No Room For Hate: Romi Chandra Herbert
Romi Chandra Herbert's a leader in making British Columbia a more welcoming province
You & Me BC
May 18th, 2022
Romi Chandra Herbert founded BC's first gender and sexuality alliance club, and has spent decades advocating for community inclusion.
We spoke with Romi about why he started the club, the changes he's seen over the years, and what he's up to now.
You founded BC's first gender and sexuality alliance club - how did it happen?
Romi: It started when I was in high school. I was volunteering at the Maple Ridge Rec Centre, organizing events so teens in the community were supported and had something to do.
As I was doing this I realized I needed support myself in coming out. I was encouraged by a teacher, and the school library was offered as a space to explore the issue and talk about it with other students.
So I created a lunchtime group, which ended up being the first gender sexuality alliance in BC. I got courage from people joining and from friends being there to support me, then media started showing up, and it went from there.
What was the initial reaction?
Romi: It helped spark a wider conversation about what the situation was like for LGBTQIA2S+ students, and what safety looked like for them in schools.
Teachers and school boards began looking at changing policies. It happened first in Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, then Surrey. There'd been so much movement with students that adults and teachers had to listen at that point.
Romi at a Pride Parade
At this time I started volunteering at gay and lesbian centres in Vancouver, and asked myself why we couldn't be talking about these things to even more students. So I started going into schools across BC doing anti-homophobia and transphobia workshops.
When this all started I was scared of public speaking. I'm from Fiji and English is a second language that I didn't learn until I was 10 years old, but the more I spoke out, the more comfortable I became.
How's the situation changed in the decades since?
Romi: It felt like we were starting from scratch. We held the same workshops for grade 5 students as we did for grade 12 students. But after doing workshops for 5-10 years there were huge shifts.
Let me give you an example. We'd do an exercise where people would stand on the right side of the room if they thought it was okay to have LGBTQIA2S+ friends, and stand on the left side if they didn't.
When we started there were around 80 percent on the left side, but eventually it flipped to 80 percent the other way.
The biggest challenge for me was not with young people - students and schools were very welcoming - but in seeing adults who were locked into their view and would never shift.
Romi speaking at an anti-hate event
Where does improvement still need to be made?
Romi: People's intersectional identities are very interesting. We've come to a place where people are accepting of queer identities but not gender identities, or accepting of someone being queer but not of their disability or race.
In my own experience I'm now subjected to more racism than homophobia. The attitude is "It's okay that you're gay, but not that you're disabled or a person of colour".
That's not inclusion.
You also do work with newcomers - is Canada a welcoming place?
Romi: I think it's true that people here generally want to be accepting of newcomers, but it's an issue of not knowing how to do it the right way.
The good news is that there are many services and spaces for different groups. The challenge is how these are funded, who is directing them, and where the funds come from. Often the people benefitting most are the paid employees, while the participants are just tick boxes.
What are you focused on these days?
Romi: Raising a kid's been a real internal look for me. I've done all this work publicly, but now what does it mean in raising my son? It's got me looking at my own values and how I say and do things more. If I say things in public but don't do them at home, it's hypocrisy.
Romi and husband Spencer with son Dev
I'm also learning and unlearning my own community. Because there are folks coming out with different ideas, whether queer or gender based, navigating the intersection of race and class.
And it's always a priority of mine to create community spaces for groups which will help those groups to flourish. First and foremost these are spaces for them to empower themselves, and then work together with allies from there.
Anything to add?
Romi: One of the hard things I'm currently exploring within institutions is the hierarchy of pay. Why does the coordinator get paid less than the manager, when the coordinator reaches more people in terms of impact?
This extends to the boards of organizations. We need to ask who's benefiting, whether the boards are diverse, and how people are being compensated.
There's still a lot of ways we can become a more inclusive society.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of You & Me BC. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org