Russian Vodka Boycott in Gay Bars Faces Predictable Backlash

As just about everyone knows by now, Russia is horrific to its gay population. While Vladimir Putin's Kremlin enacts and enforces aggressive anti-gay laws, many around the world have taken to boycotting Russian vodka as a sign of protest. The question is whether that tactic is really working

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As just about everyone knows by now, Russia is horrific to its gay population. While Vladimir Putin's Kremlin enacts and enforces aggressive anti-gay laws, many around the world have taken to boycotting Russian vodka as a sign of protest. The question is whether that tactic is really working.

Following the path charted by the #stopkony viral campaign of 2012, which highlighted African warlord Joseph Kony's use of child soldiers, journalist Dan Savage's Russian vodka boycott has taken off thanks to the savvy use of social media, with gay bars all around the world pledging not to serve Russian vodka, thus sending a message of disapproval about the hostile environment for homosexuals in the country. And just like #stopkony,  #dumpstoli has its fair share of detractors. Many such concerns come from people who seem as well-intentioned as Savage, but find his boycott misguided. Here's a primer on the boycott's biggest detractors:

Assertion: The Boycott Is Sending the Wrong Message to Gay People in Russia

"It [the boycott] sends a confusing message to the LGBT citizens of the country: We support you but not your heritage. We welcome you with open arms, but we reject your cultural background," wrote BuzzFeed's Louis Peitzman yesterday. Peitzman brings up a good point—there may be perfectly innocent gay Russians who feel like they're shunned by this boycott. 

Counterpoint: The only thing is, Peitzman didn't talk to any Russians living in Russia or Russian activists who may have better insight on whether the Russian LGBT community really is upset by the boycott, as he alleges it might be. Prominent Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseev was dismissive of the boycott, though only because he felt it wasn't making a strong enough point, not because it was confusing gay Russian citizens. 

"You don’t need to be an activist, but you can take a stand against the draconian anti-gay laws in Russia," Nina Long of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-American queer activism group, told The Daily Beast, explaining that she supports the boycott. 

Assertion: It's Unfair to Label Everything Russian as Anti-Gay

"We cannot assume that anything Russian is anti-gay, just as it would be unfair to label every Russian person a homophobe," Peitzman wrote, explaining that Stoli, the brand receiving the full force of the boycott, is actually a gay-friendly company.

"Stoli has been our partner, and we shouldn't turn our backs on them now. Besides, it wouldn't help. Symbolism isn't enough," reads a letter from the staff at XES, a gay bar in Manhattan, echoing Peitzman's point about picking and choosing which products to boycott. The XES staff explains its compromise:

XES has decided to support groups like Amnesty International that know how to exert influence in similar situations and are dedicated to doing so in Russia. Starting today, XES will donate $1 from every drink we sell throughout the summer that's made with Stoli Vodka. 

The Counterpoint: Savage would argue that it is fair to boycott Stoli because the message will ultimately be heard in Russia, which is the whole point. "Stoli is the iconic Russian Vodka and it's returning to Russian ownership in 2014," he wrote in his original blog post explaining why he's boycotting vodka. 

In response, Stoli CEO Val Mendeleev wrote a letter rebutting Savage's claims:

The Russian government has no ownership interest or control over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe. 

And, yes, Savage had a response to that, while also questioning whether Mendeleev could conceivably be punished for this letter under Russia's new laws that prohibit gay propaganda. Savage wrote: 

SPI is a Russian corporation, Stoli is a Russian vodka. And while it's nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia?

Assertion: This Boycott Isn't Really Doing Anything

To parse this criticism, you have to first define what "anything" means. Zach Stafford, at Chicago's RedEye, compares the boycott to the great Chick-fil-A boycott of 2012, which also had to do with homophobia: "Sure, the boycott raised awareness, but in the end it didn't change much for LGBT rights, or even change the CEO's stance. According to some reports, it had the inverse effect on the business as misinformed backers sent sales skyrocketing," Stafford writes.

Then there's the actual movement on the ground. "Abstaining from a particular brand of vodka may make Americans feel better about themselves, but it does nothing for Russians," Peitzman writes. Adding:  "This is slacktivism at its finest: We barely lift a finger to help and then pat ourselves on the backs for a job well done."

Counterpoint: Some people say the Russian vodka boycott is the only way to make their presence felt. "There aren’t many other stands we can take other than this boycott," Tom Johnson, owner of Therapy, a gay bar in Manhattan, told The Daily Beast. "I don’t see us doing a lot of other business with Russia," he added.

And there's the notion that the boycott isn't really about the boycott, but rather the attention the boycott has already generated.  at AmericaBlog explains that this boycott works in two phases, and has already accomplished its first goal: 

 The very fact that this issue was ignored for years, and now is a page one story worldwide, is proof that the Stoli boycott “worked.”  At least “worked” for Stage 1, galvanizing the public and the media.  Now we have to fight Stage 2 simultaneously, channeling that growing ire towards positive change.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.