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Following high-profile calls for a boycott of Russian products, including vodka and the Sochi Winter Games, a debate has gathered steam even as more incidents of brutality aimed at glbtq citizens in Russia have been reported. Harvey Fierstein, Dan Savage, Queer Nation, Johnny Weir, and Chad Griffin have recently made their opinions known.
Among the most disturbing stories regarding the escalating violence against gay people in Russia is a report from the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance about how ultranationalist thugs are using social media to attract young gay men only to bully and torture them, all with impunity from prosecution by authorities. Another report has surfaced of corruption in Sochi, including one of police torturing and forcibly sodomizing a construction worker who helped build Olympic housing. The story may be found here.
Meanwhile, the proposed boycott of Russian vodka has been embraced by gay bars in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and London. In response, the owners of SPI, the company that produces and distributes Stolichnaya vodka, issued an open letter to the Advocate denouncing Russia's punitive new laws. The letter claims that the company is not affiliated with the Russian government and "We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia." Val Mendeleev, the CEO of SPI, adds: "In the past decade, SPI has been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society, standing very passionately on the side of the LGBT community and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction." The letter may be found here.
The letter from SPI was quickly answered both by Queer Nation and by Dan Savage.
The Queer Nation response declares that "A single open letter that was discreetly placed with a single gay publication in the US will not help LGBT Russians nor will it have an impact on the Russian government's anti-gay campaign. This and [SPI's] refusal made in an earlier statement to confront the Russian government's anti-gay bigotry make clear that you are not the fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community you claim to be."
"By its own admission, SPI Group operates in Russia and pays taxes to the Russian government. That money funds these continuing attacks on LGBT people and organizations in Russia. Queer Nation will continue its boycott of Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas until this anti-gay law is repealed and the Russian government guarantees the safety of its LGBT citizens and foreign LGBT nationals in Russia."
The Queer Nation response concludes "We will not help you fund the Russian war on LGBT people."
The entire letter may be found here.
Dan Savage responded to the Stoli letter with characteristic pithiness.
"Regardless of where SPI Group's corporate offices are located, the company is owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the 100 richest men in Russia. SPI is a Russian corporation, Stoli is a Russian vodka. And while it's nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia?," Savage asks.
He continues, "The group has sponsored gay pride events in Vienna and Miami. That's nice. But have they sponsored gay pride events in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Val [Mendeleev] says that Stoli is upset and angry. That's nice. So has Stoli said anything to the Russian authorities? Has Yuri Scheffler expressed his anger in an open letter to Vladimir Putin? Did the SPI Group speak the fuck up before the Russian government passed a law that made it a crime to be openly gay and a crime to publicly support someone who is openly gay? Frankly I'm not interested in Stoli's marketing efforts in the West. I'm interested in what this Russian-owned company is doing in Russia. And from this letter it's clear they've done and they only plan on doing squat."
Olympian Johnny Weir, who hopes to compete in the 2014 Winter Games and is widely known as an admirer of Russian culture, has spoken out against a boycott of the Olympics.
In a column published in the Falls Church News-Press, Weir writes, "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. . . . 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."
He adds that he plans to compete in Sochi if he qualifies, despite the risks involved with being openly gay in Russia. "There isn't a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics."
Harvey Fierstein, however, renewed his call for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Games. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, the four-time Tony winner said, "There's only one way to change somebody like Putin and that's in the pocketbook. You can't get him with angry words. He feeds on that and his followers feed on that. You make the West angry, they're thrilled. You can't get them that way. . . . There's only one way and that's in the pocketbook. You hurt them in the pocketbook, they shut the f--k up and back the f--k down."
He continued, "any country that puts money into Russia, and that's what doing the Olympics is, [is guilty]. You can say, 'It's national pride and we'll go there and we'll take all the gold medals and show them.' But you've just pumped billions of dollars into their economy. You are the enemy, you are the enemy, you are the enemy. And people have to understand that: You go along with them, you are a collaborationist. You go to Russia and spend your money there, you are part of the problem. You go and entertain there, even if you stand up on that stage and say, 'I love gay people,' you have pumped millions of dollars into their economy. You send film crews there, you send reporters there, you send trainers there."
Finally, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin has written a letter to NBC Universal CEO Stephen Burke informing him that his company, which has exclusive rights to broadcast the Sochi Olympics in the United States, "has a unique opportunity--and responsibility--to expose" Russia's "inhumane and unjust law to the millions of American viewers who tune in to watch the Games. You no doubt agree that it wouldn't be right to air the opening ceremonies--which is an hours-long advertisement for the host country--without acknowledging that a whole segment of the Russian population--not to mention foreign athletes and visitors--can be jailed for an immutable aspect of their identity."