Lansing City Councilmember Jody Washington brought up concerns about the city's "Sister City" partnership with St. Petersburg Russia - that country's second largest city - because of antigay laws and arrests. Photo from All Out website.

Lansing Leader Calls On City To End Relationship With Russian Counterpart Over LGBT Abuses

By Susan Horowitz

LANSING - A new national antigay law in Russia has become political fodder in Michigan's capitol city. Monday night, Lansing City Councilmember Jody Washington brought up concerns about the city's "Sister City" partnership with St. Petersburg Russia - that country's second largest city - because of antigay laws and arrests.

"I do not believe that Lansing, Michigan should be in a Sister City agreement with St. Petersburg, Russia when these type of violations are occurring," Washington told Between The Lines in an email. "I do believe that the agreement violates the Human Rights Ordinance. We have long been working on making Lansing, Michigan an inclusive city where everyone's civil rights are protected. To be in an official agreement with any part of the world that violates those human rights that we have protected in our ordinances does not make any sense, whatsoever."

Council President Carol Wood told Randy Hannan, Mayor Virg Bernero's chief of staff, that the issue would be on the council's committee of the whole meeting on Monday July 22, and that the administration should be prepared discuss the relationship and the city's 2006 Human Rights Ordinance. The 2006 law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Washington raised the concerns because of a June 29 pride rally in Russia that resulted in the beating and arrest of at least 60 pro-gay protesters. The arrests came as a result of St. Petersburg's anti-gay law which makes it a crime to demonstrate in support of LGBT equality. That law, passed in 2012, was adopted by the national government of Russia last month, and signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin the day after the June 29 arrests.

Since the new law has gone into effect, the U.S. State Department has condemned the law, and has issued a travel advisory for the country.

"Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is widespread in Russia, as harassment, threats and acts of violence have been targeted at LGBT individuals," reads an official State Department advisory. "Government officials have been known to make derogatory comments about LGBT persons, and St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Ryazan, and Kostroma recently have banned 'the promotion of homosexuality' to minors, effectively limiting public expression and assembly on LGBT issues. Legislatures in Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Kaliningrad are considering similar measures, and there has been a push for a national ban, which has the support of a number of groups including the Russian Orthodox Church. It is unclear exactly how these statutes are being applied, although arrests have occurred under these laws, and one person has been fined approximately $170 in St. Petersburg for holding up a sign supporting LGBT rights. Public actions (including dissemination of information, statements, displays, or perceived conspicuous behavior) contradicting or appearing to contradict such laws may lead to arrest, prosecution, and the imposition of a fine. LGBT travelers should review the LGBT Travel Information page."

Washington said she hopes Bernero and his team will sever ties with St. Petersburg. If not, she says she is prepared to lead the way.

"If they do not sever the agreement, I will work on a resolution condemning the actions of St. Petersburg and officially ask that the relationship be discontinued with notice to the officials of St. Petersburg being officially notified," Washington said.

Joe Mirabella, communications director for the international LGBT equality organization All Out, says Lansing is the first city in the nation to raise concerns about its relationships with a Russian city over LGBT abuses. Last week Reykjavik, Iceland severed its partnership with the city of Moscow over the national antigay law.

"[The St. Petersburg] ban inspired the national law which has reeked havoc on free speech rights for every Russian. This year at least 60 Pride marchers were arrested in St. Petersburg. Several were badly beaten by civilians while police stood by," said Mirabella. "Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, human rights advocates refuse to back down. When cities like Lansing and Reykjavik sever ties with their sister cities, not only are they sending a strong message to those in power in Russia, but most importantly they are decisively standing with people who are risking their lives and freedom to support people who are under attack because of who they are and who they love."

Learn more at http://www.allout.org/en/actions/russia-attacks

Sister Cities was started by Dwight Eisenhower as citizen diplomacy. http://www.sister-cities.org


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