One of four Russian consuls general living in the United States sent an agitated letter to Seattle mayor Mike McGinn earlier this month.
Andrey Yushmanov demanded to know why the mayor joined a "misleading" protest against Russia's new anti-LGBT laws and an upswing in antigay violence there. McGinn had been among about 250 people demonstrating on September 3 in front of the Russian consular residence, which prompted Yushmanov to write that he was "unpleasantly surprised" when he was shown photos of the mayor holding a "Stop Putin" sign in front of the mansion's gates.
"I would appreciate it if you could clarify whether your support of the protesters reflects the official position of the authorities of Seattle?" Yushmanov pressed.
McGinn offered an unapologetic defense in his reply to Yushmanov. "Tolerance of homosexuality means not calling its legality into question," McGinn wrote in a letter delivered to Yushmanov last Friday. He added that Russia's policies "condemn homosexuality while promoting reticence in the face of hate-based violence."
But McGinn stopped short of stating an official city position—as the consul had inquired about.
Asked why the mayor spoke only for himself and not on behalf of the city, McGinn's office said the Seattle City Council refused to join him in taking a position against the antigay laws.
"We inquired with the council president [Sally Clark] to see if the council would support a joint resolution expressing the City of Seattle's official position regarding anti- LGBT laws in Russia," said mayoral spokesman Robert Cruickshank. "She declined."
Speaking for Clark, council spokeswoman Dana Robinson Slote explained that the council declined because they considered it "off-topic." Antigay laws in Russia, and antigay violence consuming that country, did not "directly relate to city work," said Robinson Slote.
That's an interesting argument from the city council—that they adopt resolutions only on issues that relate directly to city business—because the council has recently passed resolutions opposing federal approval of genetically modified salmon, supporting a statewide initiative to label genetically modified foods, endorsing marriage equality in Washington State, and seeking an end to the Iraq war. The Seattle City Council has also passed resolutions denouncing the oppressive military regime in Burma, calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa (twice), supporting democracy in South Africa, and asking for the release of Nelson Mandela.
The city council once famously took up the cause of abused circus animals.
Was all that "directly related to city work"? Does council president Clark—who is a lesbian herself and voted for many of the resolutions—believe the current and previous councils were wrong to pass all those resolutions?
Laws recently passed under President Vladimir Putin have banned "gay propaganda," criminalized tourists who exhibit "gay behavior," made pride parades illegal, and blocked adoptions by gay people. A surge of antigay hate crimes has swept Russia in the wake of the passage of these laws. Organized vigilante groups across Russia are abducting gay teenagers, beating them, forcing them to drink urine, sexually assaulting them, and then posting video to Russian social media sites without fear, because the authorities approve. A new law moving through the Russian Duma would remove children from the homes of gay and lesbian parents.
Russian LGBT activists have called on gay people around the world to speak up on their behalf.
"At this point, the more Russians know and the Kremlin knows that the world is watching, the safer we feel on the ground," Russian lesbian activist and author Masha Gessen said at a public meeting in New York City.
But Yushmanov argued in his letter that gays are treated with a "spirit of tolerance" under Russia's constitution, which bans discrimination, and, as such, the protest's portrayal of Russia being intolerant toward gay people "is simply not true." The anti-propaganda laws are purportedly designed to help kids. "The goal of public policy toward children is to protect them from factors that can negatively affect their physical, intellectual, mental, spiritual, and moral development," Yushmanov said in defense of the law, adding that "punishing a country for having a different opinion is a form of discrimination in itself."
"I disagree," McGinn said in his letter.
Does the city also disagree?
Not according to council president Clark.