MELBOURNE Council has voted not to suspend its sister city relationship with St Petersburg, revealing divisions between the Australian and Russian LGBTI communities on how best to engage with Russia’s ongoing persecution of its LGBTI citizens.

Council decided late last year to defer a decision on the suspension until after greater consultation with both the local Russian community and the LGBTI community in St Petersburg. This consultation informed the council’s decision to support using the relationship to help the LGBTI community in St Petersburg rather than suspend it.

“Through these discussions it has become apparent that there are those in the LGBTI community in St Petersburg who do not understand why we would want to suspend the relationship when we have existing formal opportunities for continued dialogue between the two cities which can be used to raise awareness on these issues,” said Greens councillor Rohan Leppert, who introduced the motion.

“And that’s a really important point for me — if the very people who these atrocious gay propaganda laws affect most are saying that they don’t think it’s the time to suspend the relationship, then that needs to weigh heavily on our decision tonight.”

Speaking to the Star Observer, Leppert said he understood why many in Melbourne’s LGBTI community were disappointed with the vote, but thought the local community had not been aware of the views of LGBTI people living in St Petersburg.

He said a focus on the politics of symbolism in Australia’s LGBTI community could explain the difference of opinion between the two communities.

“I think the symbolic reasons to suspend the relationship play really strongly here. But when you add the practical question into the mix — ‘does a suspension help the LGBTI community in St Petersburg?’ — you might get a different answer,” Leppert argued.

“This is a simplistic generalisation of course, but I think that the St Petersburg LGBTI community, which is under direct attack from its Government, is approaching this issue more from the pragmatic end of the scale, and the Melbourne LGBTI community is approaching it more from the symbolic end.”

The decision marks the latest step in over a year of community debate around the sister-city relationship, with LGBTI rights advocate Carl Katter collecting over 13,000 signatures on a petition to end the relationship. This most recent decision has been met with disappointment by many in Melbourne’s LGBTI community.

Co-convener of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (VGLRL) Corey Irlam told the Star Observer the lobby understood the reasons for the council’s decision even if it disagreed.

“[The council] have chosen to listen to parts of the St Petersburg LGBTI community who are saying don’t simply walk out, rather ‘Speak Out’ about what is happening in St Petersburg. While this may not have the VGLRL’s position, its an entirely appropriate position to take and we accept that,” Irlam said.

He said the VGLRL would now seek to hold the Council to account for their decision, and planned to open up a dialogue with the City of Melbourne around how best to utilise the 25th anniversary of the sister-city relationship.

“Melbourne’s LGBTI community will now be looking for tangible outcomes as part of this course of action. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters with Council and have already initiated discussions with the advocates in St Petersburg to ensure their advice will be heard as part of the councils deliberations,” Irlam said.

Leppert told the Star Observer he understood community concerns the relationship would not be utilised effectively as a political mechanism for change, particularly given the widespread silence on LGBTI rights during the recent Sochi Winter Olympics.

He believes the political imperative exists for the Council to follow through on using the sister-city relationship to help St Petersburg’s LGBTI community, but admitted they had chosen a difficult course of action.

“First we need to ensure that we’re not compromising LGBTI organisations in St Petersburg. We can’t just decide to fund organisations in St Petersburg, for example, because they’ll be fined if they receive foreign funding — so that option is off the table,” he explained.

“We’ll be discussing opportunities for cultural exchange with some of Melbourne’s queer festivals and organisations in the next couple of weeks, and the reports to Council in March and April will propose concrete ideas.”

 

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