Today, the highest court in the land made two landmark rulings on LGBT rights. The Supreme Court of the United States declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and declared that the people who put Proposition 8 on California ballots in 2008 “did not have the constitutional authority, or standing, to defend the law in federal courts after the state refused to appeal its loss at trial.”
On the occasion of these colossal rulings, we spoke to Pennsylvania’s first openly gay legislator, Rep. Brian Sims, on the phone from Harrisburg. Sims, who has spent his brief time in office being a legislative badass was currently pouring over the two decisions with his team, and we thank him for taking the time out of this certainly busy day to talk to us. See what Sims had to say about the rulings, where to go from here, and Justice Anthony Kennedy’s legacy.
First off, let me just say congratulations. This is big news …
Huge news. Possibly the biggest news in LGBT civil rights in my lifetime. Between the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and some other things we’ve had some big LGBT civil rights decisions in the past 35 years or so, but this is the biggest.
You’re calling us from Harrisburg, what’s the vibe there?
It’s actually really interesting. I’m doing my best to genuinely make friends in the Republican caucus and with people on the other side of the state and one of the things I realized is that everyone wants to talk to me at some point — usually privately — about my experiences and about their gay family or friends, just to get to know what it’s like.
And I was supposed to be on a committee this morning but I put in a proxy vote. But people were patting me on the back and wishing me luck and it was really nice. The opinions came out just over an hour ago and we’ve been sitting here reading through them ever since. They’re complex opinions — the DOMA case is a 5-4 decision and the four dissents are all for different reasons — it’s certainly a complicated ruling.
I know you’re still diving in to all of the decisions, but in your reading so far, are there any surprises?
Well, yes and no. One of the pleasant surprises is the DOMA case’s majority opinion was authored by Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas which overturned a 20 year-old case where the Supreme Court allowed an anti-sodomy law to exist. He also wrote the majority opinion in Romer v. Evans. These three cases (Lawrence v. Texas, Romer v. Evans, and now DOMA) are three of the most important LGBT rulings in history. With these three opinions, Justice Kennedy will go down in history as one of the leaders of the LGBT civil rights movement.
So, we know just because the court ruled a certain way doesn’t mean this is all over. Are you already looking forward or are you taking some time to really live in this moment right now?
This being a civil rights issue, we’re always looking forward. A lot of us were talking about where we go next before the rulings were announced and we were planning on what to do no matter what the rulings were. The common theme here is that this is not the end, we need to see what happens both in courts and capitol buildings across the United States as a result of these two rulings. There’s a saying, “potential is interesting, but performance is everything,” and that’s what we’re following here.
And yes, I did just quote Vince Lombardi, but that is the extent of my football knowledge. Though Lombardi did have a gay brother and used to talk to his team about equal rights of men.
Well, I didn’t know that so there ya go, you’ve got more football knowledge than me. So what is the next step? The court has ruled, but everything isn’t free and clear yet …
It would be almost arrogant to want anything other than full equality right now. Yes, there are gains in the battles and some of this is nuanced and requires a multi-pronged focus, but the truth of the matter is every single day people are being openly discriminated against; every single day there are kids who don’t feel welcome at school, at home, in church; every single day people are bearing the burden of inequality. I want full equality and I want it yesterday. I don’t want to wait. I know we have to, and I think we’re being very strategic in the battles we’re undertaking.
Just because the court ruled this way doesn’t mean the country is all of a sudden magically in agreement about this. What do you have to say to the talk show hosts and the people who are going to still be speaking out against this?
As for the haters and the naysayers, it’s perfectly fine. Right now, we know by every single metric that we can identify that the battle for rights is being won effectively, quickly, and broadly. There are still places … I mean look where we stand right here in Pennsylvania, but this is a tidal wave that is washing over the country right now. The people out there shouting the loudest from the rooftops screaming that this is wrong, they are wrong, and historically and contemporaneously we’re learning that.
State Representative Brian K. Sims is an LGBT rights activist, former president of the board of directors of Equality Pennsylvania and former chairman of Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia. He currently represents the 182nd legislative district. Read more Philebrity interviews here.