BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Responding to Russia's recent anti-gay crackdown, many LGBT activists throughout South Florida and the United States are calling for boycotts and protests of the upcoming Winter Olympics, Stoli vodka and Russian caviar.
“You’ve got to go economic,” said Fort Lauderdale activist Nate Klarfeld, former board chairman of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives. “The Olympics has turned into a business. Billions are paid for sponsorships. If NBC doesn’t cover the Olympics, then Russia loses all its cache. And when this all started, I said it’s a no-brainer. We should just pour all the Stoli down the sewers.”
Russia’s Parliament in June passed a bill banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." President Vladimir Putin quickly signed the law and shortly after approved a bill that sharply limits the adoption of Russian children by people from countries allowing gay marriage.
Four Dutch activists filming a gay-rights documentary were arrested Monday in Murmansk, Russia. Midweek, six LGBT activists were arrested in Moscow "officially charged on the basis of the federal law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” Russian gay activist Nikolai Alekseev reported on Facebook.
On Friday, Canada issued a travel alert for gay visitors to Russia: “Although homosexual activity is not illegal in Russia, a federal law has been passed that prohibits public actions that are described as promoting homosexuality and ‘non-traditional sexual relations.’ This law could render any homosexual and pro-homosexual statements punishable. Public actions (including dissemination of information, statements, displays or conspicuous behaviour) that contravene or appear to contravene this law may lead to arrest, the imposition of a fine and deportation.”
Later, the International Olympic Committee said the Russian government had assured that no visitors during the games would be prosecuted under the new law.
“Mere verbal assurances from the Russian government that foreigners will be exempt from their repressive laws are not enough,” said Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights organization. “The IOC must obtain ironclad written assurance from President Putin. But more importantly, they should be advocating for the safety of all LGBT people in Russia, not simply those visiting for the Olympics. Rescinding this heinous law must be our collective goal.”
At a Friday press briefing, a State Department spokeswoman said the U.S. government does not support an Olympics boycott, according to the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper.
Earlier this week, national gay columnist Dan Savage made a case in his Slog blog for Russian boycotts.
“These anti-gay laws come after years of escalating attacks on gay pride events and LGBT people in Moscow and St. Petersburg," Savage wrote. "Moscow's city government has banned pride parades for 100 years; in St. Petersburg a small group of LGBT-rights demonstrators was attacked by a violent mob earlier this summer. These attacks are not new and they're getting worse. Gay and lesbian Russians living in the United States are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games, which are taking place in the Russian city of Sochi.”
Tony-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray and the current Kinky Boots) also supports an Olympics boycott.
"Mr. Putin signed a law allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or “pro-gay” and detain them for up to 14 days," Fierstein wrote on Sunday in The New York Times. Contrary to what the International Olympic Committee says, the law could mean that any Olympic athlete, trainer, reporter, family member or fan who is gay — or suspected of being gay, or just accused of being gay — can go to jail.
Fierstein compared 2013 Russia with the German Olympics in 1936, when "few participants said a word about Hitler's campaign against the Jews."
In addition to an Olympics boycott, Savage — who founded the It Gets Better Project video campaign to prevent gay-teen suicide — also called for a boycott of Russian vodka, including Russian Standard and Stolichnaya.
Stoli vodka actively courts gay consumers and is currently running a nationwide promotion, The Most Original Stoli Guy. On Thursday, Stoli CEO Val Mendeleev posted an open letter to the LGBT community about "the recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community."
"I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions," Mendeleev wrote. "Indeed, as a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend of the LGBT community."
Several leading gay bars across the nation have said they won’t serve Stoli, including Mova with lounges in Miami Beach, Miami’s Brickell neighborhood and Washington, D.C.
“We’re not purchasing any more Stoli,” said Mova owner Babak Movahedi, former chairman of Miami Beach Gay Pride.
In 2012, Stoli gave the pride committee $35,000 and 100 cases of vodka. The company later decided it didn’t get enough for its investment and this year gave nothing, said Movahedi, who believes a boycott “is always effective when people join forces and speak in one voice.”
Friday morning, Alekseev wrote on Facebook he didn't think a vodka boycott would be effective.
"To be honest I don't see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka," Alekseev wrote. "It will be impact anyone except a little bit the companies involved. But the effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever. And what is the aim of this boycott? The producers, even if they become bankrupt because of the boycott (which is unlikely) will not be able to influence Russian politics and President Putin. ... It is only a symbolic gesture which is doomed to failure."
Mike Rogers, a Washington, D.C.-based blogger, activist and managing director of Raw Story, says the grassroots boycott movement already is a success.
“This boycott has generated reactions from companies, an online media blitz of education in blogs, and now as a result of that, it’s moving into the mainstream media,” Rogers told the Miami Herald on Friday. “It sends a message to the Russian government that the world is watching. It helps impress the media to cover the story.”
Instead of a boycott, Alekseev prefers that the United States, United Kingdom and European Union pressure Russian politicians.
"This is the only thing which can effectively work," he wrote. "Pressure your governments to put the authors of those laws on the black lists for the entrance visas. They will suffer and others will think twice! Nothing else will work!"
Out gay figure skating competitor Johnny Weir on Thursday urged that no boycott take place.
"The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating human rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions," Weir told the Falls Church News-Press in Virginia. "I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia's stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof."
Cyd Zeigler, president of Outsports, a gay sports website, agrees with Weir.
“No Olympic boycott has ever accomplished anything. The 1980 boycott of the Soviet games was to protest the invasion of Afghanistan. They did not leave for nine more years,” Zeigler told The Herald. “It’s just targeting the wrong people. You’re not hurting the Russian government. You’re hurting the 18- and 19-year-old athletes who've worked for years to get to this point.”
Instead, pressure should be put on the U.S. government, Zeigler said. “Forget about sports. Let’s focus on President [Barack] Obama and Secretary of State [John] Kerry and see what they’re going to do. It’s so misdirected. It’s a political issue, not a sports issue.”