CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill Town Council has severed ties with its former Russian sister city, Saratov, because of recent anti-homosexual propaganda and legislation.
With a unanimous vote Monday night, the council agreed that engagement was no longer the correct approach.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt wrote a letter to Sarratov Mayor Oleg Grishenko in September redressing Russian laws which target the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Kleinschmidt said he received no response.
“This isn’t a situation in which engagement, well, in my opinion, is possible. That is not the way, in this context, to create change. The change that we would like to see in Russia for LGBT people who are suffering every day under this regime, [the approach] is resistance,” Kleinschmidt said.
Kleinschmidt and council member Lee Storrow, who are both openly gay, and agreed that continuing a relationship with Saratov was not the best way to support the LGBT community in the port city located on the VolgaRiver in Russia.
Storrow said it was an appropriate time to make a statement opposing the country’s anti-homosexual sentiments, given that the Winter Olympics are currently being held in Sochi, Russia.
“We as a Council have a history of taking on this work here locally and taking state-wide action, so I think this is appropriate given our past work on these issues,” Storrow said.
In August of last year, Kleinschmidt and Storrow started a petition in response to Russia’s growing discrimination and violence against LGBT people. The issue was brought before the Council in September, but it was decided to delay a vote and gather more public input.
Jen Jones of Equality NC spoke at the Council meeting Monday night and said she was in favor of ending the relationship.
“While we should take this opportunity to have conversations about how to combat LGBTQ discrimination wherever it lives, maybe even here at home, we can also condemn it in any way we can,” Jones said.
Because Chapel Hill currently has had no communication with Saratov in years and the enactment of Russia’s discriminatory policies, Council member Donna Bell said she saw no reason to keep the relationship even in name.
“We don’t think it is okay for people we consider to be connected to us, whether it has been in name or in action, if it is in name only, if it is in name only then I think it is good enough to say, ‘We are just not friends anymore,'” Bell said.
Council member Sally Greene expressed concern about retaliation against UNC researchers working in the Saratov area.
“I think on balance, this is the right thing to do. I am just expressing some disappointment that we really do not have the full facts and the full discussion that we normally try to do,” Greene said.
Council member Jim Ward said he supported the resolution because it leaves the door open for re-engagement if the Russia’s anti-LGBT laws are dissolved.