Wednesday, 4 December 2013

LGBT supporters abroad call for ending city ties in Russia

In response to Russia's so-called anti-gay laws, international gay activists from the United States to Australia are pushing to cut ties with Russian sister cities. While these moves are ostensibly meant to support the Russian LGBT community, gay activists here say the help may cause more harm than good. The "gay propaganda" law - which, authorities say, is meant to protect minors from harmful information on "untraditional" relations - has been attacked as suppressing the freedom of assembly of LGBT Russians and as depriving Russian LGBT youth of vital advice in what is perceived as an increasingly hostile atmosphere. Assaults and harassment, including online videos designed to humiliate their subjects, have meanwhile been attributed to this environment. More than 200 cities across Russia have sister cities abroad. Moscow is paired with, among others, Berlin, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, while St. Petersburg has links with Antwerp, Cape Town and Hamburg. Vladivostok is twinned with San Francisco, and the southern city of Voronezh has been the partner of Charlotte, North Carolina, since 1991. Activists in Charlotte proposed dissolving the relationship with Voronezh in August, but authorities decided against it. While media reported last year that Milan had cut ties with St. Petersburg, a spokesman for the Italian Cultural Center in St. Petersburg told The Moscow News that a relationship still existed. Meanwhile, discussions are ongoing in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia, about ending the relationship with Russia's second-largest city. The status of a sister city is not just a symbolic relationship, but instead involves vital avenues of exchange, officials say. "The relationship is unambiguously positive for our general international cooperation with foreign countries," said Igor Lonsky, deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg Foreign Relations Committee. "These are exchanges of specialists, of experience, youth, school and sport exchanges.... [Celebrating our city days] in foreign cities and [their] days in St. Petersburg." Among the events in Charlotte are presentations by local arts organizations of Russian operas, ballets and symphonies, said Alexis Gordon, international relations manager for the City of Charlotte. "Into the late '90s, we did a lot of government-to-government best practices exchanges, The last one we had was in 2007 - we had a group of women in government who came here to Charlotte." Other exchanges have been in the areas of culture, education and business. Among the first, Gordon said, were medical exchanges, frequently focusing on pediatrics. he exchanges - and the communication opportunities they open up - are the reason LGBT activists in Russia feel that cutting ties could actually backfire. "We have serious concerns that as a result of these ties being cut, channels of communication will be broken and the [LGBT] community will become even more isolated than it is right now," Sasha Semyonova, an activist with the St. Petersburg-based organization Coming Out (Vykhod). For Lonsky, many of the proposals aimed at St. Petersburg may be a result of ignorance of what the law says. "We explain that the subject is the ban on some real, specific promotion among minors," Lonsky said. "People need to read the law more attentively - if we're talking about the law, everything is spelled out there, but they read things into it that are not there." The exchange programs facilitated through sister-city status have provided opportunities for LGBT people to communicate with the outside world, activists say. Despite its base in St. Petersburg, which had its own anti-promotion law over a year before adoption of the federal law, Coming Out last year participated in a youth exchange with Hamburg through St. Petersburg's Youth Policy Committee. Semyonova fears that opportunities will be missed if foreign cancellation campaigns are successful. Other Russian activists feel that cutting ties could play into the hands of conservative supporters of the "gay propaganda" ban by promoting greater isolation from the West. For Igor Kochetkov, chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, exchanges like the one Coming Out participated in are key to generating dialogue about the law's effects. "Since sister-city status involves bilateral relations with each city [being] equal, I think Western cities could make inclusion of LGBT communities a condition of their exchange programs," Kochetkov said. "This would be a better form of support than simply cancelling sister-city status." But Andrei Nasonov, a Voronezh-based LGBT activist, supported the cancellation initiative in Charlotte. Such campaigns "raise the question of homophobia not just on the federal, but on the regional level. "City authorities should feel a reaction to [the city's] open homophobia, which they in fact support and encourage." Yet in Charlotte, Voronezh's interest in communication on the issue of the law was cited as part of the reason to retain the relationship, Gordon said. "It's very easy to say, ‘That's a federal law, we don't want to talk about it,'" she said. "It was very much, ‘We value you as our sister city and want to take this opportunity to talk about what we can work together on.'"

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