Kinsey: Charlotte will not sever ties with Russian sister-city

Chair of LGBT advocacy group softens stance on dropping Voronezh, site of anti-LGBT violence in January

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: August 8, 2013 in Breaking News

Originally published: Aug. 8, 2013, 5:10 p.m.
Updated: Aug. 8, 2013, 6:18 p.m.

A still from a YouTube video showing altercations between gay protesters and anti-gay counter-protesters in Charlotte's Russian sister city, Voronezh, on Jan. 20, 2013.

A still from a YouTube video showing altercations between gay protesters and anti-gay counter-protesters in Charlotte’s Russian sister city, Voronezh, on Jan. 20, 2013.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a statement released to media today, Mayor Patsy Kinsey said the city would not be severing its ties with their sister city, Voronezh, Russia. LGBT activists in Charlotte had been asking Kinsey and City Council to cut ties with the city, following harsh new anti-LGBT legislation in that nation and anti-LGBT violence in Voronezh, though activists softened their stance today.

“ As a longtime advocate for LGBT rights in Charlotte and across America, I join Council Members Mayfield and Maddalon in strongly condemning anti-LGBT legislation and violence anywhere in the world,” Kinsey said. “However, severing our ties with Voronezh would do nothing to help the LGBT community there.  On the contrary, it would deprive us of the best means we have to ameliorate the situation.”

Kinsey’s statement continued, “To end our 20-year relationship with Voronezh at this point would be a rash decision.  It would be unfair to penalize a municipality for legislation passed by Russia’s central government and it would be unfair to penalize all of Voronezh for violent acts committed by individual citizens.  Rather than sever ties with Russian cities, Sister Cities International has encouraged American cities to keep such relationships active because suspending them ‘…closes a channel of communication through which meaningful dialogue may be held.’  Even during the Cold War, the United States continued to engage Russia in diplomacy—an effort that ultimately paid off with the fall of the Soviet Union.”

Read Kinsey’s full statement at the end of this article.

Councilmembers LaWana Mayfield (D-Dist. 3) and Billy Maddalon (D-Dist. 1), both of whom are openly gay, have urged some caution on dropping Voronezh, though their colleague, Councilmember Claire Green Fallon (D-At large), said yesterday she would supporting severing ties.

“I do not believe in targeting any group and if this is what this Russian city is doing we have no interest in remaining a sister city,” Fallon said in an email on Wednesday. “I do not believe you turn your face away from injustice and rationalize it. The world has gone through this in 1934 — and on.”

The Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC) had been encouraging community members to sign a petition in favor of the separation. The action came in response to growing concerns over Russia’s so-called gay propaganda legislation, passed unanimously by Russia’s parliament in June. MeckPAC had also cite recent attacks on LGBT people, including a Jan. 20, 2013, attack in Voronezh, where some 1,500 people attacked 14 gay rights activists. Some reports have said the attacks were initiated by nationalist and Russian Orthodox counter-protesters. And, recent unconfirmed reports made to qnotes indicate at least some of the protesters were seriously injured after the attack.

As of Thursday afternoon, 284 people had signed MeckPAC’s petition, but the group’s chair, Scott Bishop, softened his support for the petition on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s achieved it’s purpose because it has raised awareness with city leaders about what is going on over there and action has taken place as a result,” he told qnotes.

Kinsey has said her office has reached out to both the U.S. State Department and the international non-profit watchdog group, Human Rights Watch. She will report her findings about options to further Charlotte’s relationship with Voronezh at City Council’s meeting on Aug. 26.

Bishop said he is grateful Kinsey is taking action to address the situation. “With the possibility now of opening up dialogue and exchanging ideas with a hope to influence people who may think differently from us, I think that is an important step,” he said.

Mayfield, the city’s first openly LGBT elected official, said last night on this writer’s Facebook timeline that she would even be willing to travel to Voronezh herself.

“If asked I would go to Voronezh to speak about the importance of tolerance and inclusiveness,” Mayfield wrote in a comment, responding to another user’s suggestion of a “city council exchange” between Charlotte and Voronezh.

Traveling to Russia, however, would put Mayfield at risk of arrest or physical danger. Bishop said Mayfield’s comments are indicative of her commitment to dialogue and equality.

“She is always wanting to talk and open dialogue… I’ve always known that to be true about LaWana,” Bishop said. “I think her saying she would go to Russia — and if that trip were to take place, I hope there would be sufficient security in place and she wouldn’t put herself in harm’s way — does speak a lot to her character.”

Voronezh has nearly 900,000 residents and is located to the country’s southeast and about 515 kilometers south of Moscow. Voronezh and Charlotte began their sister-city relationship in 1991, resulting in several cultural exchanges since then.

Mayor Kinsey’s full statement

STATEMENT FROM THE MAYOR ON CHARLOTTE’S SISTER CITY RELATIONSHIP WITH VORONEZH, RUSSIA

Charlotte, NC — Recently, some members of our community have called on the City to dissolve its sister city relationship with Voronezh, Russia, in light of anti-LGBT legislation passed by Russia’s central government and anti-LGBT violence in Voronezh.  As a longtime advocate for LGBT rights in Charlotte and across America, I join Council Members Mayfield and Maddalon in strongly condemning anti-LGBT legislation and violence anywhere in the world.  However, severing our ties with Voronezh would do nothing to help the LGBT community there.  On the contrary, it would deprive us of the best means we have to ameliorate the situation.

Charlotte’s sister city relationship with Voronezh was formalized by Mayor Sue Myrick in 1991.  For more than two decades, our cities have engaged in numerous cultural exchanges that have benefited residents in both municipalities and helped increase understanding between us.  Our relationship with Voronezh is one of eight sister city relationships Charlotte maintains with cities around the globe—each one is important in connecting our city and our citizens to the broader world around us.

To end our 20-year relationship with Voronezh at this point would be a rash decision.  It would be unfair to penalize a municipality for legislation passed by Russia’s central government and it would be unfair to penalize all of Voronezh for violent acts committed by individual citizens.  Rather than sever ties with Russian cities, Sister Cities International has encouraged American cities to keep such relationships active because suspending them “…closes a channel of communication through which meaningful dialogue may be held.”  Even during the Cold War, the United States continued to engage Russia in diplomacy—an effort that ultimately paid off with the fall of the Soviet Union.

My office has reached out to the State Department and Human Rights Watch to enlist their advice on this issue, and I’m working behind the scenes to engage other stakeholders as I examine options to further the relationship between Charlotte and Voronezh.  I look forward to presenting my findings to the full Council at our next meeting on August 26.

###

Statement from Sister Cities International

“Sister Cities International recognizes that U.S. communities may have differing views of laws, policies, or practices in other countries which they believe may run against moral, ethical, or legal codes to which they ascribe. While every citizen should feel free to express their own opinions in keeping with his or her own conscience, the suspension of a sister city relationship due to disagreement over a government policy or practice can be counterproductive and contrary to the stated mission of sister city relationships promoting ‘peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation – one individual, one community at a time.’ Suspending sister city relationships closes a channel of communication through which meaningful dialogue may be held. Our policy is to encourage our members and U.S. communities to keep their sister city relationships active, especially when political issues threaten to disrupt the positive, constructive relationships that have been made.”

Statement from MeckPAC

A full statement from MeckPAC Chair Scott Bishop released Aug. 8, 5:45 p.m.

Earlier today, MeckPAC (Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee) was copied on a press release from Mayor Kinsey’s office as a response to our petition to sever ties with Voronezh. Below is the text of that advisory. MeckPAC is very encouraged by this response and supports Mayor Kinsey’s efforts to find ways to affect change through “citizen diplomacy”. Furthering the relationship with the citizens of Voronezh will keep the lines of dialog open and may offer the opportunity to influence actions in ways that severing ties would not. Mayor Kinsey has been a long time friend to the Charlotte LGBT community and her quick response to our petition shows that friendship is true and she cares about the LGBT community elsewhere as much as she does about us here. MeckPAC will be attending the City Council meeting on August 26 mentioned in her letter and will deliver this petition as it stands now. We will close the petition once we achieve 300 signatures. We thank you all for paying attention to this situation and we hope you will follow events as they occur here in Charlotte, Voronezh and across Russia. Please find our page on Facebook and “like” it to keep up with this and other activities we are involved in throughout the year.