Protests Against Russian and Its Olympics Opening Dialogues About Its LGBT Community

After many years of protesting by the small but active lgbtq activist community, the international community is finally taking notice of human rights abuses and homophobic laws and prejudices rampant in the chilly country. A lot of it has to do with momentum around the Olympics, and the potential effects (or not) that protests will have.

A Kremlin-supported law passed Russia’s parliament, and was then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, back in June that placed a ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” with jail time and harsh fines. In the view of the Orthodox Church, this is meant to promote traditional family structures and spur “Western European” advances into Russia, but to many others it seems intended to continue fostering a hostile atmosphere for lgbt people within the country. While police—not to mention the native population—already target queer individuals, this is another way for government forces to overcome its dissenters with swift police action.

Recognizing this public injustice, what started out as a small demonstration of protest has sparked nation-wide activity here in the United States and abroad to the United Kingdom boycotting one of the few Russian exports: Vodka.

It started when activist and author Dan Savage called for gay bars and supporters to boycott Russian vodkas, specifically the most prominently known Stolichnaya, or Stoli, Vodka. Since then, bars in West Hollywood, Chicago, NYC, and elsewhere have pulled Stoli from their shelves, dumped it into the streets, and are refusing to sell any more until the political situation changes abroad.

A statement was issued by the CEO of Stoli, Val Mendeleev, who reiterates that the company “has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community”  and cites initiatives and projects that partner with the queer community, like being the official vodka of Miami Pride and it’s “Be Real: Stories from Queer America” documentary series. Further, Mendeleev cites that the vodka sold in the U.S. is owned by SPI Group, based in Luxembourg, and while it does use some Russian ingredients, it also has distilleries in Latvia, and has been in disputes with the Russian government over brand ownership for years.

Another who argues against the protest is foremost Russian lgbt activist Nikolai Alekseev, who asks “what is the aim of this boycott?” “To be honest, I don’t see the point in boycotting the Russian vodka,” Aleksev continues. “It will [not] impact anyone except the companies involved a little bit. The effect will die out very fast, it will not last forever.” Rather than this economic protest, Alekseev sees a more useful pressure placed on lawmakers and political leadership who supports anti-lgbt measures.

Vodka may not be your drink of choice, so a better protest for you might be the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Controversy began after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was reviewing allegations that queer athletes and tourists in the country for the games would be targeted because of the new law. After receiving assurances from the government that this would not be true, the response from the Russian government apparently flip-flopped, announcing that foreigners would be under the same scrutiny while in the country. Human Rights Campaign Vice President for Communications Fred Sainz said in response that “until there is formal action to repeal the law, it applies to everyone within Russian borders. It ought to be clear to the IOC that verbal assurance from nameless Russian officials will do nothing to protect LBGT Olympians, visitors, and personnel during the Sochi games.”

So another round of protests was announced, this one calling on athletes and governments to protest the event. U.S. groups have asked the country to not participate, and for athletes to not go in order to make a statement to the country.

However, several individuals and groups have spoken out against these methods, citing more effectiveness at dealing with issues at the Olympics than simply protesting.

The Russian LGBT Network, on their Facebook page tells lgbt supporters, “Do not boycott the Olympics—boycott homophobia!” by exercising their freedoms of expression and to not censor beliefs or actions just because of the actions of the government. To openly disagree with Russian policies would send a stronger message activists said. They point to the 1968 Olympic games where although many boycotted the event, all that is remembered is Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ “human rights salute” on the podium to stand in solidarity for those fighting for equality and human rights.

Greg Louganis, one of the world’s greatest divers who also happens to be a gay man, spoke out against what a boycott would mean for Olympic athletes. “Boycotts hurt the wrong people, [the athletes.” He argues that it would be selfish of the queer community to disrupt such an important event for world athletics.

Doing his part in the activism, a gay speed skater from New Zealand, Blake Skjellerup, reports that he will be wearing a rainbow pin in the Sochi Games, and calls on others to do the same. “I have no interest in going back in the closet in Sochi… This is not about defiance, this is me standing up for what I believe in.” He agrees with Louganis, saying that “I think visibility is the best possible solution, as opposed to hiding away and not attending.”

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