Can Boycotting Vodka Really Change Gay Rights In Russia?

Were the Kremlin to change course on anti-gay laws, widespread anti-gay sentiment would still exist.
By @FrederickReese |
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    Last June in St. Petersburg, Russia, approximately 40 gay rights advocates were pelted with rocks and eggs by a group of 200 anti-gay protesters during a gay pride rally. Dozens of the advocates were arrested — with many beaten — on the grounds of violations of the country’s “gay propaganda” law, which was signed into effect nationally earlier that month.

    This law, which bans the “propaganda of non-traditional sex relations to minors, including in the media, on the Internet and via viral adverts,” classifies pro-gay ideas and thoughts as pornography, and makes the public declaration of it an arrestable and fineable offense, with fines up to a million rubles ($30,242) and up to 15 days imprisonment, as well as deportation for foreigners charged with the offense. The bill, which garnered 137 of the 166 senators’ votes in the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate, is supported by 88 percent of all Russians, per a poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.

    In response to this, the international community has responded in force. British actor Stephen Fry has written an impassioned open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron and to the International Olympic Committee, imploring the boycott of the Sochi Games and/or the removal of the 2014 Winter Games from Russia.

    The RUSA LGBT, which represents the Russian gay community in the United States, has also called for a boycott of the Sochi Games. “LGBT people in Russia are scared, they live in fear, and we want people to be aware of the issue. If they feel strongly about human rights they should boycott the Olympics in Sochi,” said Nina Long, co-president of RUSA LGBT, in an interview with RIA Novosti. “We really want the LGBT community to know it’s unsafe to travel there.”

    Journalist Dan Savage has called for an en masse boycott of Russian-made products, particularly vodka — which is seen to be symbolic of Russian tradition. “If you drink a Russian Vodka like Stoli, Russian Standard, or any of the other brands listed above, switch to another brand from another country, or even a local brand from a local distillery,” Savage wrote in his blog The Stranger. “Stoli is the iconic Russian Vodka and it’s returning to Russian ownership in 2014. Other brands like Russian Standard should also be boycotted. Do not drink Russian vodka. Do not buy Russian vodka. Ask your bartender at your favorite bar—gay or otherwise—to DUMP STOLI and DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.”


    The effectiveness of boycotts

    At this time, it is unclear what can or will come from all of this. The Obama and Cameron administrations have repeatedly stated that a boycott of the games is out of the question, as it would unfairly punish the athletes. The products being boycotted are all privately-owned and boycotting them would be just as likely to register a response to the average Russian or the Russian government as an international boycott on Coke or Pepsi would register with Americans.

    Most important, the legislation in question has vast popular support. In cases where boycotts and divestments have worked — for example, South Africa — the government was working opposed to the populace’s will. Even if the Kremlin were to reverse itself on enforcement of these laws, the anti-gay sentiment would still exist. For example, in 2012, the Moscow city government won a case in court that upheld a law banning gay pride marches within city limits for the next century. This, along with the remainder of Russia’s anti-homosexuality legislative suite, was fueled by an open hostility by the Russian elite, who blames homosexuality for the nation’s low birth rates and has stated that homosexuals should be barred from state positions, treated medically or exiled from the nation.

    Most Russian federal subjects (states) have some form of anti-gay legislation on their books.


    Homosexuality in Russia

    The Russian constitution prohibits the discrimination of any person on the basis of sexuality. The speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, argued that this legislation is not to punish LGBT people, but to protect the innocent. “They are ordinary equal members of the society. As adults, they are entitled to decide how they want to live. But when it comes to minors [the ban on propaganda] is not someone’s whim, but a demand from the society,” Matvienko said.

    Under the propaganda bill, individual violators would be fined administratively up to 5,000 rubles ($152) per offense. Officials that permit pro-gay demonstrations or speech would be fined up to 50,000 rubles (about $1,500) and publicly pro-gay companies will have to pay up to 500,000 rubles (about $15,000) per offense. The use of the Internet to “promote the propaganda” forces harsher penalties — up to 100,000 rubles (about $3,000) for an individual, and a million rubles or a 90-day suspension of activities for organizations.

    The average middle-class Russian makes between $4,000 and $10,000 per year, per Forbes.

    In light of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, there is a real concern that the Russian law will create an unsafe environment for the Olympians — particularly, homosexual Olympians. This has been compounded repeatedly, most notably by Vitaly Milonov, a member of the ruling United Russia party, who argues that, despite the Kremlin’s assurances, no Russian law can be selectively enforced or suspended.

    “I haven’t heard any comments from the government of the Russian Federation, but I know that it is acting in accordance with Russian law,” Milonov told the Interfax news agency in July. “And if a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.”

    This is also compounded by the fact that this is not the only anti-gay bill passed by the Kremlin. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning adoption of Russian-born children not only to gay couples, but to any potential parents in any country that practices marriage equality in any form. Just prior to that, Putin signed a law that permits the police to arrest any tourist or foreign national suspected to be gay or “pro-gay” and detain them for 14 days. Finally, The New York Times has announced that Putin is prepared to sign a bill that would empower the State to remove children from households in which the parents or caregivers are suspected to be homosexual.

    The Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has gone on record in an attempt to justify the propaganda law. “I want everyone to calm down,” he told the media at a press conference at last week’s Athletic World Championships in Moscow. “This legislation is not meant to curtail the rights of citizens from any country, whatever their proclivities. The law is specifically targeted at propaganda to minors. But, although everyone’s rights will be maintained, we will ask visitors to respect the laws of the country where they have arrived.”

    “Russia is getting stronger and some people don’t like that. We are unique country.”


    The evolution of acceptance

    This is reflective of the narrative that is unfolding in the United States. Only recently has this country overturned two major piece of anti-gay legislation: the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 — the 2008 California referendum that banned gay marriage in the state. Along with President Obama’s executive order nullifying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the nation has only recently emerged from decades of homosexuality oppression.

    This, however, does not mean that everything is perfect in the United States. A June Pew report shows that while more people than ever saw progress in gay acceptance in America, two in 10 reported unfair treatment from an employer due to sexuality or gender identification. Three in 10 reported being physically attacked or threatened. Two in 10 found that they have perceived “no acceptance.”

    “For LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, this is the best of times, but that doesn’t mean these are easy times or that their lives are uncomplicated,” said Paul Taylor, co-author of the report and executive vice president of Pew.

    As of right now, only 12 states in the U.S. — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State — and the District of Columbia currently permit gay marriage.

    Acceptance is a process, in which Russia is at the earliest stages. Change can only come societally, through the changing of the hearts and minds of the Russian people. It can neither be forced upon them nor insisted upon through guilt. All the same, boycotts can serve to put “soft pressure” on a government by compromising the financial strength of supporting multinationals and by offering support to those protesting locally to the government. While little can be done to force the hand of the Putin administration, much can be done to make uncomfortable those who support it.

    “No matter how pure your intentions it is very dangerous to market yourself as LGBT friendly in one part of the world whilst having different business practices in another part of the world. If you have a different public face in the West than in other countries people will connect the dots, they will figure you out. Companies need to align their policies across the board or get caught out,” said Andre Banks, co-founder of All Out, who is actively lobbying the IOC to move the games from Sochi.

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