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Sean P. Means: Vodka, gay rights and the limitations of boycotts

Published August 14, 2013 9:26 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Troy Williams is a believer in Martin Luther King's famous statement that "hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

For example, to face the bigotry recently enacted by the Russian government against "homosexual propaganda," Williams suggests that "We need to send gay missionaries by the thousands into Red Square, to flood it with rainbow flags."

That would be better, says the Salt Lake City radio host and gay activist, than boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or pouring Stolichnaya vodka in the gutter.

Certainly the xenophobia and homophobia happening in Russia are troublesome, Williams said. "I see what's happening in Russia now to New York in the late '60s, before Stonewall," he said, as he made a comparison to a favorite Utah nemesis. "President [Vladimir] Putin makes Gayle Ruzicka look like Lady Gaga."

In recent weeks, gay activists have suggested two major boycotts.

Several prominent gay figures, such as the British writer and comedian Stephen Fry, have urged the International Olympic Committee to use its authority to pressure the Russian government to drop its anti-gay laws or risk losing the Winter Olympics next February. Such talk has opened up speculation — most of it idle — that the Winter Olympics be moved, possibly to Vancouver (where the event was last held, in 2010) or to Salt Lake City, which hosted the games in 2002.

The other boycott, against Russian vodka, was launched last month by Dan Savage, the activist, author and sex-advice columnist — which is a great thing to have on your business card.

Savage, feeling impatient about boycotting an Olympics that won't start until February, has urged gay bars and their patrons to stop serving and consuming Russian vodka.

He made special note of Stolichnaya, one of the most popular vodka brands around and one that markets on its connection to Russia. The brand's roots are Russian, and the Stoli label features a drawing of the Hotel Moskva. The label used to read "Russian Vodka" prominently along the bottom, but recently was changed to read "Premium Vodka."

The campaign took off, and gay bars in several cities have dumped their Stoli and other Russian brands — sometimes publicly pouring the product in the street.

SPI Group, the distributor of Stoli in the United States and Europe, has fought back against the boycott. CEO Val Mendeleev wrote an open letter, stressing the company is headquartered in Luxembourg and the vodka is distilled in Latvia. The company has also pointed out its support of the LGBT community and trumpeted its opposition to the Russian government's actions on its website.

Savage is unmoved, arguing that SPI's controlling owner, Yuri Scheffler, is one of the 100 richest people in Russia.

The vodka boycott seems to be getting little traction at Salt Lake City gay bars.

"Why punish somebody for making their livelihood for something their government did?" asked Gene Geiber, owner of Club Try-Angles.

Savage started a similar boycott in 2008, after California voters passed the anti-gay-marriage ballot measure Prop. 8. Savage's target then was the state of Utah, because much of the money donated to support Prop. 8 came from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I always think he's eager to boycott," Williams said of Savage. "I think it feels good to boycott bigotry."

After the 2008 Utah boycott, Williams debated Savage on his KRCL show. "I told him, 'Come to Utah, flood the streets with gays.' He didn't do it. We had to go do it without him," Williams said, recalling the stunning and exuberant marches on downtown Salt Lake City streets that November.

Boycotts have their limitations, Williams said, because they touch the wallet but don't necessarily touch the soul.

"It suggests that capitalism alone can change people's hearts," he said.

It's better, Williams said, to engage Russian citizens, who "are horrified about what's happening." Events like the Olympics, he said, are "a great opportunity to bring the best of global tolerance and acceptance into Russia and bottle that example to them."

As for vodka, Russian or otherwise, Williams remains neutral. "I'm more of a whiskey guy myself," he said.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.