The Maryland deputy secretary of state told Metro Weekly Friday that it has no plans to sever its "sister city" status with St. Petersburg, Russia, despite calls from pro-LGBT activists to end relationships with cities in the country due to the Russian government's recent passage of anti-gay laws and apparent condoning of anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.
The state is currently partnered with the Leningrad Oblast region of Russia, the capital of which is St. Petersburg, through Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to foster relationships and understanding between different communities across the globe. The partnership has been in place since former Maryland Gov. Donald Schaefer (D) and Alexander Belyakov, the governor of the Leningrad Oblast region, signed an agreement in June of 1993.
As part of the program, both "sister cities" are expected to maintain diplomatic relations; foster the exchange of business, cultural or educational ideas and values; and co-sponsor events aimed at creating and maintaining strong relationships.
On Wednesday, the liberal online organizing group MoveOn issued a press release calling on 27 cities across the United States to end relationships with Russian cities or regions to protest Russia’s recent adoption of anti-gay laws, which include a ban on what the government deems "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" – meaning any statement or action that can be considered favorable toward homosexuality, from counseling LGBT youth to distributing information regarding safe sex between same-sex partners – and a recent announcement by Russia's minister of sport, Vitaly Mutko, that athletes or visitors at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, will be arrested if they say or do anything perceived as pro-gay under the ban. The MoveOn activists are also speaking out against violence and discrimination directed against LGBT Russians.
The state of Maryland was not included on MoveOn’s list of sister cities, though it maintains this relationship with the Leningrad region.
In a statement to Metro Weekly, Peter Fosselman, the deputy secretary of state for Maryland, indicated that the state has no plans to sever ties with its sister city in Russia.
"This program, run through the Secretary of State's Office, is really more about establishing connections from people to people, not from government to government," Fosselman said. "By strengthening relationships with others, we can educate people and share with them our values as they pertain to human rights."
Fosselman also defended Gov. Martin O'Malley's record on LGBT rights.
"Human rights are a priority of the governor," Fosselman said. "He led the fight for gay marriage in 2012, which was upheld at the ballot box by the people of Maryland."
So far, no local groups have announced plans to demonstrate to urge Maryland to sever its relationship with St. Petersburg and the surrounding region. No comment was immediately available from the local affiliate of GetEqual, which has protested outside the Ugandan Embassy for that country's attempt to pass a law inrcreasing punishment for homosexuality, also referred to by opponents as the "Kill the Gays" bill.
[Photo: Gov. Martin O'Malley. Credit: Justin Snow/Metro Weekly.]