Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
A native of Dallas who moved to Little Rock via Florida, LGBTQ rights activist Randi M. Romo co-founded the Center for Artistic Revolution in 2003. CAR, as the organization is known, is the oldest organization of its kind in the state. It uses education, direct organizing, advocacy and cultural work in the pursuit of fairness and equality for LGBTQ Arkansans. The organization, housed in the First Presbyterian Church of Little Rock, also provides a community center, runs a thriving LGBTQ youth program and provides the only drop-in center in the state for LGBTQ youth. Recently, after an 11-year run, Romo stepped down as the organization's director. She is also an accomplished poet, writer and a mixed-media artist.
How goes the struggle to win Arkansas's hearts and minds?
I believe that the effort to shift hearts and minds is definitely succeeding, albeit slowly. It's true, there are some who will never shift, but it's that greater movable middle that now finds itself increasingly having to seriously consider the real impact of homo/transphobia on their fellow Arkansans. They are now hearing firsthand how bigotry and discrimination affects their LGBTQ family members, neighbors, co-workers and friends. They are hearing about the bullying endured by LGBTQ students. This shift can be attributed partly to the reality that more and more LGBTQ Arkansans refuse to be consigned to a life of misery hiding in the closet. And the fact that our stories are an important part of creating that shift. Constant, intentional, community education has also raised the bar in understanding how detrimental the lack of equal access and protections is to the lives of LGBTQ Arkansans.
Is the state better off now for LGBTQ citizens than it was five years ago?
I think that for LGBTQ Arkansans there's an overall "feeling" of being safer, able to live more openly. However, the state is only marginally better off in regard to its policies and laws. We do get help on some things via federal initiatives, but it is a patchwork. The reality is that attacking LGBTQ Arkansans under the auspices of protecting religious freedom is still beneficial for those pandering to their base and building their political power. It is a sorry state of affairs when a sitting state representative, Justin Harris (R-West Fork), is allowed to retain his seat after literally giving away two girls that he and his wife adopted, putting them into proven harm's way with no outcry from his peers. Yet, he, along with those same peers rallied around discriminatory legislation whose sole purpose is to further enshrine in the state's laws the sanctioned discriminatory treatment of hardworking, taxpaying LGBTQ Arkansans.
We did see the Adoption Ban finally struck down in 2011 after over 10 years of this being a fight led by Jerry Cox and company. Next, we saw marriage equality happen, but it is now tied up in the state Supreme Court. We expect that this issue will be decided by SCOTUS this summer before our own state's court rules. But, the reality is that once the marriage issue is resolved, a legally married same-sex couple in Arkansas will still face the legal risks of being fired, losing their housing or refused service and goods. One of the most important ways that I think Arkansas is better off is that there is a greater willingness of LGBTQ and allies to stand up all across the state for equality.
It was a rough legislative session for gay folks, though some light did show through. What was the best moment of the session and the worst moment?
I think one of the best moments was when it became clear that the governor recognized that his administration could not afford to allow HB 1228 to stand as it was sent to his desk. Worst moment was when SB 202 sailed through and took away the rights of towns and cities in Arkansas to make their own laws in regard to anti-discrimination ordinances. I'd add my personal moment was my disappointment in the governor who made nice noises about not being a state that discriminates, that he was open to an executive order and then when the furor dies down, so did his appearance of being any sort of an ally. It's a damn shame that the only reason the state could find for not implementing HB 1228 was the economic harm and looking bad to the rest of the world. Wouldn't it have been great if the reason to not pass HB 1228 had been because it was mean-spirited and meant to discriminate against other Arkansans — hard-working families and taxpayers who also happen to be LGBTQ?
You're in a war of words with a homophobic preacher with his ribbon bookmark pegged to the Book of Leviticus. What's your best rebuttal scripture?
I'd have to say Romans 13:10: "Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore it is the fulfillment of the law."
You're a very proud Mexican-American. How does that inform your work?
I love my cultures, that of my Mexican-American community and that of being a Southerner. I am many things in this intersection of identities. I can't leave any part of myself at the door when I walk into any space. I am a working-class Latina, a lesbian, a woman, a parent, a daughter, an artist, older, etc. All of these things together inform my daily walk. We get caught up in what I call the "ladder of oppression": Who is highest up on the rung? Who is the most worthy of having their issues cared about, worked on? For example, there could be some who are sympathetic to my needs as a woman, but as a lesbian woman there could be homophobia that comes into play preventing me from being seen as far enough up on the ladder to have my struggle be considered. Yet, as a woman I experience disparity in pay and access, while as a lesbian I am at risk of being denied a job or fired. The reality is that discrimination overlaps, but it's divisive and prevents those most harmfully impacted by discriminatory policies and laws from coming together in a consistently meaningful way to achieve the things that we all want and need: living wage jobs, affordable housing, good schools, enough to eat, medical care, etc.
We're starting a betting pool: openly gay, lesbian or transgender governor of Arkansas. Where's your money on the year that'll happen?