Protecting Our Pink Planet

Russia's latest is another call for greater global activism

By Will O'Bryan
Published on July 11, 2013, 7:50am | Comments

There are a couple companies I avoid simply because my polite letters regarding dreadful customer service went unanswered. Although I steer clear, I've never asked anyone else to avoid these companies. These are my windmills alone.

Then comes Stolichnaya Vodka and the question of Russia's sad devolution into second-rate state that makes the LGBT community its No. 1 scapegoat. To boycott or not to boycott?

The answer may have been easier in 2007, when longtime activist Michael Petrelis and others launched a Stoli boycott to protest violence against LGBT people in Russia.

Six years later, President Vladimir Putin has signed – as announced by the Kremlin during the 44th anniversary weekend of the Stonewall Riots – the law against expressing anything that might be deemed ''propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.''

As the U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper describes the ban, ''Hefty fines can now be imposed on those who provide information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors or hold gay pride rallies.'' Beyond the law itself, there is also a stomach-turning record of the violence against those who protested the legislation outside the State Duma June 11.

With this level of state-sanctioned hate, a boycott of anything Russian might be obvious. Defining Stolichnaya Vodka as Russian, however, is not as easy as it once was. Following a court battle between the Russian government and SPI Group, there are essentially two iterations of the same brand. One is wholly Russian. The other is a multinational product.

SPI's chief marketing officer, Marco Ferrari, writing from SPI's offices in Luxembourg, summarized the legal issue in a July 4 email response to my query about his company's history – if any – of support for Russia's LGBT community.

''[Y]ou might not be aware that SPI, the owner of Stoli, does not operate with the Stolichnaya Brand in Russia,'' Ferrari wrote, in part. ''In Russia the trademark is owned by a State controlled entity that has nothing to do with SPI. SPI's interests in Russia are primarily focused on farming (wheat and rye fields for our vodka), sourcing our ingredients and distillation. … We at SPI firmly oppose the beliefs supported by the Russian Government in relation to the LGBT community and were we able to operate in Russia we would actively demonstrate our support as we do around the world.''

In other words, if you don't want to support Russian Stoli, don't buy it when you're in Russia. There might be an argument to be made for boycotting the brand of Stolichnaya we get outside of Russia, considering the ties SPI still has with that country. As far as I'm concerned, however, the enemy of my enemy is my friend whenever possible.

And, as I am a member of the LGBT community, the Russian government has clearly shown itself to be my enemy.

Here at home we've made substantial progress, though we'll always have more to accomplish. But just as we've argued that we can push for both the passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and an executive order instructing the federal government to hire only those companies with such workplace protections, so too must we work simultaneously inside and outside our borders for LGBT equality.

From Sexual Minorities Uganda, Lebanon's Helem or the Russian LGBT Network, there are any number of foreign groups to support. The DC Center's Center Global group is a grassroots avenue for getting involved with the world right here. With the lives of our brothers and sisters on the line, we've got to figure out what we can do, not what we can give up. Meanwhile, I'll save the boycott for Ender's Game.

Will O'Bryan is Metro Weekly's managing editor. Contact him at wobryan@MetroWeekly or follow him @wobryan.


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