Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) is an openly gay Democrat in a largely Republican state—in fact, he’s the first openly LGBT legislator to be elected in the state.
But that may not even be the most surprising thing about him: He’s also openly nonreligious in a nation where most elected officials pledge allegiance not only to country, but to God.
Rep. Sims is one of a small but growing group of elected officials, such as Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez (D-Tempe), who do not claim a religious affiliation.
I spoke with Rep. Sims about his religious background, his “faith in humanity,” the relationship between LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) civil rights and religion, and what inspires him to help other people.
Chris Stedman: Were you raised religious?
Rep. Brian Sims: My parents raised us generically Irish Catholic—Christmas and Easter Catholics. When I was around sixteen, I stopped going to church with my family. I don’t remember what prompted it, but one Christmas Eve my parents asked me if I wanted to go. I said I didn’t, and they didn’t put up much of a fight. Twenty years later, they still don’t put up much of a fight. [tweetable]I’m the only elected official in Pennsylvania that didn’t have to set foot in a house of worship to get elected.[/tweetable]
CS: You’ve said that, when it comes to your beliefs, you aren’t too keen on labels…
BS: [laughs] I’m chuckling because, as a gay guy, I always crack up when people say they’re not comfortable with labels. So I suppose it makes me sound like a bit of a contrarian to say the same in the religious sphere. But it’s true—it’s just not something I give much time and attention to. I have very deeply religious friends, and I find aspects of their different faiths interesting. I just don’t care about the dogma at all. [tweetable]For the last ten years, if someone has asked, I’ve said my faith is in humanity.[/tweetable]
CS: That sounds like something many Humanists say, but I won’t label you. [laughs]
BS: It’s not that I would mind the label—I just haven’t studied Humanism enough to say, “Well, that’s clearly me.” But by all measures, it sounds like it.
CS: Humanist or not, you definitely fall into a growing category of Americans: Those who say they’re not religious. Have you felt nervous about being openly nonreligious?
BS: No. When I ran for office, I had someone do an opposition report on me. [tweetable]Of the things that were going to bother people, being nonreligious was low on the list.[/tweetable]
I’m an openly gay Democrat in a Republican state. For some people, standing up for your community means standing up for your religious community. I think what people in Philadelphia recognize is that, for me, it means a lot of civil rights work. Most don’t really care that I don’t identify with a faith.
CS: How do you think conversations about LGBTQ identity and religion can improve?
BS: That’s a big question. The reason I’m not a person of faith really has nothing to do with being gay—I knew I wasn’t a person of faith long before I knew I was gay. I have LGBT friends who are deeply, deeply religious. And they are the first people to tell you that being LGBT and a person of faith aren’t mutually exclusive. I take them at their word.
[tweetable]An important thing I’ve learned in the LGBT civil rights sphere is the difference between the pulpit and the pews.[/tweetable] American Catholics, for example, are more supportive of LGBT civil rights and more supportive of legal recognitions for LGBT relationships than the American population as a whole. People are shocked to hear that, but it’s completely true. The problem is the only messaging we hear on behalf of the faith is so horribly anti-LGBT. But my daily interactions prove to me that American Catholics are often wonderfully supportive of LGBT people.
I know that we can’t have a discussion about the future of LGBT civil rights without understanding that a lot of religious institutions have some growing up to do—but the marriage equality movement is a really good example of the fact that LGBT civil rights are a freedom of religion issue, too. [tweetable]There are churches and religions all across the U.S. that would’ve been marrying LGBT people 15 years ago if they’d been allowed to do so.[/tweetable]
CS: Would you say that your Catholic background has played a role in your public service?
BS: No. [tweetable]I’m as Catholic as I am Jewish, as I am Muslim—namely, not at all.[/tweetable] But I’m happy to report that I serve alongside people with a lot of volunteer hours under their belt, and many are people of faith. I’m glad for whatever compels them to volunteer and donate their time.
CS: Many people cite their religious beliefs as a motivation for public service. As a result, some folks only associate service with religion. What inspires you to serve?
BS: I had a wonderful experience with co-equal parents, and a wonderful coming out experience on top of that. So I’ve had a chance to see what things can look like when they go well. [tweetable]I do a lot of this work because I know how close we are to getting it right.[/tweetable]
I have a colleague named Patty Kim. She’s a very religious person, actually. When Rep. Kim was asked why she supported the PA nondiscrimination law that we were trying to pass, she talked about all the hardworking LGBT people she knows and the work they had put into passing this legislation: “Imagine what those people could do if they didn’t have to spin their wheels wasting their time like this. If we could recognize that people deserve to be treated fairly, all that time and energy could be spent elsewhere.” That realization motivates me.
CS: You’ve said that your faith is in humanity. Now that you’ve held public office for a while, would you still say that?
BS: Absolutely. Being a legislator now for 20 months has certainly reaffirmed that. People always give me this sympathetic eye when they ask me what the job is like. But the truth is that I have been more affirmed by the issues we’re working on, and the people I’m working on behalf of, than I thought I would be. [tweetable]This job is giving me and the people around me an opportunity to impact the things we care the most about. Everybody wants that.[/tweetable]
Portions of this interview were minimally edited for length or clarity. Subscribe to this column by entering your email under “Subscribe by Email” in the sidebar. You can also follow the author on Twitter at @ChrisDStedman and ‘Like’ him on Facebook.