Is Brian Sims’s Gay Marriage Bill a Publicity Stunt?

A month before the DOMA decision, the Philly state rep considered marriage equality legislation unpassable.

The day after the Supreme Court struck down a crucial provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, Philadelphia state Representative Brian Sims and colleague Steve McCarter announced they were introducing a marriage equality bill. This seems intuitive; if anyone were going to bring one to the House, it would be Sims, the first openly gay candidate to get elected there.

But Sims’s decision, which has been widely covered, is in fact rather surprising. About a month ago, I was on the phone with Northeast Philadelphia Rep. Mark Cohen, reporting on a piece about gay marriage in Pennsylvania. Cohen, who’s a big gay marriage booster, was bemoaning the fact that the state’s LGBT rights lobby — Equality PA — and its allies were basically ignoring the issue of same-sex marriage, focusing instead on a more basic non-discrimination bill that would protect people from getting fired or evicted for being gay.

When I put Cohen’s complaint to Sims, who used to helm Equality PA and who’d been echoing its call to focus on non-discrimination before marriage equality, he dismissed it out of hand: “Respectfully, this is my background. I helped lay the groundwork. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is not spin our wheels. I don’t think we have time for that, when it comes to civil rights. Talking about marriage equality is not just a fool’s errand, but when it comes to state legislation, we’re not there to speechify and pontificate. And these [non-discrimination bills] are the types of bills that are passable.” (Emphasis mine.)

So … after all that, Sims has decided to speechify and pontificate on behalf a doomed bill? On Friday, I asked him if he had changed his mind purely because of the DOMA ruling.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Legally, the Supreme Court decisions didn’t impact Pennsylvania. But in that way, I think it a fire under a bunch of my colleagues.”

Colleagues in the General Assembly’s LGBT Equality caucus, that is. The group, along with Equality PA President Ted Martin, met soon after the DOMA ruling was handed down and reasoned it was time to get a bill going in the House. (There is a nearly identical one already floating around in the Senate.) As for the Republican support that’s actually needed for a gay marriage bill? Sims says he doesn’t know.

None of this is to say the introduction of a marriage equality bill is somehow a bad thing, or is detracting from the civil rights legislation, which has in fact gained co-sponsors since DOMA fell. But it seems clear that this bill has more to do with politics than policy. Pennsylvania remains years away from marriage equality, and neither Sims nor Martin said anything to suggest that calculus had changed.

As Martin told me Friday, the DOMA ruling “simply highlighted once again how isolated Pennsylvania is,” compared to its neighbors. The decision itself, which many in the local gay rights community expected, was not the catalyst. The optics around it were, however. (GOP Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s post-DOMA censure of Brian Sims only made the state look more regressive, and Sims’s bill more necessary.)

So what better time to capitalize on all the attention the issue’s receiving, right? “I think so — I think that covers it,” Martin said.