Russian vodka boycott
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Concerned about the new draconian law in Russia that bars "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," gay bars in San Francisco have joined their counterparts in other American cities and are dumping Russian vodka in protest.
The move comes amid recent reports that some foreign visitors were detained in Russia in apparent violation of the law, and the awareness that next year's Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the anti-gay propaganda law last month. The law includes stiff fines and jail time for Russian citizens who "propagate" homosexuality to minors. This could include hand-holding and other public displays of affection, and broadcasting positive news stories about LGBT people. Putin claims that he's not homophobic, and that he considered it his duty to protect the rights of sexual minorities.
Soon after, news reports began to surface of violent gay bashings across Russia, which included incidents in which teen boys were raped with beer bottles Some reports claimed that these attacks were taking place in public as police and onlookers nodded approvingly.
On July 29, award-winning gay blogger Joe Jervis (Joe. My. God.) linked a story from BBC's Russian language news service in which it was stated that the government could not selectively enforce the new law. This was in response to a request by the International Olympic Committee that the Russian government guarantee the safety of all athletes and journalists who plan to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
It was reported last week that the IOC had received verbal assurances from the Russian government that foreigners would be exempt from the law. But this week, a Russian lawmaker said that Olympic athletes and tourists could indeed be arrested, according to a report from Gay Star News.
While many across the globe expressed outrage at this turn of events, San Francisco resident and activist Robbie Sweeny decided to take action. Sweeny, who works in the bar and club industry, launched a Facebook page titled Boycott Russian Vodka. Within a couple weeks the page accrued 1,000 likes, with many of its members spreading the word to boycott Stolichnaya brand vodka. Sweeny also launched a website to further spread the word: http://www.boycottrussianvodka.com [See also http://www.facebook.com/boycottrussianvodka].
There have been calls to boycott other Russian products, but the "dump Stoli" movement seemed to gain the most traction.
"I fully support a boycott of all Russian industry," Sweeny told the Bay Area Reporter. "But I chose vodka because I work in the nightlife industry and I can contact a lot of bars. Russia's biggest exports are military weapons, oil, and gas. On a day-to-day level, vodka is easy to boycott. Vodka is Russia's 10th biggest export."
Joe Cappelletti, owner of Moby Dick bar on 18th Street, said that they had stopped selling Stoli products.
"I'm going to honor the boycott but I'm going to educate myself further on this issue," Cappelletti told the B.A.R . "We've opened a discussion on our Facebook page regarding this topic because I didn't understand the pros and cons of it. We've gotten 7,000-8000 hits."
At press time, the Moby Dick Facebook discussion had 200 posted comments. While heated at times, all posters were united in their support of Russia's LGBT community. Several suggested that people donate money to Russian LGBT organizations. Sean Richards informed Moby Dick that unless they participated in the boycott, he would boycott the bar. The page moderator had to call for civility in several postings.
Other bars, such as Hi Tops, and the South of Market nightclub Holy Cow, stated that they were also honoring the boycott. The Midnight Sun and Edge did not respond to the B.A.R. 's phone calls seeking comment.
SPI Group, Stoli's parent company, is based in Luxembourg but its CEO, Val Mendeleev, said in a July 25 open letter to the LGBT community that the brand's production process involves both Russia and Latvia.
The statement also expressed Stoli's support for the LGBT community.
"Stoli is very proud of its current exclusive national partnerships with gaycities.com and Queerty in search of the most original Stoli guys," the statement read in part. "Stolichnaya vodka has always been, and continues to be, a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community."
The statement was sent by John Weiss, the New York-based senior account director of SPI Group. Mendeleev signed the letter. The letter expressed pride for the company's 2006 series "Be Real: Stories From Queer America," and suggested that while Russian ingredients are used in manufacturing Stoli products, the company is actually based in Riga, Latvia.
Sweeny disputed that contention.
"The statement is slightly inaccurate," said Sweeny. "On January 1, 2014, Stoli will once again be a Russian-owned company. And while Stoli has issued statements here and there, they've done nothing in Russia. Yuri Scheffler, Stoli's owner, is one of the 100 richest men in Russia."
Sweeny mentioned news reports about members of a Dutch film crew who were detained for working on a documentary about the law.
"Russia is taking giant steps backward," Sweeny said. "It's seen as a first-world country with ties to the UN Security Council, so this sets a bad precedent. The homophobia trickles down: this shows people they can get away with it."
The boycott has been spreading. Twin Peaks Tavern at the corner of Castro and Market streets reports that it has pulled the brand off the shelves for now.
The actions by San Francisco follow those of gay bars in Chicago – Sidetrack and the Call – which began their boycott of Stoli products July 24, reported the Windy City Times .
"It's hard to believe they could carry out and enforce that kind of law, but they did," said Sidetrack owner Art Johnson, according to the Times story.
Not everyone thinks a boycott is a good idea.
Out bisexual Chicago area resident Carl Szulczynski, a former radio DJ, feels that the boycott is misguided.
"This is not going to hurt Putin," Szulczynski said in a phone interview with the B.A.R. "Stoli is a sponsor of gay Pride parades. We're shooting ourselves in the foot when turn on our supporters. We have to address Putin and the Russian government. We have to shame them publicly."
Some are indeed taking their actions directly to the Russian government. Locally, there will be a protest Saturday, August 3 outside the Russian consulate in San Francisco.
Gay state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) is planning to join the protest. He told the B.A.R. this week that if Olympic organizers "don't step up to the plate" then he would find a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi to be a "worthy" tactic.
"We just can't have lip service," said Ammiano. "Why are they being held in a country that beats us up and threatens us?"
Cincinnati area resident Julianne Howell, a fan of the Olympic Games, posted a petition at Change.org demanding that Olympic sponsors such as Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa take a firm stand and publicly condemn Russian's anti-gay laws.
"It's time for these companies to put their support for LGBT people first, and send a message to Russia that their anti-gay laws are not only contrary to basic human rights, but fly in the face of the spirit of the Olympic Games, which celebrate human dignity and community above all else," said Howell in a statement. At press time, Howell's petition, Stand Against Russia's Brutal Crackdown on Gay Rights, had amassed 60,000 signatures.
In the meantime, Sweeny remains confident that boycotting Russian products will be equally effective.
"If you can't express yourself as a gay person, then it's illegal to be yourself," he said.
There will be a protest Saturday, August 3 from noon to 2 p.m. outside the Russian consulate, 2790 Green Street in San Francisco. For more information, see the "Protest Rally of Putin's LGBT Policies" on Facebook.