July 31, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Russia boycott calls divide LGBT activists
Russia, anti-gay, gay news, Washington Blade

Protesters gathered outside of the Russian Embassy on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. (Washington Blade photo by Damien Salas)

LGBT rights advocates remain divided over calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and Russian vodka in response to the country’s gay rights record.

Author Dan Savage, LGBT rights advocate Cleve Jones and the group Queer Nation last week launched the “Dump Russian Vodka” campaign that calls for a boycott of Stoli, Russian Standard and other Russian vodka brands. The campaign also urges the U.S. and other countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place in Sochi, Russia, in February.

“Do not drink Russian vodka,” Savage said in an op-ed in the Stranger, a weekly newspaper in Seattle, published on July 24. “Do not buy Russian vodka. Ask your bartender at your favorite bar — gay or otherwise — to DUMP STOLI and DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks signed a broadly worded law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors and a statute that bans foreign same-sex couples and any couple from a country in which gays and lesbians can legally marry from adopting Russian children. LGBT rights groups are among those that face fines under a law that requires non-governmental organizations that receive funding from outside Russia to register as a “foreign agent.”

About a dozen LGBT rights advocates gathered in front of the Russian embassy in Northwest D.C. to protest the country’s anti-LGBT rights record on Wednesday.

Larry Poltavtsev of Spectrum Human Rights was among those who attended.

“We’re here today to protest LGBT human rights violations in Russia,” he said.

The anti-gay laws have come into effect against the backdrop of increasing anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in Russia.

Two men in the southern Russia city of Volgograd and on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the country’s Far East have been killed in recent months during what local authorities have described as anti-gay attacks.

Police in St. Petersburg on June 29 arrested 40 LGBT activists and a handful of nationalists who confronted them during a gay rights rally. Authorities in the Russian capital in May arrested 30 LGBT rights advocates who tried to stage a Pride celebration outside Moscow City Hall.

Authorities in the city of Murmansk on July 21 took into custody four Dutch LGBT rights advocates who were filming a documentary about gay life in Russia. A St. Petersburg appellate court on July 25 overturned a lower court’s ruling that fined Coming Out, a local LGBT advocacy group, 500,000 rubles or slightly more than $15,202 for violating the “foreign agent” law.

Russian advocate: Boycott will have no effect

Gay bars in Seattle, Chicago, London and other cities have already begun to remove Stoli and other Russian products from their shelves. Gay City News reported a handful of ACT UP members protested a Stoli event at a gay bar in New York City on Tuesday night.

Gay bars in D.C. have thus far not indicated they will participate in the boycott.

Cobalt had been scheduled to host a Stoli-sponsored event for the website GayCities on Thursday, but the company postponed it.

The company did not return the Blade’s request for comment.

Val Mendeleev, CEO of SPI Group, Stoli’s parent company, said in a July 25 statement from Luxembourg the Russian government does not own the brand. He acknowledged the vodka contains Russian ingredients, but it is distilled in a factory in neighboring Latvia.

Mendeleev further pointed out SPI Group has supported a number of pro-LGBT groups and initiatives. These include Pride celebrations in South Africa and Austria and its “Most Original Stoli Guy” partnership with Gaycities.com.

“Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions,” Mendeleev said in response to growing concerns over Russia’s gay rights record. “As a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry.”

Nikolai Alekseev of Gay Russia, an LGBT advocacy group, told the Washington Blade from Moscow on Tuesday he feels a boycott of Russian vodka will “not have an effect.”

“The real target of this protest should be the politicians who are behind these initiatives,” he said.

Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein called for a Sochi boycott in an op-ed the New York Times published on July 21.

Gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who was unable to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because then-President Jimmy Carter boycotted them over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before, told Frank Bruni of the New York Times on July 28 that he feels athletes should have the opportunity to compete in Sochi in spite of Russia’s LGBT rights record. Retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova; the LGBT advocacy groups All Out and Athlete Ally and Cyd Zeigler, Jr., co-founder of OutSports, are among those who also oppose a boycott of the Sochi games.

“We want to encourage and support athletics, particularly the Olympics, and feel that a boycott would only hurt the athletes,” Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, told the Blade on Tuesday. “We understand the rationale behind a boycott, but are also cognizant that our call for a boycott could result in negative ramifications and backlash for regional LGBT and ally organizations in Russia.”

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki on July 26 said the U.S. does not support calls to boycott the Sochi Olympics.

“That’s certainly not what we’re calling for,” she told reporters during her daily briefing in response to the Blade’s question about Russia’s LGBT rights record.

Gay athlete to wear rainbow pin in Sochi

Blake Skjellerup, a gay short track speed skater from New Zealand who plans to compete in Sochi in spite of the calls to boycott the games, last week announced he will wear a gay Pride pin during the Olympics.

He stressed to the Blade his decision is “not about defiance.”

“Wearing a Pride pin is about humanity and unity,” Skjellerup said. “It’s about representing something that is very important to me, and standing up for those who cannot stand up or help themselves.”

The Human Rights Campaign said in a July 24 letter to NBC Universal that the network has “a unique opportunity — and a responsibility — to expose” what it described as the “inhumane and unjust” anti-gay propaganda law during its coverage of the Sochi games. Mark Lazarus, chair of NBC’s sports group, deflected questions about his network’s potential coverage of Russia’s LGBT rights record during a presentation at the Television Critics Association gathering in New York City over the weekend.

The International Olympic Committee has assured gay athletes and others who travel to Sochi that authorities will not arrest them under the Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law. Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg lawmaker behind the city’s gay propaganda to minors ban that took effect in 2012, told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday he has not heard of any plans to suspend the national statute during the games.

“If a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it,” Milonov said, according to Gay Star News. “It doesn’t have the authority.”

Officials urged to ban Russian lawmakers from U.S.

Alekseev and other Russian LGBT rights advocates have launched a petition on the White House’s website that urges the U.S. to ban Milonov and Elena Mizulina, a Russian Parliamentarian who co-sponsored the national gay propaganda ban, from entering the country. It has received 4,775 signatures as of late on July 30.

“This is the way forward because these people are the real people behind the homophobic legislation,” Alekseev told the Blade.

 

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

8 Comments
  • Sports figures who care more about sporting events than gay activism have no influence with me whatsoever. Cyd Zeigler, in particular, has a history of whining about activism.

  • Have the Blade try to interview Gay bar owners in DC as to their alliance with the Stoli boycott or lack of participation? If gay destinations like NYC, SanDiego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Provincetown and Rehoboth Beach have joined the boycott, what is up with the DC bars. Have we lost our radical element or just become complacent about our LGBT brothers and sisters in other countries that don't enjoy the freedoms that we do.

  • KUDOS TO DC GAY BAR OWNERS & MANAGERS!

    The initial confusion and misperceptions surrounding the legitimacy and efficacy of calls by some LGBT activists for a boycott of Stoli is finally beginning to clear up. It's important to take a moment and applaud DC-area gay bar owners and managers for their smart decision to look before leaping.

    The fact that no local gay bars have decided to participate is a testament to the reflexive silliness and strategic misguidedness of the proposed boycott. It's also a tribute to the longstanding and meaningful support of the LGBT community by Stoli Washington DC-Maryland, the entire Stoli company and its gay employees.

    Special thanks to David Perruzza and Brian Blanchard at JR's Bar and Mark Rutstein at Cobalt for their exemplary patience and diligence on social media in recent days assisting the community in gaining a better understanding of why a boycott is ill-advised and ultimately meaningless. Their leadership on this has been commendable.

  • "Reflexive silliness"? Goodness, what smugness from somebody offering not a peep of strategy himself. Somebody seems more outraged by the boycott than the brutality.

  • It *is* disturbing that they seem so okie-dokie with the idea of LGBT athletes being arrested in Russia merely for existing. The best they can hope for at that point is deportation. Sheesh, aren't American prisons bad enough?

  • Stephen Clark Except it's sounding like Stoli isn't actually a Russian vodka, so boycotting it is pointless, right?

    Maybe figure out which vodkas *are* from Russia and boycott those instead? Boycotts *can* work, but you have to target them correctly.

  • Stephen Clark OH AND… It needs to be straight allies boycotting too, not just LGBTs and gay bars. *raises hand* Easy one for me… I don't drink vodka anyway. But I will suggest this to others.

  • No safety for LGBT people and their allies NOW in Russia– Olympics cannot ensure protections.

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