Chapel Hill: ‘Nyet’ to anti-gay sister city

tgrubb@newsobserver.comAugust 23, 2013 

— The town should disown its estranged sister city over Russia’s anti-gay policies and the persecution of its people, say two Chapel Hill leaders.

In a statement, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Town Council member Lee Storrow called for the Town Council to sever its relationship with Saratov, a port city located about 450 miles southeast of Moscow on Russia’s Volga River.

“Innocent individuals and families face persecution, violence and detainment for expressing themselves openly and non-violently in the public square. These laws are deplorable and do nothing but create hardship, suffering, and in some cases death, for innocent people,” they said.

The cities have been linked through the Sister Cities program since 1992, but Kleinschmidt and Storrow, who are gay, said in the release the relationship has been dormant for some time. In light of Russia’s “heartbreaking” persecution of homosexuals and the recent enactment of a new anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender law banning “homosexual propaganda,” the men plan to present a petition to other Town Council members this fall.

The Sister Cities program is operated through the nonprofit group Sister Cities International. According to the group, members met in 1973 with representatives from the former Soviet Republic to develop guidelines for the program. In 1977, there were five partnerships with Soviet cities, and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 36 recorded relationships. By 2012, there were more than 70 U.S.-Russian partnerships.

Kleinschmidt said this issue is different from the cultural connections of the Cold War years. It’s actually more akin to what apartheid was for blacks in South Africa, he said. While the Sister Cities program is designed to promote understanding, the Russian people already understand what they and their government are doing to homosexual, bisexual and transgender citizens, he said.

“You can’t teach Russia anything on this issue at this point,” he said.

Officials at the Russian consulate in New York did not answer repeated calls for comment Friday.

The move to break those ties stems from an Equality NC release Thursday that demanded Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte and smaller N.C. cities break ties to protest Russian bias against homosexuals. A Raleigh official said the city has sister ties to England, China and Nairobi, but not any Russian cities. Charlotte officials were not immediately available for comment.

Durham spokeswoman Beverly Thompson said the city is linked to a different Russian city, Kostroma, and has had a couple of visits in the last few years. Durham’s Sister Cities committee did talk about breaking those ties but decided it would do more harm than good, she said.

Carrboro Alderwoman and mayoral candidate Lydia Lavelle said she and Alderman Damon Seils talked about the issue Friday morning. Saratov is also Carrboro’s sister city; a display case in Town Hall displays art and other Russian objects.

As Carrboro’s two gay elected officials, Lavelle and Seils will bring the issue to the full board this fall, but they first want to find out if Saratov’s government shares the nation’s anti-gay views, Lavelle said. It could be that Saratov is a progressive city in its country much as Carrboro is progressive among N.C. cities, she said. Rejecting the Russian sister without finding out more would be like a European sister city rejecting Carrboro because of the state’s current policies, she said.

“I think they’d really be missing the boat ... because we are not in line with the rest of the state,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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