In case you haven’t heard, Russia’s a pretty terrible place to be if you’re gay–or even an ally. President Vladimir Putin just signed a law that makes it a jail-worthy offense to tout “gay propaganda,” which can be something as innocuous as wearing a rainbow T-shirt. In July, four Dutch tourists were arrested for simply asking some locals their views on same-sex relationships.
To protest the rampant homophobia some gay bars, including San Jose’s Splash Video Dance Bar, took author-activist Dan Savage’s lead in boycotting Russian vodka, particularly Stolichnaya, promoting their dissent online under the hashtags #dumpstoli and #dumprussianvodka. Chicago’s biggest gay bay dumped the stuff last week, as did Moby Dick’s in San Francisco. This week, bars in West Hollywood threatened to pour Russian-made vodkas down the gutter.
But the majority of South Bay gay bars–four out of five in San Jose, specifically–refuse to follow suit. Luis Sarmento, owner of Renegades on West Taylor Street in San Jose, considers the movement misguided.
“I know that boycotts can be a powerful political statement for human rights, but this isn’t well-researched, it’s not well-organized, it’s off the cuff, it’s just something to throw out there because of inflamed feelings and passions,” says Sarmento. “People are letting their emotions get in the way.”
While it’s great that Savage’s social media-fueled #dumpstoli campaign has drawn attention to the plight of gays in Russia, actually dumping Stoli on a wide scale can do more harm than good, Sarmento insists.
“Stoli is not the bad guy here,” he says.
Stoli has a history of supporting the LGBT community, donating grant money and sponsoring events. Buzzfeed called the boycott “slacktivism at its finest,” a way to make a statement without demonstrably helping a cause and probably actually promoting more xenophobia than tolerance.
Locally, Stoli donated 2,500 whistles, condoms, safe sex pamphlets and bottles of lube to an LGBT anti-violence event organized by the charity-activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco. That same group just backed out of a Stoli-sponsored event as part of the “Dump Stoli” boycott.
The brand isn’t even Russian anymore, boycott critics point out.
The vodka brand split after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving half to a Latvian operation and the other half in Russia. They’re separate companies. The U.S., Canada and Australia gets their Stoli from Latvia, not Russia. Savage maintains that there’s still a relationship with the two divisions.
The Olympics and its sponsor corporations might be a better target for a boycott, some say. The 2014 winter Olympic games are slated to take place in Sochi, where the Russian government is spending billions on an Olympic village with help from sponsors like McDonald’s, GE and Coca-Cola.
“If you get corporate sponsors to pull support, Russia will be left holding the bill,” Sarmento notes. “I find it hypocritical that some of the bars calling for a Stoli boycott are still using Coca-Cola products to mix cocktails with. There’s a smarter way to get your point across.”