Karen Heller: Attempt to silence voice for gays backfires

State Rep. Brian Sims received Speaker Sam Smith's permission to praise the U.S. Supreme Court rulings strengthening gay marriage, but another legislator cut him off.
State Rep. Brian Sims received Speaker Sam Smith's permission to praise the U.S. Supreme Court rulings strengthening gay marriage, but another legislator cut him off. (MATT ROURKE / AP, File)
Posted: July 04, 2013

Harrisburg, as difficult as this seems, may turn out to be good for the gays.

After freshman State Rep. Brian Sims was literally silenced on the House floor, he used the moment to push for gay equality in a state that has been stuck, according to one activist, in the mid-19th century.

"Ultimately, what I want everyone to do is turn this into a call for action," said Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat and Harrisburg's first openly gay legislator. "When you hear that someone turned off the microphone because of 'God's law,' that flies in the face of everything I know about our Founding Fathers, the Constitution. That's not the legal system we believe in."

Pennsylvania is the lone Northeastern state with no LGBT antidiscrimination protection in place, other than ordinances in 30 cities and municipalities, including Philadelphia. Said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, "It says a lot that West Virginia has more effective LGBT laws than we do. We're the only state in the region where you can be fired, evicted, or denied public accommodation for being gay."

Which is sort of what happened last Wednesday to Sims in the General Assembly.

That day, Sims spoke - or rather tried to - after obtaining Speaker Sam Smith's permission to praise the U.S. Supreme Court rulings strengthening gay marriage. He told Smith, "I won't even talk about how far we have to go in Pennsylvania."

Which became evident within seconds. After uttering four, perhaps five, words, Sims had his microphone turned off. Two fellow representatives tried to express similar sentiments. They, too, were silenced.

The next day, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), who apparently has the Almighty on speed dial, told WHYY-FM that he made the request to cut Sims' microphone because such comments would be "just open rebellion against God's law."

And a gift was handed to the gay equality movement.

The story went national. Sims and Rep. Steve McCarter (D., Montgomery) announced they would introduce a civil marriage equality bill this session. As a legislator who only assumed office in January, Sims had not planned to do this, but told me he was moved by the week's events.

Additional legislators agreed to sponsor the House and Senate bills that amend the state's Human Relations Act to protect the LGBT community from discrimination. The bills, introduced in 2001, picked up more votes, including those of Republicans. Support now totals 90 legislators in the House, and half of the Senate, not enough but progress.

"I was so ashamed of what happened on the House floor, that this could happen in 2013," said Sims, 34, a civil-rights lawyer who came out while captain of his Bloomsburg College football team. "It was utterly wrong by any measuring stick. No one should be cut off from speaking on the House floor because you disagree with him. I found what Rep. Metcalfe did was so un-American, so unpatriotic."

Republicans rushed over to apologize. Sims received support from all over the country and mentions on television, and appeared Monday on MSNBC's Hardball.

"Brian really turned this into a moment. Our rights are embarrassingly meager for the LGBT community," Martin said. "Few people know you can be fired, that you can be discriminated against for being gay. You can't have a better example than what happened on the House floor."

Martin said of the Supreme Court decisions, "Neither of the rulings impact Pennsylvania at all. It was a sip from a fire hose. It showed where were are, which is mid-19th century, and all the work we need to do." So did the behavior of some of Sims' colleagues.

Sims asked to be assigned to the state government committee, Metcalfe's committee. He's learning the challenges. He plans to work hard to get the civil marriage bill attached to a different committee where it might have a chance.

Now that the House has adjourned for the summer, Sims will attend Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on a monthlong fellowship "to become a better legislator."

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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