Boycott: Da! Nyet! :: The Stoli War
While guests lined up outside the South of Market nightclub Beatbox for last month’s local edition of a promotional event, a handful of activists poured bottles of Stoli vodka onto the South of Market street. Actually, it was water, since they didn’t want to buy Stoli just to boycott it.
Inside the nightclub, frivolity and free drinks reigned, and Nicola Bettinger , a cute young gay man with a cuter Parisian-themed strip act that left him in a black corset, was dubbed the San Francisco winner of the Most Original Stoli Guy contest.
While most local bars aren’t quite as declarative as Beatbox with their Stoli support, many others have declined to honor the boycott of Stoli products.
So, why a boycott? Yes, some people still don’t know. Amid escalating reports of anti-gay violence across Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a law, which bans the "promotion" of homosexuality to minors. Vigilantes have posted videos of themselves kidnapping and assaulting gay men.
Worldwide condemnation of the new law, and its resultant violence, was swift. George Takei, the openly gay "Star Trek" star, called for the Olympics Committee to move the 2014 Sochi Winter Games from Russia to Canada. The sports events are scheduled for February 2014.
Oscar winning-film star Tilda Swinton daringly stood in front of the Kremlin sporting a rainbow flag. Her photo of this action went viral. Even President Barack Obama, a staunch LGBT ally, harshly condemned these laws, yet offered no support of a boycott.
Other celebrities have declared their refusal to visit Russia. Bravo Networks’ Andy Cohen bowed out of hosting the Miss Universe pageant, scheduled to broadcast November 9 from Moscow. Despite an online petition with 28,000 signatures supporting a move out of Russia, the pageant organizers, headed by Donald Trump, refused to consider relocating the event.
And gay actor Wentworth Miller came out on August 21, citing his refusal to attend a film festival in St. Petersburg.
But did the vodka boycott start this, and is it still viable? The anti-Stoli stance is being led by notables such as Cleve Jones and Dan Savage, who claim that the vodka company is a Russian-owned entity. Here in San Francisco, Stoli has been the primary boycott target by a gaggle of activists, including Michael Petrelis.
But many, including some in the bar and nightclub community, aren’t honoring the boycott.
"Moby Dick will no longer boycott Stoli," said Joe Cappelletti, owner of Moby Dick, a popular Castro watering hole. "A boycott of Stoli does not directly impact the Russian government. In regard to SPI, Stoli’s parent company, they’ve been a longtime supporter of the LGBT community worldwide."
Paul Miller, co-owner of the popular South of Market bar Truck, told BARtab that he was also declining to boycott Stoli.
"I don’t believe in boycotting," Miller said. "Our problem is not with Russians or Russian things. It’s with the policies of the Russian government. Stick to putting pressure points on the Russian government. Russia responds well to international pressure. We want to let Russian LGBT people, who are being isolated and told they’re alone, to know that the world is watching, and they’re not alone."
Miller said that his customers weren’t talking about the situation in Russia as much as he’d like. "People aren’t sure what to do," he said. "We need to decide what to do. We need a leader to step up and decide to get something done that can yield results."
Arguments about the boycott have led to almost as much discussion about it as the reason for it. On August 20, the New York Times published "Boycotting Vodka Won’t Help Russian Gays," an op-ed by Mark Lawrence Schrad, author of the upcoming book "Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy and the Secret History of the Russian State." Schard claimed that the boycott is misguided, considering that Stoli’s original company is no longer exactly Russian.
Speaking as a representative of the revived Queer Nation New York, gay author John Weir responded to Schrad’s piece. "Our goal was never to dissolve the global market of Stolichnaya or to dissolve the extensive Russian investments of its parent company SPI, as if that were possible," Weir wrote. "Rather, we have meant it as a first tactic to spread news of a human rights disaster, and we know that boycotts have been proven historically to be highly effective in accomplishing this aim. Indeed, in the past three weeks, the Russian vodka boycott has focused more attention on the plight of Russia’s LGBT people than any other intervention in the past two years."
True, new interest in the plight of LGBT Russians has gained more coverage, and athletes have begun to speak out, but not for a boycott of vodka or the Sochi games. Celebrated gay diving champion Greg Louganis called for support of competing athletes. Athletes who stand a chance to compete in Sochi include openly gay U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir and gay New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who have both said that they anticipate being arrested.
At the world athletics championships held in Moscow in August, straight ally and champion runner Nick Symmonds stated, "I respect Russians’ ability to govern their people. I disagree with their laws." A Russian pole vaulter (and unofficial ’mayor’ of the upcoming Sochi Games athletes’ village) supported the law while castigating gays, but then claimed her statements were misinterpreted.
Other athletes’ simple gestures were scrutinized, from an innocuous same-sex podium kiss, to intentionally rainbow-painted fingernails. With foreign dignitaries flying rainbow flags in the stands, and the world finally paying attention.
The well-presented vodka-pouring photo ops in New York City, Chicago and West Hollywood may have started a movement. But has the struggle moved elsewhere?
Perhaps the loudest pro-Stoli voice from within the LGBT sphere comes from Patrik Gallineaux, who describes his flamboyant style of dress as being "semi-drag." Gallineaux works for Stoli. His official job description is National LGBT Ambassador for Stolichnaya via Momentum Worldwide. He’s in charge of the Most Original Stoli Guy competition and campaign.
"Most Original Stoli Guy is a thirteen city tour recognizing the most original, passionate, and unique leaders of tomorrow within the LGBT community, vetted from thousands of applicants online and via in-person interviews and auditions. All applicants must prove that far beyond physical attributes, they posses dedication to LGBT community development and giving. I personally ask all my staff members for Stolichnaya to donate at least 20 hours per year to community non-profits such as GLAAD and the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation."
Gallineaux stated that efforts by activists like Cleve Jones and Queer Nation New York to paint Stoli as a Russian company are misguided.
"We need to be more thoughtful, enlightened and diplomatic, and to come from a place of love and uplifting people," he said.