Can a gay boycott of Russian vodka work?

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stoli700 By now you’ve probably heard about the Stoli boycott. Gay bars in West Hollywood are joining an international effort to stop serving Russian vodka in general as well. They’re protesting recent anti-gay legislation passed in Russia.

The people calling for the ban – which started with columnist Dan Savage and now includes West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran – say they hope it sends a message to Russia for its draconian anti-gay legislation.

Duran went to Moscow and St. Petersburg 15 years ago while performing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. He met with gay leaders there, and says the fact that “those same people are being subjected to violence and hatred like this is very upsetting.”

But how effective can a boycott be? Will it help or hurt the cause?

“The idea of boycotting Stoli vodka, or Russian vodka in general, is like saying you’re gonna boycott Snapple because you don’t like America’s use of drones,” said Dave Rubin, a gay comedian.

Rubin said boycotts are fine – when they’re targeted specifically to the people who he says deserve it. Like, say, the Russian government itself. Rubin says he’d like organizers to focus on perhaps a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia.

“The big issue is the way politics work within Russia,” said Washington Post blogger Max Fisher. He says Russians conservatives can paint this kind of boycott as imperialist Westerners trying to force their views, and it can also exacerbate political divisions and silence critics who want more gay rights.

The comedian Dave Rubin, says we saw that effect in the United States, when gays boycotted the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A last year.

“Their sales were never better than when this boycott was going on,” Rubin said.

Fisher  says put into terms of the vodka boycott, it won’t have much impact. “Imagine if the Chick-Fil-A boycott only boycotted the napkins in the Chick-Fil-A, and we were buying everything else.”

But there was a successful boycott in the 1970s, of Coors Beer, because organizers said the Golden, Colorado-based brewer was hostile to gays. They allegedly wouldn’t hire them, and the company funded anti-gay organizations. The boycott started at gay bars in the Castro district of San Francisco, and spread across other cities along the west coast.

“It was an opportunity for gay people to fight back in a concrete way against anti-gay organizations, against Coors, against
the right-wing,” said Don Kilhefner, a clinical psychologist, and an organizer of the Coors boycott.

stoliletter“It provides the foundation for what’s being done with Stolichnaya boycott right now. We have the experience of knowing that if we stick together, if we’re organized, we can make a difference here,” Kilhefner said.

Thursday morning, as part of the boycott, organizers plan to ceremonially pour Stoli vodka bottles that will be filled with water into the gutters of West Hollywood.

For their part, the companies that distribute Stolichnaya – a Russian firm that distributes it there, and a European country that sells it everywhere else – say they have no problems with gay people, and that they know there are many loyal gay customers.