By Jeff Monahan (@monahan00) Russian president Vladimir Putin escalated the country’s shameless attack on the LGBT community recently by passing legislation that targets virtually anything that would lead someone to understand that gay and heterosexual …

Andrew

By Jeff Monahan (@monahan00)

Russian president Vladimir Putin escalated the country’s shameless attack on the LGBT community recently by passing legislation that targets virtually anything that would lead someone to understand that gay and heterosexual relationships are socially equivalent.  Now anything as simple as hand holding or pro-LGBT tweets are punishable by a fine of approximately $155 U.S. dollars, or about £100.

Additionally, days after LGBT activists were arrested at a pro-gay rights rally, Russia adopted a law prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples both domestically and abroad.

Putin claimed that the laws were about protecting children.  This is incomprehensible. I’ll spare you the arguments about how there is no persuasive evidence either way on how children are affected by same-sex parents, and the arguments about how gay individuals and couples should receive the same treatment as everyone else.  The question is what to do about it.

The legislation obviously comes at a unique time because Sochi hosts the Olympics in February.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) came out in strong support of the LGBT community by issuing a statement:

“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. 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.”

This forced the hand of the Russian government, which assured the IOC that the anti-gay legislation would not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.  I have a few thoughts about this:

  • The Russians’ assurances to the IOC would mean that, hypothetically, if hundreds of homosexual guests from around the world staged a massive make out demonstration right outside the opening ceremonies, the Russian police wouldn’t do anything about it. (or an hours-long message of support to the Russian gay community.)  I find this very hard to believe.  It’s almost like the Russians are asking for trouble.
  • Would the IOC have awarded Sochi the Games if these laws were in place when it submitted the bid?  It’s hard to imagine they would have.
  • Will there be a boycott?

There have been boycotts of the Olympics before, but as one activist points out, people remember the athletes who attend the games, not the ones who boycott.  He argues that it’s a more powerful message to be there and fight the policy than stand to the side.  Take Jesse Owens, a black man, for example, who won four gold medals in the face of Hitler’s fascist regime at the 1936 games in Berlin.  Or the two black medalists who raised their fists in solidarity while on the podium in 1968 in support of the civil rights movement going on in the United States.  Some American athletes boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow, but no American remembers them – they remember the Miracle on Ice victory over the Russians in the winter games.

There will inevitably be an athlete or political group who makes a demonstration at the games, so step one is supporting their action any way you can – post it on Facebook, buy a wristband, sign a petition.  But what else can we do in the meantime…something everyone can take place in.  What about an action we can take every week?  What about vodka?

Some activists have called for a boycott of Russian vodka brands and already there has been a response.  200 restaurants in Manhattan have already taken action by discontinuing the sale of Stolichnaya and Russian Standard vodka.  I personally spoke to a friend in the beverage sales business in Los Angeles who said the vodka he sells has already seen a spike in the last week because of all the bars boycotting “Stoli.”

If anything, a boycott of Russian vodkas could be a symbolic stand, not an economical one.  Vodka is not listed in the top 10 US imports from Russia, which total $28.2 billion, the lowest of which is $200 million, so vodka imports would not make up even one percent of what the US imports from Russia.  Additionally, although the Stolichnaya bottle claims it is a Russian vodka, it is made in Latvia by a company based in Luxembourg.  Russian Standard, however, is made in Russia.

Most of all, the CEO of Stolichnaya wrote in an open letter that the company “has always been and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community.”  Therefore, Stolichnaya is a victim through no fault of its own, so does a boycott serve any purpose at all?

To the extent it gets people talking about it, yes.  Google search results on “gay rights Russia,” “gay vodka,” and “gay boycott” skyrocketed once the #dumpStoli campaign began.  So although the campaign seems to have unfairly targeted the company on this aspect of their conduct, it has certainly sparked the conversation, and, ultimately, this is what raising awareness is all about.  We do not officially join in the boycott because Stolichnaya appears to join us in support of the LGBT movement, but we hope that the brand continues to defend itself publicly because any press is good press for the fight against Putin’s anti-gay campaigns.  Just keep talking.

As President Obama said, “if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

 

And anything each of us can do to promote that spirit is a step in the right  direction.


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