When Spencer and Romi Chandra Herbert announced the arrival of their first child on Valentine’s Day 2017, the story quickly went viral.
A photograph of the couple in their bed at B.C. Women’s Hospital with baby Dev snuggled on Spencer’s chest was the valentine the world needed — a picture of love and happiness that transcends conventional barriers in every way. A gay, mixed-race couple in bed at a women’s hospital, they were the picture of a modern family.
The outpouring of excitement and joy from their families and among the public has carried the couple through their first days with Dev — and the sleepless nights.
But there have also been death threats.
“They’ve tracked us down. They’ve sent us hate messages, death threats. We had to go to the RCMP. It’s pretty nasty,” said Spencer in their West End apartment on a sunny morning a week after Dev’s birth.
Alert, with his dark eyes wide open, Dev lies on the lap of his other father, Romi. Dev seems at ease in the new world. He can already lift and turn his head. He is strong, perfect in every way.
Dev’s arrival was an unexpected gift: after the couple endured years of waiting to adopt, dashed hopes and cruel refusals based on their sexuality, their friend Amanda offered to carry a child for them.
Romi and Spencer glow as they gaze at Dev and recount his birth story, but the tone turns serious as they recall a disturbing message posted on Facebook after Dev’s birth announcement: “‘F— you, you’re the first to be culled,’ with a photo of our family,” says Spencer.
“We’ve received death threats before because of the work we do. This time it was a little more frightening.”
“We’ve got a baby involved,” says Romi.
“People are emboldened with the whole Trump phenomenon,” says Spencer.
Spencer is the MLA for Vancouver-West End and an outspoken human rights advocate who lobbied long and hard to have gender identity and expression protected under the B.C. Human Rights Code, which was amended in July 2016 to add those protections. Romi is a social justice advocate with a non-profit that seeks to unite people from diverse backgrounds.
Romi says that when he first came out, he experienced anger, even hatred directed toward him, to the point where he says he got used to it. But throughout the years he developed his own community and friends, and his sense of safety grew —and his family has been supportive.
“I’d sort of forgotten that we are not well regarded in some other parts of the community. There are still haters out there,” he says.
But with Dev in the room it’s impossible to feel anything but uplifted.
“It’s been great to see people that don’t know us step up to defend us online,” says Spencer. “It does help people see that there are many different kinds of families, and it’s often people who don’t have experience with that who are the most hateful and most fearful.
“Being visible, we’ve had people come up to us on the street and say, ‘Wow, we never thought this could happen, and you’re doing a good job.’ It makes it real and normal that there are different kinds of families out there.”
The Chandra Herberts’ journey also highlights the challenges faced by those trying to build a different kind of family.
The couple, who married in 2010, had tried for years to adopt and were open to all options, including private, international and children in ministry care. Herbert hopes to work on making the process easier for all waiting parents.
One of the biggest challenges, says Herbert, is that each type of adoption is handled by a different agency and each requires a different set of paperwork, interviews, home studies and fees. It means applying for more than one kind of adoption can be financially prohibitive for waiting parents.
“We are hoping that B.C. will move in the direction of having the public and private adoptions systems working together.” Spencer envisions a streamlined system — something he believes will help eliminate the perceived bias against kids in ministry care.
“Waiting parents just want to be parents. Let’s create one set of paperwork and open it up.”
In 2014, the couple got the call they longed for: There was a baby. Spencer and Romi said yes, but a few days later another call came.
“A relative of the baby had found out we were a same-sex couple, and said no way,” says Spencer. “That was heartbreaking.”
After the story of that loss went public, opportunities for adoption went cold.
“Maybe people were afraid that we would be outspoken if that happened again, because a lot of people were quite upset that it seemed homophobia could play a role in stopping adoption,” says Spencer.
Then, out of the blue, a text came from their friend Amanda offering to carry a baby for the couple.
They were stunned, and moved. They did some research, visited fertility clinics, consulted a lawyer and talked everything through thoroughly. It’s not legal to pay a surrogate, but expenses related to pregnancy can be covered.
Ready to move forward, they put a legal agreement in place, one that protected everyone — Amanda first and, of course, Dev.
“It makes sense. There are cases where moms have been coerced, or felt they didn’t have enough information going into the process,” said Romi. The couple prefers to keep the nuts and bolts of the conception under wraps.
“A lot of people want to know the details, so we say if you tell us how you conceived your child, we’ll tell you how we conceived ours,” says Spencer.
The couple waited until Amanda was three months into the pregnancy before they told their parents.
“They had lots of questions,” said Romi. “Some of them we answered. Some of them we couldn’t answer. They were just incredibly supportive.”
“It helps that we’ve been together for 17 years,” adds Spencer. The couple met on a Vancouver beach when Spencer was 19 and Romi was 22.
“We talked about family on the second date,” says Romi.
Changes to the B.C. Family Law Act, which came into effect in March 2013, made it easier for parents of babies born through a surrogate. If a legal pre-conception agreement is in place, the intended parents in that declaration matter more than biology. Neither Spencer nor Romi has to adopt Dev. They will simply have to register him, with them as parents on the birth certificate.
The hospital was extraordinarily welcoming, the couple says. “We had a room right next to Amanda’s,” Spencer says.
“It wasn’t really our room,” explains Romi. “It was Dev’s room. He was the patient. We got to be there with him.”
Right next door, Amanda was in recovery and Romi and Spencer could be with Dev without disturbing her. Her privacy is paramount for them, but they plan to be open with Dev about the very unique way he came into the world.
Although Amanda was unavailable to comment, both Romi and Spencer say she has given them a gift for which they will thank her forever. “She has given us a gift bigger than any of us, a gift to the future, a gift of family, a gift of love, a gift of hope. We are now more than friends. We are family,” says Spencer.
Law reform smooths path to parenthood for gay couples
Family lawyer barbara findlay (she does not capitalize her name) has dealt with every kind of family — and to ensure successful parenthood for gay couples in particular, she suggests getting legal agreements nailed down up front.
“Figure out your legal rights and responsibilities before you start,” says findlay, who has written a guide called “Choosing Children.”
Changes to the Family Law Act have improved the landscape for gay families, but gay men who want to conceive a child with a third party still face obstacles that heterosexual couples do not.
If a gay couple wants to inseminate a gestational carrier at a fertility clinic, the sperm is considered “donor” sperm, explains findlay, and must be frozen, sent to Toronto to be tested for infectious diseases and quarantined for six months.
“It’s a discriminatory provision,” says findlay. “They don’t make heterosexual men have their sperm tested before they engage in baby-making behaviour.”
Prior to the 2013 revisions to the Family Law Act, a parent named on a birth certificate was “evidence of parentage,” but not proof. Now, in B.C., those named on a birth certificate as parents are the parents “for all purposes,” including inheritance, but the names that go on the birth certificate should be declared in a legal agreement prior to conception.
“The Family Law Act now takes as its organizing principle intention, not biology. The baby’s parents are the people who intend to be the baby’s parents, not necessarily those that are biologically its parents,” says findlay.
That means that for lesbian couples, donor insemination agreements and post-birth adoptions by the non-gestational mother are no longer necessary — as long as you have it on paper first.
If a couple wants to involve the donor as a parent, that is possible, too. In B.C. up to five people can be named as parents on a birth certificate, with all five parents bearing rights and responsibilities to that child.
A gay male couple needs an egg and a gestational carrier. Sometimes the egg comes from the same woman who carries — but not always.
Paid surrogacy is not allowed in Canada, a provision that helps eliminate the exploitation of financially vulnerable women. That often creates another roadblock for gay men, who must find someone willing to donate the egg, and someone to be a gestational carrier.
In order to have a legally viable surrogacy arrangement in Canada, both the future parents and the gestational carrier must sign a surrogacy agreement before conception, as well as a surrender agreement after she delivers.
If the gestational carrier has a change of heart, the waiting parents must go to court and ask for a declaration of parentage. If an agreement was signed prior to conception, it’s likely, says findlay, that the gestational carrier would not be declared a parent.
To read more about options for different parenting arrangements, go to www.barbarafindlay.com.