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Gay Los Angeles Councilmembers Call on Feds to Expand Asylum for LGBT Russians



Against the backdrop of increasing pressure from angry LGBT and human rights activists around the world to move or boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over that country’s harsh “gay propaganda” law, the two newly elected gay members of the Los Angeles City Council introduced a resolution Friday calling on the federal government to aggressively expand America’s asylum programs to help persecuted LGBT people in Russia. 

This resolution supplants the previous resolution offered last February by then-Councilmember Bill Rosendahl to sever or suspend L.A.’s 'sister city' ties with homophobic St. Petersburg, where the anti-gay law originated. The Rosendahl Resolution was apparently killed by Councilmember Tom LaBonge, a major advocate of Sister Cities International. Then City Councilmember (now mayor) Eric Garcetti and Rep. Adam Schiff supported severing sister city ties. Gay Russia expert John Tedstrom said:

“Certainly the White House and the State Department have critical official roles. But I'd also advocate an open and honest dialogue among the relevant people at local levels—the mayor, the city council and their counterparts. Maintaining the relationship while not saying anything is tantamount to an implicit endorsement of what’s going on. Maintaining the relationship while not saying anything is tantamount to an implicit endorsement of what’s going on.  If part of the sister city agenda is to share American values, we better start doing some sharing. And if Angelenos in the end feel that they just can’t accept the crackdown on Russia's LGBT community anymore, then the elected officials of Los Angeles ought to take the right steps.”


L.A. City Councilmembers Mike Bonin and Mitch O’Farrell are apparently seeking a third way—maintaining some sort of relationship while condemning Russia’s law. Last night they issued this joint statement:


“The City of Los Angeles has a long and proud history at the forefront of the struggle for full freedom and equality for the LGBT community. With three openly gay elected officials, a staunchly pro-gay mayor and council, and several high-ranking LGBTQ city officials, that is a tradition that we are going to continue.

In the short time span between the passage of Proposition 8 and the recent cascade of marriage equality sweeping the country and the world, we have learned that LGBT equality advances when we are visible, when we share the truth about our lives and our love, and when we constructively, repeatedly, and conspicuously engage with those who fear, misunderstand or oppose us.

Rather than sever Sister City ties with St. Petersburg, we want to use them and capitalize on the opportunity to send a message to St. Petersburg and to the world, and to send messages of support and hope to the LGBT community facing persecution.

This morning we plan to introduce a resolution calling on the federal government to immediately and aggressively expand asylum programs offered people facing persecution because of sexual orientation or gender identity. On the day we vote on that resolution, August 20, we will be joined by Councilmember Tom LaBonge, an advocate and sponsor of the Los Angeles Sister City program, as well as LGBT leaders and LGBT youth in attaching a rainbow flag to the St. Petersburg sign on the Sister City Monument at First and Main in downtown Los Angeles.

We are also supporting and joining Mayor Garcetti in a campaign to get mayors and elected officials from Russia's sister cities and other American cities to sign a joint statement condemning St. Petersburg for persecution of the LGBT residents.”  

The resolution is a result of a Wednesday, Aug. 7 meeting between Bonin, O’Farrell, LaBonge and the sponsors of the original Rosendahl resolution, Jim Key, Public Affairs Director for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and James Gilliam, Deputy Director of the ACLU of Southern California. At that meeting, they discussed how they wanted to let the LGBT community in L.A. know that the dire situation in Russia “is important to us,” Bonin said in a conference call with O’Farrell, his communications deputy Tony Arranaga and me Thursday night. They also want to “send a message to the LGBT community in Moscow and St. Petersburg” that L.A. is concerned about their situation. 

One of their action-ideas was to see what they could do through city government and pushing federally to expand the asylum opportunity for LGBT Russians—and given the life-threatening homophobia in other parts of the world, to any LGBT individuals who feel persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity/gender expression. The gay city councilmembers hope to “embolden” LGBT people whose lives are at risk.

Additionally, Bonin and O’Farrell intend to work with Mayor Eric Garcetti to coordinate a statement of condemnation signed by mayors from a slew of different cities. The effort is a 'mayors for freedom of expression' version of the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, which former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped to lead with much success. While the process tends to be arduous and slow, the councilmembers say they are keenly aware of the urgency of this effort.

The Center’s Jim Key also seems supportive of finding a third way. He said in an email:

“The Center and ACLU have been in contact with LGBT leaders in Russia and other global human rights advocates to discuss the actions they believe would be most helpful. They support an idea suggested by Councilmember LaBonge to encourage mayors of major cities around the globe to sign a joint statement to their Russian “sister city” counterparts that condemns Russia’s horrific human rights abuses. We’re working with Mayor Garcetti on the language of the statement. He has agreed to sign it and to work with us to get the signatures of mayors from cities that include Madrid, Paris, Tel Aviv, Seoul, London, Cape Town, Minneapolis, Berlin and more than a dozen others.

And in [Tuesday’s] meeting, Councilmembers Bonin and O’Farrell proposed a big idea that we think has a lot of promise. But before taking any action on it, we’re going to discuss it with LGBT leaders in Russia.

Many people don’t want L.A. to be associated with a government that’s guilty of such horrible human rights abuses and that’s why we asked the city council to suspend sister city relations with St. Petersburg. But in our meeting, we all agreed that if we can find a way to make an impact on Russia by virtue of L.A. being a sister city of St. Petersburg, let’s try that first.  This joint statement from Mayor Garcetti and other mayors that have a sister city relationship with Russia is our first attempt to do that.”

The Justice Department reports that they received 489 applications for asylum last year, of which they granted 176 and denied 112.

Here’s the full Resolution:

R E S O L U T I O N

WHEREAS, any official position of the City of Los Angeles with respect to legislation, rules, regulations or policies proposed to or pending before a local, state or federal governmental body or agency must have first been adopted in the form of a Resolution by the City Council with the concurrence of the Mayor; and

WHEREAS, the City of St. Petersburg, Russia has recently embarked on anti-gay initiatives, including enactment of legislation curbing gay rights and a police crack down on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) activities; last year, St. Petersburg approved a bill that imposes fines for the "promotion of homosexuality;" and

WHEREAS, the St. Petersburg legislation banning “gay propaganda” seeks to restrict freedom of speech as well as such fundamental activities as gay pride festivals and parades; and

WHEREAS, last month the Russian Duma enacted a law that bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and imposes large fines for providing information about the gay community to minors or holding gay pride rallies; and foreign citizens arrested under the law can be jailed for 14 days and then deported; and

WHEREAS, the new law was approved by the Russian parliament with overwhelming support, reflecting animosity toward gay activism that is widely shared across the political spectrum in Russia; and

WHEREAS, in recent months there have been at least three confirmed killings of Russian citizens because of their sexual orientation and there are numerous incidences of physical abuse against LGBTQ Russian citizens, and there also is legitimate concern about a long-running problem of violence against gays in countries around the world; and

WHEREAS, homosexuality is officially a crime in 38 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the death penalty has been proposed as an option for punishment in Uganda and several other nations; and

WHEREAS, Eric Ohena Lembembe, a prominent LGBT rights activist in Cameroon, where homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison, was found brutally beaten, burned, and killed in his home last month; and

WHEREAS, on July 7, 20 plain-clothed police officers in Myanmar forcefully arrested 10 gay men and transgender women, dragged, kicked and handcuffed them while being taken to the police station for questioning, where they faced further abuse; and

WHEREAS, the United States has a long and proud tradition of providing asylum to those from all over the world who are oppressed and fear for their lives because they are unprotected minorities in their own homelands;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, with the concurrence of the Mayor, that by the adoption of this Resolution, the City of Los Angeles hereby includes in its 2013 and 2014 Federal Legislative Program support for any legislation and / or administrative action that would make it easier for the federal government to expand and grant expedited asylum to refugees who are fleeing persecution in another country because of their sexual / gender orientation or identity, or because they oppose anti-gay legislation, discrimination, or violence against LGBTQ persons.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City Council hereby calls on the United States government, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, to take action to end the persecution, abuse, and murder of gays around the world, including but not limited to making strong, public and international statements condemning such persecution and exerting all necessary pressure on governments to take action.

PRESENTED BY: ________________________ _________________________
MIKE BONIN MITCH O’FARRELL
Councilmember, 11th District Councilmember, 13th District
SECONDED BY: _________________________ 

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