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Robinson, Svend (b. 1952)    
 
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Svend Robinson, the first openly gay Canadian Member of Parliament, has championed human rights throughout his long political career. He was first elected to the House of Commons in 1979, representing the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, British Columbia as a member of the New Democratic Party. He proceeded to win six consecutive elections through 2004.

Since coming out publicly in 1988, Robinson has received numerous national and international honors for his work promoting equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

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He has also supported environmental issues, and has been a long-time activist in the anti-apartheid movement, as well as a proponent of doctor-assisted suicide.

His political career came to an ignominious end in 2004, however, when he admitted to stealing a ring valued in excess of $21,000.

As Graeme Truelove, a recent biographer of Robinson's, has noted, "Although he remains a hero to countless Canadians, that disastrous act has been given disproportionate stature, an ugly asterisk on the public memory of a giant in the fields of human rights and environmental protection."

Svend Robinson was born on March 4, 1952 in Minneapolis, Minnesota to Wayne Robinson, a university professor, and Edith Jensen, a nurse of Danish descent.

As opponents of the war in Vietnam, his parents decided to leave the United States in 1966 to begin a new life in Canada. As Robinson later explained, "They didn't want to contribute taxes to an immoral war."

The family eventually settled in Burnaby, then a largely working-class suburb of Vancouver, in Canada's west coast province of British Columbia.

According to a recent biography, Robinson endured a difficult childhood as the son of a violent alcoholic. When drinking, his father was liable to fly into sudden rages, throwing things and physically abusing his wife. When Robinson would try to intervene, he would be beaten as well. Once, at the dinner table, his father hit Robinson so hard that his glasses snapped in half and his nose was broken. On another occasion, Robinson was hog-tied, beaten, and locked in a closet.

Robinson attended Burnaby North Secondary School, where he was named best debater and chosen as the leader of the opposition in the school's model parliament. He also volunteered for the New Democratic Party, and accompanied his mother as she canvassed for New Democratic candidates.

Robinson left home at the age of seventeen to attend the University of British Columbia. He initially studied science, with the hopes of becoming a pediatrician, but soon gravitated toward politics and law instead.

He was the first student elected to the University of British Columbia Board of Governors, which is responsible for the management and administration of the University. Robinson was also a member of the University of British Columbia Senate and Alma Mater Society.

He received numerous awards for academic excellence as a student, including University of British Columbia's highest academic honor, the Sherwood Lett Memorial Scholarship, in recognition of "high scholastic and literary attainments," and the "moral force of character and ability to serve, work with, and lead others."

In 1972, while still a student, Robinson married his high school girlfriend, Patricia, who was also studying at the University of British Columbia. The marriage was troubled from the beginning, however, as Robinson struggled with his sexuality. Rather than tackling his problems directly, Robinson instead immersed himself further in his studies, political volunteer work, and increasingly, alcohol.

He eventually did reveal his same-sex desires to his wife. She blamed herself at first, and the two went for counseling, but by 1975 the marriage ended.

Despite such upheavals, Robinson was awarded a law degree in 1976 from the University of British Columbia and completed post-graduate work in international law at the London School of Economics. He was admitted to the bar in 1978 and practiced law until his election to the House of Commons less than a year later.

Robinson ran his first federal election as a candidate for the New Democratic Party in 1979, at the age of 27. He won the election and became one of the youngest candidates to win a seat in the Canadian House of Commons.

Robinson remained undefeated in his subsequent six elections.

Not unexpectedly, gay issues were never broached in his early political literature, and few colleagues knew of his sexual orientation. Robinson also had little if any involvement at the time in Canada's gay liberation movement.

However, in his next election, rumors began to be spread about Robinson's homosexuality. In fact, a rival from the Conservative Party began referring to his opponent as a "faggot" in door-to-door campaigning.

And again, during the 1984 election campaign, there was, according to the gay academic and historian David Rayside, "a lot of innuendo, a lot of snickering," from political opponents about Robinson's sexuality.

By then, however, Robinson has become very vocal in his support of gay causes and had even begun to attend such public events as Vancouver's annual gay and lesbian pride march. His sexuality was widely known within political circles, although not yet publicly declared.

Nonetheless, Robinson won the 1984 election, his third.

In 1988, with another election imminent, Robinson became aware that political opponents were planning to attempt a much more aggressive anti-gay campaign against him. He was also under increasing pressure from gay and lesbian activists across the country to come out publicly.

Encouraged by the experiences of Chris Smith, one of the first openly gay British Members of Parliament, who came out in 1984, and the United States Congressmen Gerry Studds and Barney Frank, who acknowledged their homosexuality publicly in 1983 and 1987 respectively, Robinson decide to announce his homosexuality.

On the evening of February 29, 1988, in televised interviews on both the English and French networks of the CBC, Robinson made his announcement. He became the first openly gay member in the House of Commons.

Needless to say, opponents used Robinson's public declaration of his homosexuality as political ammunition in their campaigns against him.

At one political gathering, an opponent from the Conservative Party referred to Robinson as a "publicly declared homosexual," and then asked, "Is that really what you want as a role model?"

The word "family" was also repeatedly emphasized during the 1988 campaign, as code, according to David Rayside, "to remind constituents of the difference between" Robinson and his heterosexual opponents.

In general, however, voters were unreceptive to these anti-gay tactics. As one union representative who supported Robinson stated, "Most of our guys think it's none of their goddamn business; we don't give a shit what else he does; that's nobody's business."

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Svend Robinson in 2003.
  
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