30 years after Canada’s first MP came out, LGBT politicians still face challenges

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Former B.C. MP Svend Robinson says there’s been much progress against discrimination since then.

By Maryse Zeidler, CBC News Posted: Feb 24, 2018 1:00 PM PT Last Updated: Feb 24, 2018 1:00 PM PT

In 1988, Svend Robinson becamethe first MP in Canada to publicly announce he was gay

Maryse Zeidler

Former B.C. MP Svend Robinson was only 27 when he began his political career. Secretly, he’d always hoped to publicly announce he was gay.

“Nobody had ever done it before, and many people said this was political suicide,” Robinson said over a choppy phone line from a cruise ship in Norway, where he was recently on a five-day tour with friends.

Robinson is now retired. But 30 years ago when the then-NDP MP for Burnaby-Kingsway became the first MP to come out as gay, Canada was battling the HIV/AIDS crisis. Fear of the disease, coupled with longstanding social stereotypes, meant homophobia was rampant.

Today, there are LGBT elected officials across the county. They say it’s because of Robinson and others like him that they’re able to do their work.

But they also say they continue to face hatred and threats, and there is still work to be done to fight discrimination.

 

Robinson was re-elected six months after he came out. He said he won by a larger margin than he’d ever had before. He remained in office for another 16 years.

‘It was incredibly liberating’

It wasn’t without trepidation that Robinson sat with CBC reporter Barbara Frum on Feb. 29, 1988, and told her he was gay.

“It was a bit scary, but it was incredibly liberating, politically and personally,” he said.

The week before, rumours had swirled that he would make the announcement. The front window of his constituency office was smashed.

The windows of former B.C. MP Svend Robinson’s constituency office were smashed after rumours swirled that he was about to come out as gay. (CBC)

But Robinson came out anyway. He said it was the possibility of giving “a message of hope and solidarity to the younger gay and lesbian people” that spurred him to do so.

“There were still lots of barriers,” he said. “People forget what it was like back then. I didn’t exactly start a trend.”

Robinson was the lone publicly gay MP for another six years, until Quebecois Réal Ménard came out in 1994. Then B.C. MP Libby Davies was the first lesbian to come out in 2001.

‘Sure, I’ve gotten death threats’

Spencer Chandra Herbert, B.C. NDP MLA for West End-Coal Harbour, said it was because of trailblazers like Robinson that he felt encouraged to go into office.

Chandra Herbert is openly bisexual and married to a man. He was only eight years old when Robinson came out, but years later he learned about it from a high school teacher.

“That was really inspiring to me. It may have planted the seed that had me ending up as an MLA here in B.C., because if he could do it, I could do it too,” Chandra Herbert said.

“[Coming out] wasn’t such an issue any more.”

Spencer Chandra Herbert and husband Romi were featured in a Georgia Straight newspaper article on Vancouver LGBT trailblazers. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

That hasn’t meant a life entirely free of fear and discrimination. In 2014, an intoxicated man came into Chandra Herbert’s constituency office yelling homophobic slurs.

And last year, a family photo of him, his partner Romi and their son Dev prompted backlash and hate mail.

“That kind of violence and that kind of hatred is still alive in B.C.,” Chandra Herbert said. “Sure, I’ve gotten death threats. I’ve had really horrible things written to me. But it hasn’t stopped me.”

“Almost like a non-issue”

Despite those attacks, Chandra Herbert said pioneers like Robinson have made his job much easier overall.

Robinson echoed that sentiment. Looking back on the past 30 years, he said he’s seen a lot of progress since he came out.

He said he was especially moved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent historic apology to LGBT Canadians, which Robinson worked on as part of a committee.

“That I would have never have imagined,” he said.

 

 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wipes his eye while he is applauded as he delivers a formal apology to LGBT people in Canada in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Nov. 28, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Whereas 30 years ago Robinson was part of “one of the most exclusive clubs in the world” as a gay MP, today he frequently meets and speaks with LGBT elected officials.

While Robinson acknowledges they still face discrimination, he said sexual orientation is “almost like a non-issue.”

“And that’s absolutely the way that it should be,” he said.