By Roman Collins
The blood running from his nose was what drew my eyes. The panic and terror is what caught my attention. This is St. Petersburg for an LGBT activist merely exercising their rights. This is how I found out that Lansing’s Russian Sister City, St. Petersburg was systematically violating the human rights of it’s LGBT residents.
In a picture from St. Petersburg, Russia of a young gay man, — a man that couldn’t be much older than I — red rimmed glasses and blood running from his nose; the atrocities of a reign of terror unleashed on Russia’s LGBT community became blatant. A truth that became inescapable. The videos of the atrocities merely reinforce the outrage that I feel every second Lansing remains a “sister” to St. Petersburg.
The LGBT community in Russia has been terrorized for years. It’s so bad in St. Petersburg that in May last year gay rights activists were trapped in a bus by neo-Nazis and skinheads who halted their bus as they tried to flee in fear of violence. Breaking the windows with rocks and clubs, the neo-Nazi’s bludgeoned the activists. Two of the activists were hospitalized. To make matters worse, last month Russia passed a ban on “homosexual propaganda.” In April, the State Department even issued a travel warning to LGBT U.S. citizens traveling to Russia.
Russia’s homophobic new law – originating in St. Petersburg – bans everything from equating gay relationships with straight ones, to rainbow symbols. Just yesterday three tourists from Denmark were arrested in Murmansk, Russia for violating Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law. Before being deported, they’ll be fined and detained for up to two weeks in a Russian prison.
In the midst of this human rights crisis in Russia, Lansing has a choice. When a city and it’s country makes it a crime to merely speak about gay rights, clearly, they’re not open to dialogue about gay rights. Lansing either stands with the regimes in Russia and St. Petersburg or stands with our LGBT brothers and sisters in St. Petersburg and moves to sever ties with the city.
Here’s five reasons Lansing should sever ties with St. Petersburg:
1. It’s what LGBT activists in St. Petersburg want and need.
In a recent editorial on Between the Lines, Joe Mirabella Communications director with All Out stated, “If Lansing joined the thousands from around the world who have called for equality in Russia by severing ties with St. Peterburg, they would become a sister city for all of Russia’s gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender citizens and their allies. Lansing would be giving them hope.” In other words, this is what our LGBT brothers and sisters in St. Petersburg want and need and who are we to tell them they’re wrong?
2 We have a moral imperative.
When Lansing moves to sever ties with St. Petersburg we will be taking a principled moral stance against the violence and oppression that our LGBT allies in St. Petersburg and Russia suffer from every day. We will show the world that we don’t tolerate this kind of abuse in our own community and any city that tolerates it in theirs is no “sister” of ours. As Lansing said when we passed the Human Rights Ordinance, every human being has the right to live free of oppression and discrimination. Every human being. It shouldn’t matter if they live in Lansing, Michigan or St. Petersburg, Russia.
3 St. Petersburg and Russia are violating international law, and our Sister City Status violates the very essence of our Human Rights Ordinance.
Human Rights Watch points out that Russia’s homophobic laws that ban the free expression of LGBT people are in violation of international and European law. Human Rights Watch writes, “It is long established that the right to freedom of expression guarantees the expression of ideas or thoughts that might offend, shock, or disturb some sections of the population (see ECHR Handyside v. United Kingdom, judgment of December 7, 1976). Any restriction on the right to freedom of expression must be demonstrably proportionate and necessary to achieve a legitimate aim. The existing regional laws banning “homosexual propaganda” as well as the proposed federal draft law [now established law] fails this test. Moreover, according to European Court case law, any measure that results in a difference of treatment in enjoyment of the right based solely on sexual orientation, amounts to discrimination – and is therefore a violation under the Convention.” By becoming a part of the European Convention, Russia agreed not to violate the legal obligations that go along with it. The European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee both have issued decisions making it very clear Russia’s laws banning “homosexual propaganda,” are in violation of human rights under the European Convention and international human rights law of the UN.
So long as we stay “sister” with St. Petersburg we are violating the very essence of our own Human Rights Ordinance. As our ordinance states, Lansing “finds that discrimination on the basis of irrelevant characteristics exists and that it adversely affects all citizens and the quality of life and opportunities available to all people.” Russia’s laws allow for the fining, detainment, and subsequent deportation of tourists based on “irrelevant” characteristics and they’re entirely based on discrimination based on those “irrelevant” characteristics. Either Lansing violates Russia’s law when we send representatives to Russia who are openly gay, or we violate our own Human Rights Ordinance and deny LGBT people the right to represent Lansing in Russia. We cannot simply tell Lansing residents, “Check your gay at the door.”
4 It’s about human rights. ‘It should never be a crime to be gay.’
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends all people’s rights to free expression, including LGBT people. Hillary Clinton said it best when she declared to the UN, “Like being a woman, like being a racial religious tribal or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are gay rights, … It should never be a crime to be gay.”
Indeed, you can’t simply separate someone’s sexuality from their identity. It’s an intricate part of who we are, it’s inseparable. While Russia suppresses gay rights they’re suppressing human rights.
5 Enough politics.
What would we tell the LGBT activists in St. Petersburg if Lansing had the opportunity of being the first city in the nation to cut ties with St. Petersburg over the human rights abuses, yet instead of doing the right thing we let petty politics stand in the way. If we told them, “Sorry we simply cannot agree that your tragedy is more important than our politics.” Imagine how selfish and insulting it would be to our LGBT brothers and sisters in St. Petersburg, who face violence and fears of death everyday for simply being themselves, if we denied them our support in their moment of urgency. Their moment of darkness, cast in the shadow by a government that refuses to acknowledge their humanity.
Now more than ever, our friends in St. Petersburg need us. We have a duty to sever ties with St. Petersburg as a city that has deep pride for the LGBT community, but there’s no pride in human rights abuses. In this moment, the entire world watches.
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