Growing international outrage against Russia’s new anti-gay laws has taken a strange new twist. Members of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org have launched petition campaigns in 27 U.S. cities asking elected officials to sever the “sister-city” statuses they share with various Russian cities.
Louisville is one such city, and more than 400 people have signed the local petition in the last 24 hours.
The protest is over a law passed by Russia in June that prohibits public events promoting gay rights and same-sex public displays of affection. A Russian official said the law would be enforced during the 2014 Winter Olympics, scheduled for February in Sochi, Russia. It’s an obvious concern for LGBTQ athletes, their families, and fans. The International Olympic Committee released a statement saying the games would be “discrimination free,” though they’ve stopped short of chastising the Russian government.
The local petition statement on MoveOn.org, which is addressed to Mayor Fischer:
The recent anti-gay laws and violence throughout Russia are appalling. Louisville can and should send a message: we value and cherish our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents and will not tolerate discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters by a sister city. Please immediately pass a resolution suspending the “sister-city” relationship between Louisville, Kentucky and Perm, Russia.
The 290-year-old city of Perm lies 800 miles east of Moscow and has been one Louisville’s sister cities since 1994. According to the Sister Cities of Louisville’s Perm Culture Kit, here’s the history of the partnership:
Louisville and Perm are both river cities, centers of culture, and both have large universities and a similar population. In 1994, Louisville and Perm took part in the Business Plan for Russia project and worked together in the areas of international marketing, worker training development, waste treatment, military conversion, and machine building. Perm and Louisville have also cooperated in education exchanges, with many Perm graduate students pursuing master’s degrees at University of Louisville. These university partnerships have led to further participation in the Perm Committee in Louisville. Another strong point of Perm and Louisville’s relationship includes the art and culture exchanges that have taken place between the cities, especially between the respective visual arts communities. Development and assistance programs have also played a part in the partnership. In 2002, the Perm Committee of Sister Cities Louisville donated beds to a children’s shelter in Perm, and medical supplies are donated each year during the international medical conference. Over the years, Perm has become a base for introducing Louisville to Russian talent, culture, and business opportunities.
The collaboration also led to Perm opening Russia’s first extreme park, which was modeled after Louisville’s. Our city even sent seven skateboarders and bikers to compete at the park’s opening ceremonies.
This nationwide call for suspension of Russian sister cities doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction, perhaps because the average citizen isn’t aware of these partnerships exist. The Yakima (WA.) Herald reported that several council members (a.k.a. the people their MoveOn.org petition was addressed to) said they didn’t know their city had a sister city agreement. In Chicago, after an LGBTQ activist group called for the city to drop its sister-city status with Moscow, Chicago Sister Cities International released a statement saying, in part, “that ending the sister city relationship with Moscow will only further hurt the LGBT citizens of our sister city by isolating them from places like our own city of Chicago that embrace their rights as individuals.”
(In case you didn’t know, Louisville’s other sister cities are Montpellier, France; Quito, Equador; Tamale, Ghana; La Plata, Argentina; Mainz, Germany; Jiujiang, China; Leeds, England; and Adapazari, Turkey.)
The call against sister cities isn’t the only national protest against Russia’s new laws, which many akin to a witch hunt. Gay bars across the United States have stopped serving Russian vodkas, namely Stolichnaya (Stoli). Big Bar on Bardstown Road is one of them (and maybe the only locally). The bar offered five or six different flavors of Stoli and featured happy hour drink specials using them. Now, it offers none. According to owner Kevin Bryan, though the drink used to be a solid seller, the response from customers has been overwhelmingly positive.
That boycott is not without its own controversy. SPI Group, the private owners of Stoli, issued a press release expressing its long support for the LGBT community and explaining that the Russian government has no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand. SPI is headquartered in Luxembourg and uses both Russian and Latvian ingredients, the press release states. Those pushing the ban, including noted columnist Dan Savage, call that a mischaracterization and point to previous quotes about the importance of Russian’s role in the making of their product.
Bryan feels the connection to Russia is strong enough to warrant a ban. He acknowledges that non-Russian companies might also be negatively impacted, but that it’s a necessary move to support a cause and show solidarity among the LGBTQ community.