A Russian LGBT activist seen here bleeding after being attacked during a protestst June 29 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Russian Activists Encourage Lansing To Sever Ties

By Susan Horowitz and Todd Heywood

LANSING - Activists in St. Petersburg, Russia are encouraging leaders of Michigan's Capitol City to take action over violations of the human rights of LGBT citizens in that city.

"Every message and action of solidarity is important," Olga Lenkova tells Between The Lines in an exclusive email interview. Lenkova serves as the communications manager for St. Petersburg's LGBT rights organization Coming Out.

"It is important to raise the issue, and it is important to make human rights a focus point in the international relations. It is equally important to continue the struggle for acceptance and equality at home in your own town and country," she wrote later in the email. "In the era of globalization, human rights can't exist separately in every country, and it is globally that we have to fight for them."

Lenkova's interview with BTL - even though she identifies as heterosexual - could subject the 27-year-old woman to arrest, imprisonment and fines for violating St. Petersburg nearly two year-old ban on propaganda in favor of LGBT people. The Russian Federation's national government adopted a similar ban at the end of June, leading to travel advisories being issued by the U.S. State Department for LGBT citizens.

Lenkova's comments mirror statements made in background interviews with other LGBT residents of St. Petersburg, as well as on the record statements by the international LGBT equality group All Out, which is working with Coming Out to address human rights abuses. BTL is not identifying the other activists at their request, out of concern for their safety.

Lansing's political leadership began to address the issue last week when First Ward City Councilperson Jody Washington expressed condemnation of a June 29 protest in which LGBT activists were beaten by nationalist and neo-Nazis while St. Petersburg police stood by. Following the beatings, 60 activists were arrested for violating the city's ban.

"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 BTL in an email last week. "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."

The next day, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero - who has a long history of supporting the LGBT community and helped to pass the city's 2006 human rights ordinance - told MLive.com that ending the relationship was "the exact opposite" of how the city should handle the abuses and the Sister City relationship.

Lansing has had an official Sister City status with St. Petersburg in 1994, Martha Fujita of the Sister City Commission tells BTL. However, the relationship has been "dormant" for the last six years.

While the Lansing Sister Cities Commission is an independent nonprofit, it received $20,000 from the city of Lansing in this current budget year, to underwrite activities. The city also contributes $23,000 a year for Fukita's salary.

At Monday night's Committee of the Whole meeting, councilmembers expressed universal disdain for the ongoing harassment and violence against LGBT citizens in Russia. The majority of council expressed support for a resolution condemning the widespread abuses. The resolution could ultimately lead to the severance of ties to St. Petersburg.

Bernero has not, as of Sunday night, responded to a series of questions submitted by BTL to the mayor on Thursday night.

While Bernero is mum, other councilmembers and Lansing area leaders are weighing in on the situation. Councilmembers Carol Wood and Brian Jeffries have both stated that they support ending the partnership. Fourth Ward Councilperson Jessica Yorko says the relationship should be put "on hold" until the abuses end. Yorko's opponent in the August primary, Chong-Anna Canfora, issued a press release on Monday night calling for an end to the Sister City status for St. Petersburg. Councilmember Kathie Dunbar did not respond to email requests for comment.

Washington will introduce such a resolution Monday during the regular Council meeting, and she says she has met with Bernero. The two will present the resolution together.

Glenn Freeman III, President of the Lansing Labor Council - which represents all of the local unions in Lansing - has also called for an end to the relationship.

"The Labor movement has long stood with our LGBT brothers and sisters in the fight for equality," Freeman said in an exclusive statement to BTL. "The continued targeted violence both in society and in the law in St. Petersburg against LGBT people is simply unacceptable and anathema to our values in Lansing. We are a World Class City and part of being a leader in the world is telling our friends that their behavior is abhorrent. There can be no question that is the case in St. Petersburg, and Lansing City Council and the Mayor should immediately end the Sister City relationship with that city until and if they change their violent repression of free speech in general, and LGBT people in particular."

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