Vancouver
3 min

Out in the House

Tradition dies hard in political circles

Although 52 is a bit young to be considered a historical artifact, there is no denying that Svend Robinson made history as the first MP to publicly come out of the closet. The angry reaction of Canada’s political class to his gesture illustrates why the courts, and not politicians, have backed us on our issues.

Robinson was 25 when he was elected to parliament in 1979. He would hold the Burnaby riding for the NDP until 2004. A rising star of the Canadian left, he came out on national television on Feb 28,1988. He did so, he said, to draw attention to “an increase in the level of homophobia surrounding the AIDS crisis,” and to pressure the Conservative government to fulfill its 1986 promise to ensure that discrimination because of sexual orientation would be prohibited by law.

His coming out was huge news. The Province’s Nicole Parton wrote that his homosexuality had been an open secret in Ottawa for years, citing a 1985 exchange in the House in which Conservative MP Dan Mackenzie, shouted at Robinson, “Why aren’t you at Rock Hudson’s funeral?”

The Toronto Star’s Claire Hoy wrote: “He’s homosexual and ‘proud’ of it. Really? So ‘proud’ in fact, that he hid it from the public from the time he was first elected… until now.”

Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine declared, “I hate to think a Member of Parliament can stand and, in essence, be promoting a lifestyle with young people watching.” Robinson fired back, calling Devine a bigot.

On Mar 1, during an interview with Canada AM, Robinson claimed that there were other homosexuals in parliament and even in cabinet. He explained that the decision to come out in politics was intensely personal. “It’s one that each individual has to make in terms of timing,” he said.

The suggestion that Robinson might not be the only gay person in Parliament truly raised the ire of the Canadian political establishment. Liberal party heavyweight Brian Tobin fired this broadside at him: “For an MP who indicated that his decision was an act of courage and responsibility, these… allegations are an act of irresponsibility and flow from a character that, if anything, is the opposite of what we normally call courage.” Other politicians suggested Robinson’s statement was defamatory.

On Mar 3, Robinson clarified, saying that he only meant that there were homosexuals in all walks of life.

Already disliked by the Canadian right, after 1988 he became the target of a campaign of vilification by anti-abortion groups and their allies that continues to this day.

REAL Women of Canada has this written about him on its website: “He feels free to attack and to exhibit incredible intolerance to anyone who does not agree with him… In his sojourn in the House of Commons… Mr Robinson has been unceasing in advancing the homosexual agenda as well as the anti-family, anti-life agenda.”

This group, and others like it, have not forgiven Robinson for getting the House of Commons to pass a law in 2003 to include sexual orientation in the hate propaganda sections of the Criminal Code of Canada:

“On December 7, 1999, MP Svend Robinson seized a sign on which were written quotes from Catholic teaching on the homosexual issue,” reads a REAL Women of Canada web page. “The sign was held by a Catholic priest, Father Anthony Van Hee, who protests outside Parliament on a daily basis. Mr Robinson broke the sign and threw it over the wall, claiming it was ‘hateful,’ even though the sign merely quoted Catholic teachings… There is well-justified concern that those who may wish to challenge homosexual conduct as unhealthy, immoral or sinful, would be obliged to answer to a hate crime charge…[and] one can imagine the eagerness with which Mr Robinson would attempt to bring a prosecution under the Criminal Code to silence anyone else who might disagree with him.”

Despite marrying a gay identity with a successful political career, few have followed Robinson’s example. In the current parliament (both houses) only Libby Davies and Bill Siksay of the NDP, Réal Ménard of the Bloc Québécois, Scott Brison and Mario Silva of the Liberals, and Senators Laurier LaPierre and Nancy Ruth have publicly self-identified as gay or lesbian. That is seven out 413. Clearly, tradition dies hard in political circles.