The current attempt to boycott Russian vodka and/or the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in response to that country’s stringent anti-gaypropaganda law signed by President Putin in June, calls into question the effectiveness of such actions. There have been successes in the past, but the current proposed boycotts will not succeed.In 1977, homophobe and singer Anita Bryant effectively led a well-publicized effort through a group she headed “Save Our Children” to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida that covered sexual orientation. The vote was a lopsided 69-31 margin. That outraged the gay community, and in response, activists organized a boycott of Florida orange juice because Bryant was a spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission.
According to Eric Marcus, in his 2002 book, Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights, gay bars all over North America took screwdrivers off their drink menus and replaced them with the “Anita Bryant”, which was made with vodka and apple juice. Sales and proceeds went to gay civil rights activists to help fund their fight against Bryant and her campaign.
The boycott didn’t kill off the orange juice industry, but its high-profiled effort brought awareness to the plight of lesbians and gays in Dade County. Activist Harvey Milk pointed out, “The entire nation finally opened up and talked about Gay people.”
It took twenty years, but Dade re-authored the anti-discrimination ordinance. Opposition again tried to repeal it, but the voters of Dade County said “not this time” and backed it with 56 percent of the vote.In this case, the boycott served as a vehicle to rally progressive groups and individuals to a cause, and it diminished Anita Bryant’s career. And although the change in law occurred two decades later, the boycott was deemed a success.
Another example was the boycott of Coors beer that began in the 1970’s but ended successfully by the mid-90’s when the company changed their anti-gay policies.Not all boycotts lead to victories. Many are divisive and come off as reflexive counterpunches to a wide range of provocations. They make one feel good but they’re not always successful and could even induce a backlash.
Such was the case in the Chick-fil-A debacle last year. CEO Dan Cathy had made public statements opposing same-sex marriage and we later learned that the restaurant chain had donated large amounts of money to anti-gay organizations. Activists urged a boycott of the restaurant as a result.
However, anti-gay Mike Huckabee organized a show of support for not only the positions Cathy had taken but also his right to express them. On August 1, 2012, “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” resulted in record sales as over 600,000 RSVPed on Facebook to back the Huckabee event. Not only was the company rewarded by exceeding the effects of the LGBT-led boycott, but it also emboldened the opposition to marriage equality.Nonetheless, Chick-fil-A has since taken steps to re-examine its treatment of LGBT employees and its donations policies.
The proposed dual boycotts involving Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics seem to be knee-jerk reactions and short-sighted. Dade County in Florida may have felt the impact of an all-out boycott of orange juice, but Russia will simply laugh off a similar protest, urged by author Dan Savage, against their vodka. Stoli, the most mentioned brand, is not based in Russia though it uses ingredients from there. A boycott of that company is pointless since they did not craft the law nor do they support it.
Russia’s economy is pumped up by their exports of oil, gas, palladium, nickel, iron, chemical products, autos, military equipment and timber. The country has vast reserves of natural resources and they maintain a consistent trade surplus. The exportation of vodka does not even create a blip. Do you think that a handful of American gay bars’ refusing to sell vodka drinks will have any effect on the Russian economy? Do you think Putin would buckle under such minimum pressure?The proposed boycott of the Olympics in Sochi created more of a controversy. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein called for a boycott in an op-ed in the New York Times. But many disagree. Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis who could not compete in 1980 because of the boycott called by President Jimmy Carter a year following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and tennis champion Martina Navratilova believe the athletes should be allowed to participate.
LGBT advocacy groups All Out and Athlete Ally concur. And the LGBT Sports Commission said in a statement, “Rather than talk about boycotts, the LGBT Sports Coalition is focused on participation. Whether or not an athlete is a member of the LGBT community, everyone who qualifies for these Games deserves the opportunity to compete safely…We did not choose Russia to host these Winter Games. However, we can use it as an opportunity to showcase the damage of repressive governments like that of President Putin.”Then there is the question of why Russia’s treatment of gays deserve boycotts while other oppressive nations do not. Local activist Rev. Meredith Moise illustrates the discrepancy. “A transgender young woman was brutally murdered in Jamaica, hacked to death,” she told me. “Jamaica [as well as Uganda and South Africa] has been hell for LGBT people for years.”
The point is well taken. Do we hear about any boycotts of Jamaican rum? LGBT folks are literally executed in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. Do we boycott their oil?Rev. Moise adds, “This has led many LGBT people of color to speculate and conclude that if a crisis doesn't involved gay white males, it will never get the attention from gay inc. establishment it deserves. Is this really justice or just us?”
International and diplomatic pressure is the only path to change the situation in Russia and elsewhere. That’s an Olympic-sized challenge but has a better chance of succeeding than boycotts.