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Will Los Angeles Sever 'Sister City' Ties to Anti-Gay St. Petersburg, Russia?

The severing or even suspension of ties to St. Petersburg by the City of Los Angeles would send a resounding message of support for LGBT human rights from the ninth most economically powerful city in the world that other cities could use as cover to also sever ties.
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One of the questions newly sworn-in gay Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell got at a meet-and-greet at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center last Tuesday, July 23, was from the Center’s Chief Public Affairs Officer, Jim Key.

“You've probably heard about the horrible anti-gay crackdown in Russia, and know that St. Petersburg—which passed the ‘anti-gay propaganda law’—is a ‘sister city’ to Los Angeles. We don't think L.A. should be affiliated with such a city,” Key said. “We worked with Councilmember Rosendahl on a resolution to sever that relationship, but it hasn't gone anywhere. Will you work with us on this?"

O’Farrell said that he and Mike Bonin, the other newly sworn-in gay city councilmember, have discussed it and are looking forward to getting a briefing from the Center and the ACLU/SoCal, the two organizations that sponsored the original resolution with Rosendahl last February.

“The passing of this resolution sends a strong message that the city will not tolerate discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters in a sister city relationship,” openly gay City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl said in introducing his resolution on Feb. 12. “We must stand together and continue to fight for our basic civil and human rights for all human beings on this earth.”

Left unsaid in City Hall that day was the possibility—albeit perhaps a remote possibility—that the severing or even suspension of ties to St. Petersburg by the City of Los Angeles would send a resounding message of support for LGBT human rights from the ninth most economically powerful city in the world that other cities could use as cover to also sever ties. Additionally, the very threat of a possible domino effect could have been leveraged to stop the anti-gay hatred in its cold tracks in that homophobic Russian city. By the time the Rosendahl resolution disappeared in April, a petition on had 2,079 signatures asking L.A. and other cities partnered with St. Petersburg to sever those ties.

But instead of L.A. leading the world to stop the anti-gay St. Petersburg law then and there, the law was picked up and passed by the Russian parliament, and on June 30, President Vladimir Putin intensified the usual crackdown on LGBT Russians by legalizing hate. The country now outlaws and stigmatizes gay people and imposes hefty fines and jail time on anyone who gives information to minors about the LGBT community. Subsequently, the law was extended to foreigners and tourists who might be found in violation of the "gay propaganda" law, landing four Dutch tourists in jail on Monday, July 22.

The Center’s Jim Key said that at the reception for Councilmember O'Farrell, “the crowd erupted in applause when I told him we don't want L.A. to have a relationship with a city that prosecutes people for being LGBT.” Key noted that Lansing, Mich., is now considering severing its ties with St. Petersburg as well. A resolution is expected to be introduced Monday night in the Lansing City Council.

In an email on Friday, Key wrote:

Los Angeles certainly shouldn't be the last to disassociate with such a repressive, draconian government. Already, people are being charged for violating St. Petersburg's new laws against the "promotion of homosexuality." Police arrested people simply for attempting to organize Pride celebrations, and four Dutch activists who visited Russia to help build the LGBT movement there—doing the same type of work we're doing in China—were arrested and charged for the crime of promoting homosexuality. It's outrageous, it cannot be allowed to continue and the very least that Los Angeles can do is send a message to Russia by severing its sister city relationship.

The Resolution That Could Have Changed Everything

So what happened to Rosendahl’s resolution? Simply put, it appears that Councilmember Tom LaBonge—who oversees the city’s "sister cities" relationships and represents the part of Hollywood that includes the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center—quietly killed it in the Rules, Elections & Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

The Center and the ACLU approached Rosendahl roughly one year after St. Petersburg passed its ordinance banning so-called “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexualism and transgenderism, and pedophilia to minors.” Human Rights Watch had been watching the measure’s progress through the city’s system and noted that the law violated Russia’s own international agreements, because the country is:

bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to guarantee the rights not to be discriminated against, and to freedom of assembly and expression. Russia also supported a March 2010 recommendation from the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe to end discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. The document includes provisions for the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The bill is setting a dangerous precedent by maliciously linking pedophilia with homosexuality—it only serves to stoke existing homophobic sentiment in society,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. He added that the bill’s language is so vague “it could lead to a ban on displaying a rainbow flag or wearing a T-shirt with a gay-friendly logo” or holding LGBT rallies. “It also sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression more generally.”

After seeing the effects of the law, Center CEO Lorri Jean and ACLU/SoCal Deputy Executive Editor James Gilliam sent a letter to L.A. City Councilmembers and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in which they wrote:

Particularly troubling is the law’s aim at preventing youth from accessing the information they may need to help them deal with their own sexual orientation and/or gender nonconformity. Since its passage, police have arrested dozens of people, including LGBT-rights advocates, for expressing support for the LGBT community. ...

Both of our organizations take pride in our service to Los Angeles’ LGBT community, particularly its youth. We are concerned about the implicit message Los Angeles’ LGBT youth may discern from a continued relationship between Los Angeles and St. Petersburg, absent some change in the law there.

As one of the largest and most prominent of St. Petersburg’s "sister cities" around the world, it is particularly important for the Council to act to suspend this relationship, which the City of Los Angeles has enjoyed since 1993, until St. Petersburg repeals the laws that are being used there to oppress its LGBT residents.

We strongly urge you to vote to sever the City of Los Angeles’ sister-city relationship with St. Petersburg, Russia, to send a strong message that Los Angeles is a global city committed to the diversity of its residents, and will not be linked to any city that is not.

Rosendahl’s resolution—which was seconded by Councilmembers Eric Garcetti (now mayor) and Jan Perry—noted that the city suspended its sister city relationship with Tehran, Iran, in 1979 “as a result of the political situation and the hostage crisis" (CF 72-1719- S1). (Interestingly, the International Sister Cities Association still lists Tehran among L.A.’s 25 "sister cities" and three "friendship cities" on six continents. Jakarta, Indonesia, which has been a sister city since 1990, may face its own crackdown on freedoms to organize and assemble. On the other hand, Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China, a sister city since 1981, has afforded a friendly exchange of students and professionals with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Emerging Leaders Program.)

The Rosendahl resolution concludes:

WHEREAS the Los Angeles Sister City program is a “people-to-people” program aimed at establishing greater friendship and understanding with peoples of other nations but in light of the anti-gay initiatives of St. Petersburg, it is not realistic or possible to pursue this goal of “friendship and understanding” at this time, especially since Los Angeles is recognized for furthering the rights of all citizens and is ranked as a leader in LGBT rights;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that by the adoption of this Resolution with the concurrence of the Mayor, the City of Los Angeles hereby temporarily suspends its action of December 8, 1989 which established a Sister City relationship with St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Russia, such suspension to remain in effect until further action by the City Council.

The Quiet and Possibly Illegal Death of the Rosendahl Resolution

Under California’s open-government Brown Act, proposed laws and resolutions go to the Rules, Elections & Intergovernmental Relations (REIG) Committee for a possible public hearing. But given the severity of the St. Petersburg law, many gays expected that move to be waived and for the resolution to be voted on immediately. That didn’t happen.

I originally thought LGBT ally Herb Wesson, President of the City Council and Chair of the Rules Committee, put a “hold” on the resolution. But Andrew Westall from Wesson’s sent me an email saying, “The next meeting of the REIG Committee will be on Friday, February 22. We should know by late tomorrow afternoon if the proposed resolution will be placed on the committee agenda for next week.”

It wasn’t on that agenda—nor were notices of public hearings posted, also required by the Brown Act. The silence was baffling. Were Russian immigrants offended, and that’s why it was stalled? Not likely, said Jeffrey Prang, then the gay mayor of West Hollywood. He pointed out that the sizable Russian-speaking community in West Hollywood would probably be LGBT allies in the effort.

“The Russian-speaking people in West Hollywood would probably be sympathetic to Bill Rosendahl’s actions,” Prang said. “The vast majority of them are Jewish, and most came from Ukraine. These folks left the old country because they weren’t treated well there. That’s why they are here.”

Prang said that when there was a gay-bashing incident involving Russian evangelicals in Sacramento, the West Hollywood Russian Advisory Board adopted a resolution condemning that anti-gay behavior. “It’s unfortunate that the 'Sister Cities' effort—which was created to build good will—has to be a casualty of the St. Petersburg actions,” Prang said. “I’m proud of what Bill is doing. It’s important to send a message that this type of homophobic conduct and treatment is just unconscionable.”

The West Hollywood City Council is expected to take up its own resolution condemning the anti-gay law next Monday, Aug. 5.

Meanwhile, the city became engrossed in the municipal elections or other news, and attention to the Rosendahl resolution was put on the back burner. But the Rules Committee agenda for April 19 indicates that some action was finally taken: Item (13)-13-0194 reads, “CLA to report in response to Resolution (Rosendahl-Garcetti-Perry) relative to temporarily suspending the sister-city relationship with St/ Petersburg (Leningrad). Russia. Community impact Statement: None submitted.”

That last line is somewhat misleading, since no community impact statements were gathered in the first place, as far as I can determine. And while the Rules Committee’s Item 13 reports that the CLA—the Committee Legislative Analyst—is “to report in response to the Resolution,” in fact, according to the CLA and the City Clerk, the CLA did respond on April 15, four days earlier. In that response, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry F. Miller seems to approve the Rosendahl resolution: “CLA RECOMMENDATION: Adopt or Receive and File Resolution to temporarily suspend the Council’s action of December 8, 1989 which established a Sister City relationship with St. Petersburg (Leningrad) Russia.”

According to the L.A. City Clerk, as of April 19, the “expiration date,” the resolution was still “Pending in Committee,” though the “Mover” of the resolution, Bill Rosendahl, retired at the end of his term on July 1.

How much of a coincidence is it that the Rosendahl resolution died on April 19, just three days before the Earth Day 2013 Forum at L.A. City Hall on April 22, organized by the Los Angeles-St. Petersburg Sister City Committee—with the venue sponsored by Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a volunteer board member of the International Sister Cities Association?

Did LaBonge Choose Protocol Over His Gay Constituents?

By the end of April, the Center’s Jim Key repeatedly reached out to LaBonge’s legislative director, Lisa Schecter, as well as other staff who might be knowledgeable or helpful about moving the Rosendahl resolution. He received absolutely no response and was baffled, “especially since the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center is in Councilmember LaBonge’s district,” Key said.

Finally, on Friday, July 26, LaBonge called Key back after email exchanges with LaBonge’s Communications Deputy Scott Levin. Key told me:

I finally received a voicemail message from Councilmember LaBonge, who said he had just returned from a sister city conference and is currently on bereavement leave. He said that at the conference, he questioned an ambassador from Russia about the country’s treatment of gays, but didn’t get a response. LaBonge says he does not want to terminate the sister city relationship because it allows "citizen diplomats to engage in dialogue and exhibit the diversity and contributions of our LGBT community."

I want to hear from him how maintaining this sister city relationship, which appears to be nothing more than ceremonial, will do more for LGBT people in Russia than the statement we’ll make—however small it may be—by severing relations with St. Petersburg. The stated mission of the Sister Cities organization is to "promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation." How well has that worked with Tehran, which is also a sister city of Los Angeles?

Last Thursday, Adam Kaplan, Membership Director of Sister Cities International, sent me the association’s official statement:

Sister Cities International recognizes that U.S. communities may have differing views of laws, policies or practices in other countries which they believe may run against moral, ethical or legal codes to which they ascribe. While every citizen should feel free to express their own opinions in keeping with his or her own conscience, the suspension of a sister city relationship due to disagreement over a government policy or practice can be counterproductive and contrary to the stated mission of sister city relationships promoting "peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation—one individual, one community at a time." Suspending sister city relationships closes a channel of communication through which meaningful dialogue may be held. Our policy is to encourage our members and U.S. communities to keep their sister city relationships active, especially when political issues threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made.

In a phone interview, Kaplan did note that the association would not “punish” a city that severs ties to another city and would help that city find another sister relationship, if that is so desired.

Levin also sent me an official statement from LaBonge:

Sister city relationships are special because they are intended to rise above policy and political disagreements. The City of Los Angeles prides itself on its diverse communities and, in this situation, we have an incredible opportunity as citizen diplomats to engage in dialogue and exhibit the diversity and contributions of our LGBT community. While I don’t support the policies of the Russian government in this regard, I firmly believe in the people-to-people relationships that sister cities represent. We can keep the conversations going when governments cannot.

But the L.A. City Council and mayor didn’t split hairs like that in 1979, disagreeing with the policies of the Khomeini government in Iran while still maintaining citizen diplomacy as revolutionaries held American hostages. Indeed, in the CLA report’s April 15 response that appears to have not been acknowledged, the analyst noted that L.A. suspended its relationship with its sister city of Tehran “as a result of the political situation and the resulting hostage crisis of that time (CF 72-1719-SI). At the time of that political crisis, the City Council had initially expressed a desire to terminate its sister city relationship with Tehran. However, upon the advice and intervention of the U.S. State Department, the relationship was not terminated but merely suspended.”

Interestingly, something got lost in translation, because, as Key notes above, the Sister Cities International association still lists Tehran as one of L.A.’s sister cities.

But the effectiveness of any relationship between two people or two countries depends on the quality of the conversations and the commitment of the speakers to speak the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. In an op-ed for, Associate Editor Brenden Shucart said that what’s happening now to gay people in Russia is “the most shocking and blatant assault on human rights by a modern nation in my lifetime.” LaBonge represents the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, but does he in any way comprehend what Shucart is saying?

Shucart also said he opposes boycotting the Olympics (proposed by Harvey Fierstein, who compares the situation to Nazi Germany) because “every medal bestowed upon the neck of an LGBT or American athlete is an opportunity to stand before the world and decry the inhumane treatment of gays and lesbians living in Russia.” But when LaBonge delivered that keynote welcoming the participants of the L.A.-St. Petersburg event on April 22 at City Hall, did he stand before his audience and say anything about the anti-gay policy? Probably not, since he would have told us if he had.

And what kind of a discussion did LaBonge have with that "ambassador from Russia” at the Sister Cities International conference?

Tom LaBonge has always prided himself on being a “cheerleader” for Los Angeles. But even cheerleaders—and sisters—reprimand each other when one has crossed the boundaries of propriety, let alone legality and morality. Sometimes, however, sisters keep quiet for the sake of the family or the greater good. A former Riordan administration insider recalled recently that part of LaBonge's duties as the Republican mayor's special assistant was to host and schedule meetings with visiting international dignitaries. The former insider speculated that LaBonge so thoroughly loved to perform that function that it may well have become part of his DNA, thus making any slight toward the Sister Cities International association too rude to consider.

But Tom LaBonge is not just a citizen diplomat—he is a public servant, elected to represent the people of his district, including the LGBT people of his district, and therefore he must be held accountable for his actions, including and especially actions taken in stealth. So LaBonge now faces this coming showdown with the LGBT community. Whose side is he on? Will he continue appeasing the anti-gay Russians or stand up and back his own gay constituents?

Key and James Giliam say they are meeting with LaBonge this week and are working on scheduling meetings with gay councilmembers Mike Bonin and Mitch O'Farrell as well. They might also want to meet with Mayor Garcetti, one of the co-sponsors of the Rosendahl resolution, who was elected with significant support from the gay community.

Meanwhile, the Whole World Is Watching

On Friday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Jon Gnarr, Mayor of Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland, is also considering a proposal to sever sister city ties with Moscow over the law.

"Reykjavik is a peaceful city with an emphasis on human rights and equality for all," Gnarr told RFE/RL. "They seem to want to go for oppression and fear, where women and LGBT people are second-class citizens. So it's just natural we go our separate ways."

Gnarr said the people of Reykjavik prefer "like-minded cities," and he will encourage other capitals to "take a stand" against homophobia in Russia. So far Venice, Milan and Turin in Italy have severed ties to St. Petersburg over the ban on "homosexual propaganda." Melbourne, Australia, considered severing ties with St. Petersburg after receiving a petition with 10,000 signatures, but the city council opted for sending a letter of concern from local residents to the governor of St. Petersburg instead.

And then, RFE/RL reported, “There have been similar calls in Los Angeles, which is also twinned with St. Petersburg.”

But what the world is mostly watching now is how gay people in cities everywhere—largely inspired by Dan Savage’s column “Why I’m Boycotting Russian Vodka"—are reacting to the anti-gay law by boycotting Russian products. On Friday, longtime activist and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran announced that he is organizing a boycott of Stoli vodka with numerous bar owners in the Boystown area (not in the Russian area on the east side of the city), with a pour out scheduled for Thursday. Faultline in Silver Lake, meanwhile, reportedly stopped serving Russian-labeled vodka quite a while ago. So far, gay bars in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, Australia, and the UK announced they have stopped selling Russian vodka and Russian products.

And Canada has gone a step further, issuing a travel advisory:

Although homosexual activity is not illegal in Russia, a federal law has been passed that prohibits public actions that are described as promoting homosexuality and "non-traditional sexual relations." This law could render any homosexual and pro-homosexual statements punishable. Public actions (including dissemination of information, statements, displays or conspicuous behaviour) that contravene or appear to contravene this law may lead to arrest, the imposition of a fine and deportation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travellers, as well as their friends and families, have been targets of harassment and violence.

And yet not an official peep from the City of Los Angeles.

Moments like this—sending a resounding message that the City of Los Angeles stands by LGBT people by severing its sister city ties—can only add a significant rippling effect to the sight of gays pouring expensive vodka into the gutters of West Hollywood, for it’s in moments like this that the true character of a city and a people—as Bill Rosendahl describes in his resolution’s commitment to human rights—speaks to a nation and speaks for the voiceless in countries presumed to be our “sisters.” Now it’s up to elected gay councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Mike Bonin and LGBT allies like Mayor Eric Garcetti—and, yes, Tom LaBonge—to lead the way.

This post originally appeared on Photos taken by Karen Ocamb and David Stern.