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Vodka boycott is right battle, wrong fight

OPINION

  • Stolichnaya products
Stolichnaya products (Chicago Tribune file photo )
July 30, 2013|By Zach Stafford, @zachstafford | For RedEye

If you walk into a Boystown bar on any given day—especially during the summer—and ask the bartender for his most popular drink, nine times out of 10 he'll serve you a vodka soda.

Vodka is to Chicago gay men as beer is to Chicago Cubs fans: invariably linked.

However, a storm is brewing over vodka—specifically Russian vodka—as Russian President Vladimir Putin advances a startling anti-gay movement in his country. But is vodka really the fight we should be picking? Ummmm ... no.

Russian legislation does things like ban gay couples from adopting, criminalizes gay "propaganda"—whatever that means—and even allows police to arrest tourists they suspect to be homosexuals. In short: If you're gay, know someone who is gay or buy your morning coffee from a gay person, then you could be subject to problems with the Russian police.

Vodka was pulled into the mess when columnist Dan Savage encouraged gay bars to boycott all vodka exported from the country in protest. As a result, the most famous brand to be exported, Stolichnaya, is facing the brunt of the backlash, hashtag included: #DumpStoli.

Sidetrack has led the charge in Chicago, though it's not the only bar on the Halsted strip to pull Stoli from its shelves. Before this movement gains too much steam, let's think about this: A country is attacking its LGBT population—sometimes violently—and our grand gesture is to stop drinking its vodka? Girl, bye.

Don't get me wrong: This boycott is raising awareness, but the tactic turns a true international problem into just another sound bite in our evening news, or small talk we giggle about at cocktail parties, with no real change ever happening.

What else can we do? Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev told Gay Star News this boycott is pointless. He suggested a more powerful way supporters can help: Pressure governments outside Russia to blacklist entrance visas of politicians responsible for the laws affecting LGBT Russians, adding, "They will suffer and others will think twice. Nothing else will work!"

When I heard about the Russian vodka boycott, the first thing I thought about was the boycott of Chick-fil-A in 2012 due to anti-gay comments and political contributions from the company's ownership. Sure, the boycott raised awareness, but in the end it didn't change much for LGBT rights, or even change the CEO's stance. According to some reports, it had the inverse effect on the business as misinformed backers sent sales skyrocketing.

I'd rather see the LGBT community and its supporters work to educate the world about the injustices in Russia in a way that thoroughly explains what's going on and creates opportunity for real change instead of boycotting a company that has virtually nothing to do with policy in Russia. In fact, the Luxembourg-based company that owns Stolichnaya reached out to The Advocate last week to condemn the Russian government.

"We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia," the CEO wrote.

At the end of the day, Stoli is not the enemy—backward Russian politicians are.

Zach Stafford is a RedEye special contributor.

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