a new generation of LGBTQIA+ politicians and believes the darkness of the Trump era has given rise to a new awareness that will bring positive changes to the USA. He discusses disinformation, and why racism is the issue at the heart of all civil rights reforms.
DNA: Congratulations, the USA has a new President-Elect, Democrat Joe Biden. How does that feel?
Brian Sims: Hopeful. Which has been a very foreign feeling for me and many Americans. What can LGBTQIA+ American’s look forward to from a Biden administration? There are two things we know we can look forward to and perhaps several things we can guess about. The two we know about are an administration that will use every available opportunity to be inclusive of LGBTQ people and our rights, which is the opposite of what we’ve seen these last four years. And we can look forward to an administration that will work proactively with congress to finally enact LGBTQ protections that are nationwide.
Pennsylvania flipped back to blue this election. Did you find that surprising?
I definitely didn’t for a couple of reasons. One is that there are about a million more Democrats in Pennsylvania than Republicans and, frankly, there were during the 2016 election as well. And I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the last four years to see how Pennsylvanians have been impacted by Donald Trump and to see how Pennsylvanians vote so, no, I wasn’t surprised at all to see that Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by about twice the margin that Trump won it back in 2016.
Politics feels like it’s operating at a very low common denominator. Things are so polarised, there’s a lot of misinformation, and we have a US president trying to undermine election results, alleging voter fraud with no actual evidence. Do you find yourself worried about the state of modern democracy?
Anybody who isn’t worried, to some degree, about the state of democracy, especially American democracy, isn’t paying attention. I have a lot of worries, a lot of concerns, but I have a level of optimism that is rooted in reality. More women, more people of colour, more second-generation immigrants, and more LGBTQ people ran for public office last year than at any time in American history. My life experience, social science and political science tell us that when those people are better represented in government, government behaves better. So, perhaps one of the by-products of this awful time in politics has been the engagement of underrepresented, under-engaged people, who happen to have really strong proclivities and quantifiable strengths at representative democracy. So, yeah, this time has been terrible but it has created a groundswell of engagement that won’t go away any time soon.
Indeed. We saw the “Rainbow Wave” of newly elected LGBTIQ politicians; people like Sarah McBride in Delaware, Shevrin Jones in Florida, Adrian Tam in Hawaii. How important is it to have LGBTIQ representation and visibility in modern politics?
It’s incredibly important. Representative democracy mandates that among the people who represent the masses are people from the masses, and if LGBTQ people are going to exist in this world, which we do, we deserve to exist in representative democracies. But, more important than that, the data tells us that people of marginalised backgrounds often experience significantly greater developments of empathy, and empathy turns out to be particularly useful in representative democracies. So while there are far too many negative ramifications of bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, one of the positive ramifications is that it builds among us LGBTQ people a level of empathy and resilience that is very effective in government.
Empathy seems like something that was lacking from the Trump administration. Did you feel that?
I did. People who have never had to overcome anything don’t know how to overcome anything. We saw that with this previous administration: the rampant exaggeration of privilege gives us people who do not understand how to be successful in the face of hardship. It’s part of the reason why America has begun to understand why black and brown voices, why trans voices are so powerful. It’s not simply because they exist, it’s because there is so much to be learned from individuals who are able to thrive despite negativity from people around them.
Some exit polls, including one by The New York Times, showed that the percentage of LGBTQ people who voted for Trump had doubled from around 14 to 28 per cent. What do you make of that figure?
They’re wrong! The William’s Institute out of UCLA has given us updated figures that are more accurate, I believe. They remind us that, yes, somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of LGBT people vote for a party that doesn’t support our equality, but Trump did not grow his LGBT base. If there’s anything we’ve learned this year it’s that polling is simply no longer. accurate in the modern political era.
We all remember how the polling was so wide of the mark in the 2016 elections…
Of course! I believe in political science, in math and data and numbers and trends so I don’t say it lightly but political polling in 2020 turned out to be more about playing to the awful sports nature of politics and not playing to the science of politics.
Trump still managed to appeal to a massive number of voters. What do you think the root of that appeal is – racism and xenophobia, disenfranchisement, misinformation?
It’s a mix of all of those things, which was a part of the reason he was able to grow his voter base by millions. While Joe Biden was decisively the winner of the election, there’s no question that Donald Trump received more votes than he did in his last election. The reason the Trump era was so dangerous was because Trump spoke, and continues to speak, to racists, to xenophobes in the language of white supremacy. To the American “gundamentalists”, the second amendment “ammosexuals”, Trump was someone whose values were malleable enough to be pushed into a place where he wasn’t going to attack guns, which he didn’t. Unfortunately, during the Trump era, the number of people killed by guns continued to rise when it didn’t need to.
Also, we can’t underestimate the populist appeal Trump had for people who are just sick of the system. There are people who would rather have a sort of Bolshevik Revolution – burn it all to the ground and see what grows and maybe I’ll benefit from that. Rationally speaking, there aren’t any Republican Party policies that benefit anybody unless you’re making almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars in the United States.
Yet there are people voting for the Republicans who make far less than that, so what’s the appeal?
The appeal is someone who proclaims to have a common enemy, somebody who uses the same
language of sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia. That was all very useful for Donald Trump. He doesn’t have a base, he has multiple bases and a lot of people found something in Donald Trump that they enjoyed – even if that was just that he was nasty to the people they didn’t like.
It seems we’ve lost the ability to listen to one another. How do we can start to engage with each other in a meaningful way again?
One of the big problems of having so much information so readily available is that all of us feel that, at the touch of a button, we can prove that we are right. Therefore, we don’t have to be right anymore. We don’t have to have the evidence of our correctness readily available and that, of course, is very problematic. It puts us in this era in which we have people are really really ill-informed but very very aggressive about what they believe and why they believe it. We all have people around us who we disagree with and we either find other things to agree about or we simply avoid those things that we disagree about, and that’s all very possible. We are seeing more politically engaged people than there has ever been, certainly in my lifetime. I’m a civil rights attorney who got mad at my government and ran for office. Now there are more people who were angry about an issue, who were wronged in some way, and recognised that they could make changes so that others wouldn’t be wronged. I think we’re taking the steps already, and the divisiveness, the angriness and nastiness is the cold dying hand of an era that needed to die away.
You’ve mentioned the information age in which we live, and you’re an avid user of social media. How much do you think technology and social media have changed the political landscape?
We can’t overestimate the impact it’s had. A candidate being able to get messages directly to a potential voter, no longer having to use mass media to get messages across, is a massive sea change. In removing the middleman of professional journalism and news in information exchange, we have caused ourselves irreparable harm. Well, hopefully not irreparable.
We could spend months debating whether it’s hurt us more than it’s helped us but it’s certainly hurt us in allowing this era of mass disinformation. I read recently that upwards of two-thirds of Donald Trump voters believe there was active fraud that defrauded him of the presidency, even though there has never been any evidence of that. And the people proclaiming that lack of evidence are certainly bipartisan, not simply Democrats. So, yeah, would we be in the disinformation age we’re in now were it not for social media? Highly unlikely.
People are always seeking to know more about the personal life of their politicians; do you feel that pressure to share more and more about yourself and your life?
I do and it’s something I think about proactively. In part that’s because of the way I do my job. The way I ask for support to do this job is very publicly. I was the first openly LGBTQ person to serve on our legislature and, for a number of people, simply knowing that there was a gay person there was different than seeing that there was a gay person there. I’m very proud that I’ve been able to expose what it’s like to be an LGBTQ person in government to lots of people who didn’t know what that was like. I would do myself an injustice if I didn’t also show who I am at my best and my worst.
It’s important for people to understand, yes, I’m a gay man but also, you know, I date, and I have a fun dog, and there are restaurants I love. I think those things just like everybody else who uses social media. Some of it is intended to show people who we are in our more private moments, and some of it is intended to show people who we are when we want to be loud and proud.
You’re the Democratic Chair for the Subcommittee On Mental Health. LGBTQ people, especially youth, are at higher risk from mental health issues, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. How do we go about tackling this?
That’s such a huge question. One of the ways in which the global LGBTQ community has taken advantage of the digital era is our interconnectivity. That’s how we have built our political power and our social power. And by that I mean the power to just exist and feel safe in some places. That’s all been put massively at risk by the pandemic. Our community, and LGBTQ youth especially, happen to have one of the better tools for success in all of that, and that’s the ability to look outside of their immediate family members for support, love, guidance and family. We often get to choose our families and for the longest time that was very representative of the fact that we lost our families when we came out. But we’ve grown beyond that in many cases and the LGBTQ family is very expansive.
So I understand why isolation is so dangerous for all people but especially for LGBTQ youth. But we happen to be good at reaching out, at finding support, at finding family, so we need to encourage that.
We simply cannot allow for all of us to be intermingling socially again for quite some time; we can’t be around one another. We have to do the things we know will alleviate stress, to minimise trauma, to support healthy behaviours, and that’s interacting with one another. While we all have a gripe about FaceTime and Zoom, they still beat the alternative, which is nothing. Everything we can do to reach out to our friends and family right now is the right thing to do and a healthy thing to do.
What would you say is the most pressing issue facing LGBTIQ Americans right now?
Oh, there’s one that dominates all others and that’s systematic racism. Until we are able to fully head on tackle the racism in our criminal justice system, in education, in finance, in government… until we are able to address those things in the way that we began to 50 years ago, I’m afraid nothing we do for the larger LGBTQ population will have any staying power or any true buoyancy. There’s simply no room for the advancement of LGBTQ rights in spaces that allow for racism.
2020 was an extremely difficult year. Who or what kept you motivated?
I’ve been most inspired by the quality of candidates who stepped up in 2020 to run for office, to proclaim their values, to fight for a better tomorrow, to stand against all that we’ve been seeing from our federal government. As awful as 2020 will ever be, it will also be a reminder about what courage looks like. More people who haven’t been represented in government ran for representative government positions this last cycle than any time in US history. Candidates of the last four years are people who looked around and realised their demands were falling on deaf ears and that therefore they needed to step up and make change. Sarah McBride is a perfect example. It gives me hope knowing that our politics for the next 20, 30, 40 years will involve the politicians born of this era.
If you could give this new wave of LGBTQ politicians and activists one piece of advice, what would it be?
Americans may not know what they want in politics anymore but they know what they don’t want; they don’t want inauthenticity. Don’t fake it. Don’t fake your beliefs. Challenge them, allow them to be challenged, test them. Find information that supports the things you believe, and things that challenge the things you believe but, by all means, don’t fake it. Authenticity is the name of the game for political success.