It may not be anything more than a symbolic gesture, but it's all the city of Lansing, Michigan, can do right now.
The city council voted unanimously last night to sever its "sister" relationship with St. Petersburg, Russia, over that city’s anti-gay policies, which effectively prohibits any expression of gay identity or support for equal rights for gay people.
"I think all of us that sit at this dais believe that this is extremely important," Lansing City Council President Carol Wood said, according to MLive. "We want to make sure that we're supporting the LGBT community not only in our own city but in cities across the world. When we see atrocities like this, this is how we speak, through our resolutions... This is our opportunity to say that this is not right."
Russia’s harsh anti-gay policies and the ongoing street violence against LGBT people have finally gotten the international attention they deserve. The government’s announcement that the law will be enforced during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is driving awareness and outrage, with some calling for an Olympic boycott.
For now, the tumult looks pretty toothless. The actions of Lansing’s city council, for instance, will have zero effect on Vladimir Putin, his administration, the Russian legislators who passed the national anti-gay bill on first reading back in January, or the thugs who beat protesters in the street in front of the nation’s parliament building. But its nevertheless a moral and worthwhile stand to take.
St. Petersburg was, for hundreds of years, a city that took pride in its relative openness to global culture. When Peter the Great founded the city in 1703, he envisioned it as a "window on the West," a place where the values of the Enlightenment could be explored and celebrated. It was designed and built by the finest talents from around the world.
Now, St. Petersburg is leading the way backward. Russia and its cities, by pursuing draconian anti-gay policies, are shutting themselves out of a global community where the benefits of an open society are ever more apparent.
A few days ago, the Russian journalist and gay-rights activist Masha Gessen published a sad and chilling account in the Guardian of her decision to leave Russia, a decision motivated by the realization that her three children could be taken away from her if she stayed. It was not a choice she made lightly. In her essay (well worth reading in its entirety), she describes just how quickly the anti-gay policies moved from an idea she could dismiss as absurd to a life-threatening reality:
The first time I heard about legislation banning "homosexual propaganda", I thought it was funny. Quaint. I thought the last time anyone had used those words in earnest I had been a kid and my girlfriend hadn't been born yet. Whatever they meant when they enacted laws against "homosexual propaganda" in the small towns of Ryazan or Kostroma, it could not have anything to do with reality, me or the present day. This was a bit less than two years ago.
Then she took a closer look at the legislation, which was pending in St. Petersburg at the time. What she saw frightened her. She launched a "pink triangle campaign" to raise public awareness and spoke out on the national stage repeatedly in opposition to the legislation. The attacks on her and her family mounted. She kept on.
Finally, this past June, the violence against her became physical:
Two things happened to me the same month: I was beaten up in front of parliament for the first time and I realised that in all my interactions, including professional ones, I no longer felt I was perceived as a journalist first: I am now a person with a pink triangle.
Gessen and her family are moving to New York, where they will be able to live safely and with recognition of their human rights.
Meanwhile, Russia keeps up its nightmarish march back into the past, and St. Petersburg, once a cosmopolitan city with a global outlook, continues to shut down intellectually. Russian cities may not be losing much when places like Lansing decide to cut ties. But when a person like Masha Gessen leaves? They are losing their future.