When a powerful foreign government chooses to persecute its own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens with punitive laws, human rights advocates abroad are always left with the question, “what can we do about it?”.

Last month Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a “gay propaganda” ban into law.  The new law criminalizes “the proliferation of information aimed at fostering unconventional sexual concepts in children, describing homosexual relations as attractive, creating a distorted idea of conventional relations between sexes being of the same social value as homosexual ones, and imposing information on children which sparks interest in homosexual relations,” according to the Russian Legal Information Agency.

The law, in effect, prevents lesbian and gay people from speaking openly and positively about themselves and their relationships.  It also promises heightened punishments — including jail time –  for organizations, media outlets and foreign visitors who disobey the ban.

Anyone traveling to Russia as a competitor or spectator in the 2014 Winter Olympics needs to wonder “Will I be arrested for telling the press that I’m an openly-gay athlete?  Will I be fined for holding my same-sex spouse’s hand?  Will I be jailed for chatting in public about the wedding of my son and his husband?”.

Aside from pressuring our own government to pressure the Russian government to repeal the law, what can we do about this “gay propaganda” ban?

The mayor of Reykjavík, Iceland has modeled one way to lodge a meaningful protest that is available to people from almost 100 U.S. cities and many hundreds more cities in other countries; Reykjavík is proposing to end cultural and political links with its sister city, Moscow:

In light of the developments that have taken place in recent years in matters of gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Russia, the Human Rights Office and the Mayor’s Office [of Reykjavík] have entrusted the deputy mayor to propose amendments to the existing agreement between the two cities or terminate it all together following consultation with the Foreign Ministry.

My own city of residence, Worcester, Massachusetts, has a 25-year long sister city relationship with Pushkin, Russia.  Worcester has a strong Human Rights Policy which gives city residents like me tremendous leverage to ask the mayor and city council to cut ties with Pushkin if Pushkin’s officials don’t promise to honor the human rights of LGBT visitors and allies from Worcester:

It is the policy of the city [Worcester] to assure that every individual shall have equal access to and benefit from all public services, to protect every individual in the enjoyment and exercise of civil rights and to encourage and bring about mutual understanding and respect among all individuals of the city. It is clear that behavior which denies equal treatment to any of our citizens as a result of their race, color, religious creed, status, sexual orientation, disability or source of income undermines civil order and deprives persons of the benefits of a free and open society.  Nothing in this section shall be constructed as supporting or advocating any particular religious view or lifestyle. To the contrary, it is the intention of this section that all persons be treated fairly and equally and it is the expressed intent of this ordinance to bring about the elimination of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, discrimination and the disorder occasioned thereby.

My letter to the mayor and my city councilor is below.

My letter to Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty and City Councilor Anthony Economou:

Dear Mayor Petty and Councilor Economou:

We are writing to inform you that Worcester’s sister city relationship with Pushkin, Russia violates Worcester’s Human Rights Policy as well as Massachusetts anti-discrimination law.

Worcester’s 25-year relationship with Pushkin was made untenable last month by the passage of a federal law in Russia banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”.

This “gay propaganda” law criminalizes “the proliferation of information aimed at fostering unconventional sexual concepts in children, describing homosexual relations as attractive, creating a distorted idea of conventional relations between sexes being of the same social value as homosexual ones, and imposing information on children which sparks interest in homosexual relations,” the Russian Legal Information Agency reports. (1)

Under the new law, individuals will be fined up to 5,000 rubles ($156) and companies or organizations up to 1 million rubles ($31,000) “for providing information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] community to minors or holding gay pride rallies,” according to the Associated Press. (2)

Foreign visitors to Russia face not only a fine but arrest and up to 15 days in jail before deportation. (3) Not surprisingly, travel sites have started warning LGBT people about the dangers of such simple forms of self-expression as holding hands or wearing a rainbow pin while traveling in Russia. (4, 5)

The International Center of Worcester asserts that “Visitors and participants from Worcester are always welcome in Pushkin, just as visitors from Pushkin are welcome in Worcester,” (6) but this is clearly no longer true for the LGBT residents of Worcester or those who would speak of them positively.

Please end Worcester’s sister city relationship with Pushkin unless Pushkin officials state their guarantee that the human rights of its LGBT residents and visitors will be protected, the anti-LGBT law notwithstanding. The City of Worcester cannot tolerate government-mandated persecution of LGBT people in Russia for the sake of a sister city relationship.

Please let us know how you intend to address this important matter.

Sincerely,

(1) http://rapsinews.com/news/20130613/267753742.html
(2) http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/06/29/gay_pride_st_petersburg_rally_ends_in_arrests_over_gay_propoganda_law.html
(3) http://english.ruvr.ru/news/2013_06_30/Russias-Putin-signs-anti-gay-propaganda-bill-into-law-3332/
(4) http://www.travelandescape.ca/2013/07/russia-says-it-will-arrest-openly-gay-tourists/
(5) http://skift.com/2013/07/03/a-warning-to-gay-tourists-in-russia/#/0
(6) http://www.intcent.org/sister_city.html

Worcester residents wishing to contact city officials about Worcester’s sister city relationship with Pushkin can find contact information for Mayor Petty and City Council members here.

Cross-posted at Blue Mass Group.