Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Has Cleve Jones Jumped the Shark with Stoli Vodka Boycott?

As many in the LGBT community have heard by now, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, signed some of the the most draconian anti-gay legislation into law this summer. In Russia, "homosexual propaganda" is now considered pornography and is punishable by imprisonment. This includes any public mention, even by judges, that homosexuality is anything other than evil. Gays are forbidden to adopt and natural born children of lesbians and gays can be taken away by the state.

Foreign visitors found to be in violation of any of Russia's anti-gay laws can be arrested and detained for up to 14 days. This last bit is especially problematic, considering that Russia will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will draw LGBT's from around the world as competitors and spectators.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has issued a statement affirming its commitment to nondiscrimination. Via The Windy City Times :
"The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation," said the statement. "The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle.
"As you know, this legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to be seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi. As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media. Wider political issues in the country are best dealt with by other international organizations more suited to this endeavor."
There is a growing sense of discontent in many gay-friendly countries, where discussions of boycotting the games are growing.

Meanwhile here in the good old US of A, talk of another kind of boycott has been making it's way around social media. Veteran activist Cleve Jones, who fought alongside Harvey Milk, created The Names Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt, and - with activist and former advisor to President Bill Clinton, David Mixner - organized The National Equality March on Washington in 2009, which I attended, thinks boycotting Stoli vodka will show the Ruskies who's boss.

That's right, by merely switching your cocktail, you can show Vladimir Putin that Russia's queers will not be denied their cock and tail. It's just that simple.

There's just one little problem. The Stoli vodka sold outside of Russia is not made in Russia. In fact, it's made by a completely different company. When confronted with news of a potential queer boycott on their FaceBook page, Stoli released the following statement:
"Stolichnaya Premium Vodka continues to be fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community. This is true in all the countries the brand operates in around the world. SPI, the owner of Stoli, does not own the Stolichnaya brand in Russia. The Stolichnaya made in Russia for the local market is owned by a State controlled entity that has absolutely no connection to SPI. Stoli firmly opposes the beliefs supported by the Russian Government in relation to the treatment of the LGBT community. If SPI were to manufacture, market and sell Stoli in Russia, the brand would actively demonstrate support for the LGBT community as it does throughout the rest of the world where Stoli is available."
Being the little shit-stirrer that I am, I began posting about this on FaceBook and calling out Cleve Jones on his misguided endeavor. I pointed out that switching the vodka you drink while you party down this summer will have as much impact on Vladimir Putin as Freedom Fries did on France, when they refused to let George W. Bush use their airspace to invade the wrong country. The official French response was none at all.

I have also begun to see other postings on FB about boycotting Russian vodka in general. Queer Nation has already jumped on the train to nowhere and started posting anti-Stoli graphics on social media sites.

I did some checking (it only takes a couple of clicks on Google) and found that most so-called Russian vodkas sold in the US and around the world are not distilled in Russia at all. I mentioned that in some of my postings. While Stoli was the only brand name Cleve specifically mentioned, the fire has been lit and the distinction, as I pointed out to him when he contacted me, will be lost on most people.

The single word that best describes this Stoli boycott is "silly". It is silly to think that the Russian government will become gay friendly if America's queers stop drinking a vodka that isn't even made in Russia. Even if it were made there, it's still just plain silly. Why should they care? Cleve thinks the bad press will help sway them. I guess he forgot who controls the Russian press. Silly.

It is extremely silly that when confronted with the statement from Stoli, which I forwarded to him, Cleve Jones told me,
"You seem singularly focused on defending Stoli. You're entitled to your opinions. I've attempted a civil dialogue despite the rude and dishonest representation in your original post. As for Stoli, it is one of the most recognizable Russian brands in the world and one of the few Russian consumer goods available to ordinary folks. I'm going to continue to support the boycott of Stoli among other tactics. If you have ideas of your own on how to help, you should put them out there. But I've given you more than enough of my time on this issue." 
As I told him in response, I am singularly focused on the truth.

Cleve, you've done a lot for our community, but one of the things we cannot do if we hope to secure true equality, is to stoop to the level of those who work against us by spreading lies. If we can't win with the truth, then we don't deserve to win at all. It makes us no better than Brian Brown, Maggie Gallagher, Fred Phelps, Brian Fischer and all the rest who lie about LGBT people for a living. You are better than that.

You want ideas? How about doing something constructive, like pressuring Secretary of State John Kerry to come out with a statement condemning Russia's war on gays? How about pressuring the US Olympic Committee to boycott the Olympics next year? How about petitioning the United Nations Human Rights Council to issue a condemnation?

Personally, I don't drink and I don't care what anybody else drinks. Just don't drink Cleve's Kool Aid. You'll only end up looking silly.


  1. This has been delved into in greater depth in various threads on boycott-related FB pages.

    Steven, it's nowhere near as simple as you portray.

    SPI Group is the international face of Soyuzplodimport, a *Russian* company that is owned by a major Russian tycoon and that proclaims itself on its website to be a leading Russian agriculture company.

    Boycotts aren't effective because they target specific products; they are effective because they target specific companies that are themselves in a position to influence their own country's policies.

    SPI Group, regardless of its Latvian-made Stoli that is sold outside of Russia, is still fundamentally a Russian company, with significant economic and political power and influence within Russia, where it engages in both agriculture and other alcohol production.

    And while it responds to inquiries by touting its support for the LGBT community outside of Russia, that "support" appears solely to be advertising and promotional efforts that serve its own commercial interests, not any general political or philanthropic support for the LGBT community.

    And it remains silent when asked about what it does specifically for the LGBTs in its *home country*, Russia.

    Again, boycotts don't seek to influence the behavior of product lines but rather of *companies*, and then, in turn, their governments.

    SPI Group, for many of us, meets the criteria for being a major Russian company that should be subject to a general boycott, regardless of where this or that specific product gets made. So that would include their version of Stoli, because it still benefits them and is leverage on them.

    If SPI Group were to, say, publicly -- in Russia -- speak out against the anti-LGBT laws and anti-LGBT violence, and call for the end of those laws and such violence, and make a reasonable donation to Russian LGBT groups, maybe they wouldn't deserve to be included in a boycott.

    But unless and until they do that, they seem fair game to many of us who have done our research on this.

    And I should add that we shouldn't look askance at the effectiveness of boycotts to change policy and law.

    Some succeed, some don't, but the commercial, sports, and cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa is generally considered to have played a significant role in convincing white South Africans that they were collectively a pariah nation in the eyes of the rest of the world and if they wanted to join the world, they needed to extend human and civil rights to their own fellow citizens.

    They boycott of course wasn't the only factor, and it needed to be maintained over the long-run and not unreasonably expected to yield results overnight... But it played an important role in pressuring South Africa to change. That's nothing to sniff at, and it shows what a boycott of Russia and other anti-LGBT countries can realistically aim for.

  2. What you fail to recognize David, as I pointed out in our FB thread, is that if your boycott is successful, which is doubtful, and Stoli's US sales fall, the first effects will be felt by its American employees in the form of layoffs. That will happen here, not in Russia. People will lose their jobs over some well meaning, but not very well thought out boycott that Vladimir Putin will never notice. What will you tell those unemployed people? I'm calling "bullshit" on the entire effort.

  3. And the Ruskies laugh all the way to the bank ... here's an easy Ruskie boycott .. Aeroflot .. after all how many will be going to see Putin's man-tits .. Nastrovia .. hic

  4. Definition of a straw man argument:

    "That's right, by merely switching your cocktail, you can show Vladimir Putin that Russia's queers will not be denied their cock and tail. It's just that simple."

  5. I think you are "silly" not the boycott.

  6. Thanks for your input, Derek. But as you can see in my follow up article, Russia's most prominent Gay Rights Advocate, Nikolai Alekseev, agrees with me and even shared this article on his FB page. He has been quoted in Gay Star News as saying, ‘To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka,' he said.
    'It will impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever.’

    Alekseev added: ‘And what is the aim of this boycott? The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott (which is unlikely) will not be able to influence Russian politics and President Putin as well as the decisions of the State Duma.’


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