As host to Florida’s largest gay pride festival, St. Petersburg has prided itself on its inclusiveness and lauded its progressive employment policies for same-sex couples.
Now, a gay rights group wants the city to sever its ties with its namesake city because of recent antigay legislation passed in Russia.
Equality Florida this week called on Mayor Bill Foster and City Council members to suspend its sister-city ties with the Russian city to protest recent laws that ban discussing homosexuality in front of children and public displays of support for the LGBT community, such as gay pride events.
Those laws have led to calls from gay-rights groups and others for countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“It sends an important message at a time when the community is looking at both the Olympics and this brutal rise in antigay legislation and violence,” said Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith.
The two St. Petersburgs are not officially sister cities but have had a friendship-city relationship since 2003 when then-mayor Rick Baker traveled to Russia in honor of that city’s 300-year anniversary, which coincided with the Florida city’s 100th anniversary.
Both cities held their gay pride celebrations on June 29. While at the parade on Central Avenue, Smith saw a headline on her phone: “60 people injured at a pride festival in St. Petersburg.
“My heart sank. It took a few moments to realize it wasn’t here,” she said. “Silence is complicity, and as a sister city we have a voice we can raise.”
Worldwide, cities are reconsidering their ties to their twin cities in Russia because of the recent antigay legislation. Long Beach, Oakland, Charlotte and Palm Springs have received requests or petitions to sever links with sister cities. On Monday, the City Council in Lansing, Mich., voted unanimously to end its sister-city relationship with St. Petersburg that dates back to 1992. Foster said he is not aware of any exchanges between the two cities during his time as mayor and said he does not see any need for the city to take action.
“There’s nothing to respond to,” he said.
But the city’s website includes a page on its Russian namesake city, and the two cities are linked on Sister Cities International, the website of the organization founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to promote peace by creating bonds between people of different countries.
Councilman Steve Kornell, Pinellas County’s first openly gay elected official, said he would support severing any connection between the two cities and plans to raise the issue at an upcoming City Council meeting.
“What is going on in Russia is absolutely horrific,” he said. “I don’t believe we should be encouraging people to visit there or be a part of that in any way, shape or form.”