L.A. City Councilman Urges Suspending “Sister City” Relationship with St. Petersburg

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has submitted a proposed resolution suspending L.A.’s “Sister City” relationship with St. Petersburg, Russia. The reason: St. Petersburg’s “anti-gay initiatives,” “including enactment of legislation curbing gay rights and a police crack down on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activities” and a ban on “promotion of homosexuality,” which restricts “freedom of speech as well as such fandamental activities as gay pride festivals and parades.”

Now I too oppose the St. Petersburg policies; I’ve blogged about them, and I suspect our readers got the message that I think the policies are indeed wrong. And of course no city has any legal right to sister city status with Los Angeles.

Still, I don’t think it would be right to suspend the relationship only with St. Petersburg over this, when L.A. continues to have sister city relationships with Beirut, Giza (Egypt), and Lusaka (Zambia), all places in countries that are even less tolerant of gay rights than St. Petersburg — those countries continue to criminalize homosexuality altogether. (I don’t list Tehran, since L.A. suspended its sister city relationship with Tehran in 1979.)

Moreover, L.A. is sister city to Guangzhou (the former Canton), where free speech on a wide range of topics is even more restricted than free speech is in China. I can’t speak to the precise state of gay rights in China, but the state of rights generally, including freedom of speech and freedom to parade, is pretty weak.

If you’re a commentator on Russia, you should of course be free to speak about what you know and not discuss what you don’t. But it seems to me that government bodies deciding what official actions to take (as opposed to private individuals deciding which subjects to speak about) have some obligation — though not a constitutional obligation — to be relatively evenhanded in such situations. This obligation isn’t absolute; for instance, in making wartime alliances you sometimes have to turn a blind eye towards the sins of your allies, to get the war won. And maybe there is a comparable, though weaker, economic development reason for L.A.’s soft-pedaling around China’s sins in this context (though I’m not sure about that), even when one doesn’t soft-pedal around St. Petersburg’s. But I don’t see such overwhelming reasons here justifying the proposed resolution’s treating Beirut, Giza, and Lusaka differently than St. Petersburg.

Note that the resolution was apparently suggested in a letter to the City Council from the ACLU of Southern California and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. The ACLU’s press release on the subject, to its credit, also asked council members “to re-evaluate relationships with other cities on L.A.’s list of sister cities, especially Lusaka, Zambia,” and the group’s communication director tells me that the group intends to do the same in testimony before the council. (The press release says that such a call was also present in the letter, but that seems to be an error in the press release; the letter only discusses St. Petersburg.) Still, the ACLUSC message so far does seem to stress St. Petersburg, and mention Lusaka more quietly, and Beirut and Giza not at all. Here is the ACLUSC’s explanation for that, from an exchange I had with its communications director:

There’s no question that life in Lusaka … is much worse for LGBT people…. [But] while Zambia criminalizes sodomy and Russia does not, few cities have gone to the sometimes ridiculous lengths that St. Petersburg has to make it clear that they don’t like gay people –- often, it seems, merely for sheer publicity value.

Also, Lusaka doesn’t profess to be what St. Petersburg does: a global capital of art and culture. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great to be Russia’s window on the West; now it seems that it’s looking backwards. And while the promulgators of the law claim to be protecting youth, that’s our concern, too: if we’re judged by the company we keep, what does it say to the LGBT youth of Los Angeles that their city maintains a link with a flagrant violator of LGBT rights? …

I think it’s easy to find something concerning with a number of cities on the list, for many reasons, which is why we’ve asked them to evaluate whether a continued sister city relationship with those locations is appropriate. And as you say, the LGBT community in cities like Chinese cities like Guangzhou has enjoyed a certain amount of freedom to express itself even as free speech in general remains curtailed.

But one distinction is that in the case of St. Petersburg, it was the municipality itself hanging out the “no promo homo” sign. Another is that city officials seem to go out of their way — even pursuing Madonna and Lady Gaga — to attract attention and to let us all know that the LGBT community is not welcome. That message to stay hidden and shut up is broadcast to young people in Russia and abroad. We’ve been working to counteract that type of bile here in Southern California, where LGBT kids are bullied every day. In the end, they’re our ultimate concern and we hope that by suspending the relationship with St. Petersburg, the Los Angeles City Council will help neutralize those messages.

I don’t think these arguments would suffice to justify Councilman Rosendahl’s proposal to suspend St. Petersburg’s sister city status but not that of the other cities I mention, but I wanted to pass them along in any event.