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Gender bias concern colors Portland's relationship with Russian sister city

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Gender bias concern colors Portland's relationship with Russian sister city

PORTLAND — While the city and Archangel, Russia, are about to celebrate their 25-year connection among 2,000 sister cities throughout the word, a family squabble is brewing.

A growing number of cities are severing relationships with their "sisters" in Russia, as the country comes under international criticism for recent discriminatory laws and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

But instead of resorting to Cold-War tactics, Portland and Archangel are strengthening their family ties.

In advance of a 25-year anniversary ceremony on Nov. 18, a delegation of Russian LGBT advocates is visiting Portland Friday to discuss the crisis at meetings with local advocates, student groups and community leaders.

The public can join the discussion at a forum and presentation on Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 7:30 p.m., at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St.

The delegation includes two members of the Archangel-based advocacy group Perspective, along with a Russian-issues expert from Human Rights First, an international organization.

"The goal is to develop a positive example of international community bridge-building," said Robert Lieber, a Portland art professor who helped plan the visit. "I approached Perspective wondering what they wanted, and they wanted dialogue."

Port-to-port connection

Archangel, also known as Arkangelsk, is a port city of about 350,000 people in western Russia, 600 miles north of Moscow. The sister-city relationship officially dates to 1988, when the Treaty on Friendly Ties was signed between Archangel and greater Portland, including 13 surrounding communities.

Sister cities have been around since the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration paired delegations of "citizen diplomats" from U.S. and foreign cities in an attempt to heal post-World War II relations and thaw the Cold War.

It's believed Portland was paired with Archangel because many of the Allied supply ships that made the Arctic voyage there during World War II were built in the Portland area. But until the late 1980s and the waning days of the Soviet Union, the sisters were estranged.

The Portland-Archangel relationship, which is coordinated in Maine by a volunteer committee, grew to include exchanges of American and Russian students, business people, artists and others. In recent years, the program had been limited by the lack of funding, but was able to revive the exchanges in 2011.

Breaking up is hard to do

Today, however, such city sisterhoods face another challenge: boycotts by U.S. and other cities in response to Russia's banning of "homosexual propaganda" last June.

New laws signed by President Vladmir Putin prohibit many forms of public speech and association, such as Pride parades. Emboldened by the crackdown, Russian vigilante groups have kidnapped, beaten and tortured gay men, especially teenagers. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders have condemned the ban and the resulting hate crimes.

Cities like Los Angeles, Lansing, Mich., Philadelphia and Milan, Italy, have also responded by severing or threatening to sever their ties with Russian cities. It might seem natural for Portland, where the first gay couple to be married in Maine was wed last year, to follow suit.

Archangel has had a local anti-LGBT law on its books for several years. And Portland is one of only two cities in Maine – and one of only 10 throughout New England – with a sibling Russian city.

But rather than resorting to a largely symbolic boycott, Lieber and others are hoping the link between the cities will allow Portland to share advocacy ideas, spread information about the human rights issues involved, and send a constructive message to Russian officials.

"We're hoping we can use the trip to create a positive model," he said, "to counter the trend (toward discrimination) with awareness and growth."

Neale Duffett, cochairman of Portland's Archangel Committee, on Tuesday said he wasn't familiar with details of the delegation's visit because it had been planned at an informal, grassroots level.

"It's like lot of things that happen between our two communities; this is just another example of how vibrant the relationship is," Duffett said. "People are always coming and going. That's why, when people from Archangel visit, we don't say, 'Welcome to Portland.' We say, 'Welcome home.'"

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.