For 90 minutes last night at Old Dominion University’s Webb Center, State Representative Brian Sims (D-PA) spoke to a small but enthusiastic audience on the topic of “Gender, Justice and LGBTQ Equality.”
With personal anecdotes, humor, and a fair dose of salty language, Sims by turns sang the praises of women and LGBTQ allies, decried the religious and ideological rifts between political parties, and expressed optimism that the country is in the midst of a political renaissance.
As Pennsylvania’s first openly gay State Representative, Sims has gained national recognition as a LGBTQ leader and icon due to his outspoken advocacy not only for gay issues, but for women’s, transgender, and other minority issues. Last night, he focused heavily on the link between women in politics and the success of the progressive agenda.
“I think I have the solution to our broken government, and the solution is empathy–the ability to think about another person’s situation other than their own,” he said. “And in the United States, women are significantly, statistically more empathetic than men.”
He went on to talk about his positive experiences working with women in the Pennsylvania legislature, but noted that their presence in the American political system is woefully inadequate.
“It’s a shame that women make up 53% of the American population but only one in five political decision makers are women,” he said. “Our government still has the lockdown on the experiences of the straight white cisgender man, and that demographic still makes most of the policy.”
“As legislators, our job is to make the decisions about a very broad group of people, and it’s up to us to find a way to empathize with those people, not to denigrate or discount their experiences,” he said.
He believes that the way to change that paradigm is through more involvement by women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ persons.
“We are absolutely doing this wrong when we time and time again give our power and decision making over to the existing structure,” he said.
“When gay people or black people or women or transgender persons get up and speak about their needs, the powers that be simply blink and say that we have a personal agenda that doesn’t connect with the rest of the country,” he said. “But when allies stand next to us and speak on our behalf, the impact is much greater.”
Sims says the key to change is to combine all of those empathetic voices into one that is involved and active.
“Our role is to get involved in any way we can,” he said. “We have to not only speak up about our own needs, but we have to enlist the support of our allies to speak to those needs as well.”
He’s excited by the current shift in that direction. “All of us snowflakes are making a blizzard,” he said, “and the blizzard that’s happening right now makes me freakishly proud.”
“I was afraid that in my lifetime I would never see an authentic civic uprising like the one we’re seeing right now,” he said. “We are a country that knows righteous indignation really well. And we know how to use it really, really well.”
He cited the recent Women’s March on Washington as an example of civic activism that works without violence or destruction.
“Three million women marched on Washington. Three million,” he said. “Only four were arrested. And those four intentionally wanted to be arrested. Peaceful assembly on that scale has never happened in this country before.”
“This stuff is putting the fear of God into many of our Republican leaders,” he said. “The pressure we are putting on them through marches and town halls and loud voices will eventually cause them to change their behavior or suffer the consequences.”
He recounted the story of one Pennsylvania Republican representative who turned off his phone for several weeks due to public outcry, only to receive one million faxes of protest during that time.
“We got this. We really do,” he said. “The only thing that remains to be seen is are we now going to take all of these newfound voices and push them into our legislature instead of just surrounding our legislature and yelling at them.”