Ten years ago Brian Sims made history. Yet, most folks didn’t know it until recently. Sims, the first openly gay football team captain in the history of the NCAA made waves when he gave his first interview about his college football days in 2009.
Today, Sims finds himself in Philadelphia, where he’s an attorney and president of the Equality Pennsylvania board of directors.
qnotes had the chance to chat with Sims when he came to Charlotte for a Campus Pride fundraiser in mid-May. The national group, based in the Queen City, works with college students and faculty to build LGBT-inclusive and safe campuses.
Sims, who speaks about his football days, inclusion and diversity on campuses across the country, says the work of groups like Campus Pride and others are important. And, he thinks such work is getting easier even though there are still challenges to face.
“Eighty of college students — traditional students 18-24 — support the general package of LGBT civil rights — not marriage, but everything else,” he says. But there’s a catch: “Only a third of those people think their peers support the same things, too. Because they all think they are in the minority they don’t speak out.”
When he speaks to student diversity groups, football or other athletic teams and other student gatherings, Sims urges them to speak out. “Go talk about it,” he says to the groups. “Go be loud about your support for gay people because it is there and it is there nationally.”
In his role at Equality Pennsylvania and in others, Sims has been active on issues of LGBT equality for years, but his identity as “openly gay football player” only recently came into being.
In 2009, a friend of Sims told OutSports.com’s Cyd Zeigler about his days as Bloomsburg University’s football captain during the team’s NCAA championship year. Sims says he didn’t think it was that big of a deal until after the interview.
“We talked for about two and a half hours,” he says of the 2009 interview with Zeigler. “At the end I gave him contact information for some of my friends, teammates and coaches, hung up the phone and forgot about it. Two weeks later I was out to dinner and I got an email on my Blackberry. It was from some 70-year-old man from Canada thanking me for being a hero.”
For weeks after his interview publication, Sims says he received thousands of responses from both out and closeted high school and college students, adult athletes, supporters and friends. He made a concerted effort to respond to each and every one.
“I took a lot of days off work to write people back,” he says. “It was thousands of people from all over the world. It was pretty inspiring.”
Sims says the attention athletics and even Hollywood receives has power for an LGBT community still yearning for equality.
“It’s pop culture. Sports and the media are both pop culture,” he says. “Right, wrong, or otherwise, pop culture has driven enormous amounts of tolerance and acceptance in this country. Having a family like the Cosbys on the television: an educated, middle class African-American family. That went miles in teaching white middle class people that there are black middle class people. The first gay kiss on TV, I think, was on ‘Roseanne.’ Things like that, unfortunately, sometimes do more to further acceptance and equality than most of the advocacy and activism I do.”
The 21st century’s reliance on the internet and instant communication has also opened doors, Sims says. On high school and college football fields, coaches are being forced to learn new ways of motivating students and can no longer rely on the old, anti-gay and misogynistic taunts and jabs that once sufficed.
“I tell coaches that when they call their students ‘fag’ or say ‘hey, priss, pick it up,’ they look outdated to their students,” he says. Students now have more access to information than in any other time in history and I think the average 18-year-old knows more about the world today than their coaches did when they were their age. So, if you say to a bunch of 17-year-old guys to ‘stop playing like pussies,’ they are going to look at you and be like, ‘What are you talking about?'”
Many of the changes taking place in American politics are a natural extension of changing attitudes and mores, Sims says. Yet, he believes there is much work to be done, especially on issues of transgender inclusion.
At the height over the debate on a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 2007, Equality Pennsylvania became a member of the “Untied ENDA” campaign, a coalition of more than 400 national, state and local LGBT groups committed to passing an inclusive ENDA. That pledge two years ago, Sims says, continues to guide his organization’s work today.
“I think you lose your moral authority when you shirk your supporters for something you want,” Sims says of the debate, which continues even today. Although he thinks it might have been entirely possible to pass an ENDA without gender identity and add it later, he says that’s “not who we are as a movement.”
“We’re not talking about trash collection or taxes,” he says. “When it comes to ENDA, we are talking about people who we’ve been fighting this fight with you for the past 30, 40, 50 years. It’s not just esoteric. It’s a statement about who we are and what we care about. It’s really difficult to come out and say, ‘We believe discrimination is wrong and stop, but just not for these people yet.'”
The future of the LGBT equality movement, Sims says, will depend on the ability of established organizations and new grassroots activists willingness to work with each other. Cooperation and teamwork, even amid disagreement, is possible, he says.
But, the biggest thing anybody can do to further equality is speak out. That’s why Sims leaves his speaking engagements telling his students to start conversations: “I tell them to go find somebody after this program and tell them where you just came from. Tell them about what I said and ask them if they agree or if they don’t. Challenge them.”