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Sister Cities asked to cut ties with Russia

Group cites country's mistreatment of its LGBT community

DIXON – A state advocacy group for gays and lesbians is making a request of Dixon and other cities in the Sister Cities International program.

Suspend ties with Russia.

Dixon, which has four international sister cities, entered the program with its relationship to Dickson, Siberia – a town of 643 people that's a 2-hour flight from the North Pole.

Equality Illinois, the state's oldest and largest advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, urged Chicago on Wednesday to suspend its sister city relationship with Moscow as part of a concerted effort to protest Russia's criminalization of gay rights activism.

In addition, it called for other Illinois cities to suspend sister city partnerships with Russian cities: Bloomington-Normal with Vladminir, Russia and Dixon with Dickson.

Russia has made international headlines with laws that ban the dissemination of information on nontraditional sexual relations and public marches.

Randy Hannig, director of public policy at Equality Illinois, said gay rights activism has been met with violence in Russia, and it has to stop.

"We've read reports of people walking down the street for public parades being beaten," Hannig said. "Reports of gay-lesbian teenagers or young adults being encouraged to stay in houses to take refuge and then being beaten."

Geoff Vanderlin, past president of Dixon's Sister Cities Association, said the relationship between Dixon and Dickson came during the Cold War, when there was a great deal of repression in the former Soviet Union.

A Soviet article published an anti-capitalist report in 1984 titled "Dixon: A Community of Broken Hearts" to show the failures of Reaganism in the former U.S. president's hometown.

At that time, two Siberian journalists conceived the idea of connecting the two towns.

"It took a great deal of courage for Dickson to approach a town in the United States," Vanderlin said. "Ideologically, at that time, the U.S. opposed the Soviet regime and vice versa.

"Speaking personally, I don't feel discrimination of any kind is right, but I also don't feel issue politics should sever ties here."

Vanderlin used the example of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to illustrate his point.

"I don't think it accomplished anything, and it was a low point in issue politics."

Now some activist groups are talking about the U.S. boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Mayor Jim Burke, who sits on the Sister Cities board, said he needs time to study the situation in Russia.

The city pays $200 a year for the Sister Cities program membership, while other program expenses are paid for with fundraisers, Vanderlin said.

"I'm very sympathetic to the gay and lesbian cause," Burke said. "Absolutely, I don't think they should be discriminated against, but I want to find out a little bit more about the situation in Russia before I give my opinion about it."

With that said, Vanderlin said communication with Dickson has not been as strong as in years past, describing it as sporadic.

Previously, Dixon organized at least two trips to its Russian sister, with the latest trip coming in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Vanderlin said.

In comparison, Dixon's group is planning a trip to fellow sisters Castlebar, Ireland and Herzberg, Germany this fall, and continues communication with its other sister, Thika, Kenya, more regularly.

Vanderlin said a display still is showcased about Dixon in the remote Siberian town, and a woman from Dickson taught at Dixon High School for a semester some years ago.

He said Dixon's organization has been working recently to keep the flame alive, especially since Dickson will be celebrating its centennial in 2 years.

As far as reaching out with a message against Russian laws against gay and lesbians, Vanderlin said translation problems and a weaker relationship make that idea more difficult.

In addition to suspending the sister city relationship with Russia, Equality Illinois is asking gay and lesbian allies to suspend business relationships with Russia or trips there, saying some Chicago bars have already stopped selling Russian vodka.

"We want to bring attention to these atrocities," Hannig said. "This is a nation with a seat on the United Nations Security Council, not some distant island. We need to take a real close look at it, and think twice before supporting them until they change."

To attend

The Dixon Sister Cities Association meets at 5:45 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Public Health and Safety Building, 220 S. Hennepin Ave. The organization typically meets on the third Tuesday of each month.

Go to www.dixonsistercities.org for more information.

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