It’s easy to feel outrage about the horrific anti-gay legislation and violence in Russia: It’s harder to know how to help. Perhaps that’s why so many LGBT people and allies have latched on to Dan Savage’s Dump Stoli campaign, a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka, which is produced in Russia. No one likes feeling helpless, and it’s especially tough given the increasingly bleak news.
But while Savage’s heart is clearly in the right place, his campaign is misguided. It may, in fact, have dangerous consequences. Russia’s anti-gay policies are shocking and shameful, but the desire to denounce the country or culture as a whole is wrong. It sends a confusing message to the LGBT citizens of the country: We support you but not your heritage. We welcome you with open arms, but we reject your cultural background. The intention of Dump Stoli may have been to penalize a Russian-owned business, but the effect is a demonization of all things Russian.
And what exactly does the boycott do to help LGBT people in Russia? It sends a message, yes, but Stoli — which has a history of supporting the LGBT community and sponsoring LGBT events — is not the enemy. Abstaining from a particular brand of vodka may make Americans feel better about themselves, but it does nothing for Russians. This is slacktivism at its finest: We barely lift a finger to help and then pat ourselves on the backs for a job well done. At least the proposed boycott of the Olympics (whether or not out athletes agree) is logical, as the Olympics will provide a massive influx of tourism and revenue for the Russian government. But Stoli? In the grand scheme of things, your choice of vodka is meaningless.
Meanwhile, Stoli has spoken out in support of the LGBT community, to which Queer Nation responded, “In the open letter, Mr. Mendeleev cited a few LGBT events where SPI promoted its Stolichnaya brand as evidence of the company’s support for our community. Mr. Mendeleev, marketing will not save LGBT lives.” Surely Queer Nation recognizes the irony. No, marketing will not save LGBT lives — and neither will this pointless boycott. There is no easy solution here, but Dump Stoli is merely a distraction.
More to the point, it reinforces the idea that “Russian” equals “bad,” and where does that end? Do we avoid Russian films? Ditch Russian novels? Rebrand Russian dressing as “freedom dressing”? This might sound like an overreaction, but the elision of a country’s policies with its culture is a slippery slope. We cannot assume that anything Russian is anti-gay, just as it would be unfair to label every Russian person a homophobe. As we brainstorm more productive ways to help LGBT people in Russia, let’s do so without condemning their homeland as inherently evil.
The Dump Stoli boycott is already inspiring xenophobia, as in this embarrassing ad from SKYY Vodka that panders to the LGBT community. The message is not that we should support a vodka that supports queers and their allies, but rather that SKYY Vodka is “American made.” Note the giant American flag behind the vodka: Be a patriot and drink SKYY. Oh, and support the gays too.
We owe the LGBT community in Russia more than a frivolous conversation about which vodka to drink. And that includes not suggesting that there is something wrong with their Russianness: We have to work toward getting the country to reverse its hateful policies, not write off Russia entirely.
It’s not as though the United States has always been a paragon of equal rights. Russia’s state-sanctioned violence against LGBT people is a terrifying extreme, but we have to approach it as an essential civil rights struggle. We have worked and continue to work to make America a safe and equal country for all of its citizens. It wasn’t a vodka boycott that ended DADT or got DOMA overturned — and it won’t be a vodka boycott that brings real change to Russia.