It certainly didn’t have the makings of a fair fight, as a group of less than a dozen members of ACT UP/ NY faced off against a crowd of roughly 150 who had been primed with free rounds of Stolichnaya Vodka. But when the activists disrupted the opening of the Most Original Stoli Guy New York competition at Splash bar in Chelsea on July 30 with signs that read, “Russia Kills Gays” and “Dump Stoli,” the crowd watched in bewildered silence.
Only the event’s drag queen hostess took up the cause of the evening’s liquor sponsor.
“This is what happens when you drink Absolut,” she said, warning the crowd to stick with the Russian import.
As Splash security personnel rushed the demonstrators, ripping up their signs and shoving them away from the stage, she added, “Look at those assholes being taken out of the bar.”
Then with noticeably more anger in her voice, she continued, “This is America, not Russia.”
The ACT UP action came in response to escalating legal sanctions in that country against homosexuality and any discussion of it. The demonstrators were lending their voice to growing demands nationwide that LGBT bars and their patrons boycott Stolichnaya in order to put pressure on a major Russian exporting business. Stoli is bottled by the SPI Group, a company controlled by Yuri Scheffler, identified in a Russian financial publication as one of that nation’s 75 richest people.
In June, the Russian parliament unanimously adopted a law barring “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” –– aimed at information construed as equating same-sex relationships with those between a man and a woman. The penalties include fines that become particularly harsh if such “propaganda” is distributed online or in the mass media. Any outreach or assistance to LGBT minors is banned under the legislation.
Visitors to Russia charged under this law can be arrested, held for 15 days, fined, and deported –– something that has already happened to a group of Dutch tourists working on a documentary about the new law.
The Russian crackdown, widely seen as an effort by President Vladimir Putin to scapegoat both gays and foreigners for domestic political consumption, follows on years of brutal repression of LGBT rights demonstrations in Russia’s major cities. The nation’s political leaders are now discussing a push to remove children being raised by gay and lesbian couples and single parents from their homes.
Mark Milano, one of the organizers of the ACT UP action, said afterward, “It think t was great. They were totally taken off guard. There were Stoli executives in the room who saw their event crashed.”
Bacilio Mendez, another of the demonstrators, said that prior to the demonstration he saw some “really uncomfortable suits” at the club “on their Blackberries texting, ‘Oh, yes, there are a lot of people here.’”
On July 25, Val Mendeleev, SPI Group’s CEO, issued an open letter to the LGBT community saying the company was “upset and angry” about the Russian government’s “dreadful actions” and outlining the support it has given LGBT community events and endeavors around the world. The letter also emphasized that the Russian government has no ownership interest in the company, that SPI is headquartered in Luxembourg, and that Stoli, though made from “Russian ingredients,” is bottled in Latvia.
Brandon Cuicchi, an ACT UP member, stated that, at Splash, “Stoli was doing an event they could not do in Russia. You’re not LGBT-friendly marketing to gay people while saying nothing in your home country.”
The ACT UP demonstrators voiced specific concern that under the new Russian legislation, dissemination of safe sex education, condoms, and AIDS treatment drugs will be targeted as “homosexual propaganda,” something that could cripple effective prevention efforts. The group is calling on UN AIDS to condemn the new Russian law.
The Splash protest occurred on the eve of a demonstration at Manhattan’s Russian consulate at 9 East 91st Street planned for July 31 at noon. That event is being organized by RUSA LGBT (the Russian-Speaking American LGBTQ Association) and Queer Nation, a New York-based direct action organization recently reconstituted from its 1990s roots to combat homophobia and anti-LGBT violence.
In addition to picketing the consulate, the groups will pour Russian vodka into the gutter as part of their “Dump Russian Vodka” campaign. Among the group’s demands are repeal of the new anti-gay Russian legislation, a boycott of all Russian imports as well as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the withdrawal of leading corporate sponsors of the Games –– including Coca-Cola, Omega Watches, VISA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, and Panasonic. NBC will be televising the Olympic competition and has also become a target of criticism.
In a statement released last week, the International Olympic Committee said it had “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” Implicitly disavowing any broader responsibility for challenging Russia on its institutionalized homophobia, the IOC wrote, “As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators, and the media.”