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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August,9 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 32
The trouble in Russia - How should our community respond to the country's anti-Gay law?
Section One
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The trouble in Russia - How should our community respond to the country's anti-Gay law?

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

There's a big problem in Russia - and it has little to do with vodka.

The lives of not only LGBT Russians, but those who have immigrated to the country and those who are visiting, are being threatened - legally - by the passage of a so-called 'homosexual propaganda' law. This is a hate law. The Russian government, under the leadership of ex-KGB Lt. Col. and current President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, backed the law, which has led to numerous arrests, beatings, and bans against LGBT people and specifically prohibits the 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.' The controversial Russian law imposes fines on people for holding Gay rallies or giving information about the Gay community to young people. And now, activists are calling for all kinds of responses, including a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and (sigh) & a boycott of Stolichnaya Vodka.

But there's also a problem in America. And it, likewise, has little to do with vodka. The problem is we want to do something about this mess, but we just don't know what that something is. If only it were as simple as pouring vodka down a storm drain. But it's not.

PART OF A PROCESS
I think it is obvious that the passage of this sick law, which harkens back to pre-WWII when Hitler began searching for scapegoats for the state of Germany in the 1930s, is the symptom of a much greater disease. Sure, Putin and his cronies are homophobic, but did they really pass this law just based on their idea that homosexuality is a form of 'non-traditional sexual relations'? That's highly unlikely. Let's just cut through all the bullshit and remember that the Kremlin has spent a year honing its anti-American rhetoric on issues ranging from the adoption of Russian children to missile defense in Europe to the civil war in Syria. And, lest we forget, Russia's decision last week to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, who is wanted in the U.S. for leaking the secrets of American intelligence agencies. All of these things, says President Obama, were factors in his decision to cancel a proposed meeting with Putin before or after the G-20 Summit next month.

'Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia summit in early September,' White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in an August 7 statement.

Carney told members of the press that given the lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months, 'we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.'

Obama said Tuesday night in an appearance on The Tonight Show, 'There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality, and what I consistently say to them and what I say to President Putin is that's the past, and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.'

Obama also described his frigid rapport with Putin. 'Well, you know, the truth is that when we had meetings we could have some pretty blunt exchanges, animated exchanges, but that seems to be his preferred style during press conferences is sitting back and not looking too excited,' Obama said. 'Now, part of it is he's not accustomed to having press conferences where you've got a bunch of reporters yelling questions at you.'

OBAMA DENOUNCES NEW LAW
However, according to Obama Administration officials, the passage of the anti-LGBT law in Russia played a part in his decision to cancel on Putin. On Tuesday night Obama told Jay Leno, 'I have no patience for countries that try to treat Gays or Lesbians or Transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.'

'One of the things I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly because that's what we stand for, and I believe that that's a precept that's not unique to America. That's just something that should apply everywhere,' he said.

So what now, then? Let's start with the proposed boycott of Stoli vodka.

By now you've no doubt heard of, or perhaps participated in, the boycott of Stoli. When video footage of LGBT teens being bullied, sprayed with urine, and worse were first released, Seattle-based sex columnist and Gay rights activist Dan Savage called for a boycott of Stoli. The call was answered. As many as 200 bars in New York participated in the Stoli ban, and some even took to the streets to pour out bottles still on the shelves.

SEATTLE BARS DUMP STOLI
In Seattle, R Place and Diesel were among the first Gay drinking establishments to ban Stoli.

'Unfortunately, oppressive regimes have existed throughout the beginning of humankind,' R Place officials posted on Facebook. 'One effective tool in ending discrimination is through the mode of boycott. Boycotts helped end apartheid, spurred the civil rights movement, and curbed potential atrocities. Major governments use a form of boycott to suppress aid in an attempt to eliminate human rights violations. We understand the frustrations tied to this affects entire populations. Sometimes things need to cause a little discomfort to send a bigger message to enforce change. Losing a little revenue pales in comparison to the suffering tied to discrimination, imprisonment, and even death.

'We are aware that on a global basis this #?Dumprussianvodka? boycott may have little impact to Russia's vodka profits,' R Place officials continued, referencing information from an excerpt from The Wire, 'Now, will this push be enough to actually hurt Russia's vodka companies and effect change? There is evidence, according to one marketing study, that 45 percent of Gay men and 44 percent of Lesbians who drink prefer to drink vodka. That's a solid number, but given that LGBT people are just a small number of the general population, the boycott could be futile.

'As futile as this may seem, this movement is designed to bring awareness to this outrage,' continued the statement from the popular neighborhood Gay bar. 'R Place and many other Gay bars join in solidarity to give a voice to our oppressed Russian LGBT brothers and sisters.'

Of course, all of that took place during the onset of when news of the law, and its subsequent consequences, began to surface. People were angry and wanted to direct their anger towards more than just Putin. After all, Putin is half a world away. Once Savage named Stoli the target, people began to take aim.

LGBT-FRIENDLY?
But then SPI Group, the parent company of Stolichnaya Vodka, fired back. SPI Group CEO Val Mendeleev has taken pains to distance the company from the Russian government, recently saying that his company 'has been a friend of the LGBT community and has been an opponent of the Russian government.'

Stoli is 'not a Russian company,' but does employ 'several hundred' of its 2,500 employees in the country, according to Mendeleev. Stoli operates a distillery in Russia and gets its ingredients from there as well.

As of August 7, SPI Group's 'Culture and People' section of its website has a new paragraph under 'Employee Welfare' that reads, 'SPI Group is an equal opportunity employer. SPI Group does not and will not discriminate in employment or personnel practices on the basis of race, sex, age, sexual orientation, handicap, religion, or national origin.'

While the policy indicates that the parent company does not discriminate against people based on 'sexual orientation,' it should be noted that it does not include a clause protecting members of the Transgender community. The website also does not include information about the benefits offered to same-sex couples compared to straight couples.

OWNERSHIP DISPUTE
And there's more. According to information provided to Seattle Gay News by a source close to SPI Group, the brand is solely owned by ex-Russian entrepreneur Yuri Scheffler, who was forced out of Russia over 10 years ago and currently lives in London and Geneva. Scheffler legally acquired the Stolichnaya brand in 1997 and SPI Group currently sells vodka under that name in over 150 countries, including the U.S. and Canada.

According to the source, 'For over a decade, the Russian state-owned FKP Soyuzplodoimport has owned and operated the Stolichnaya brand in Russia. It was seized from SPI Group by the Russian government in 2001 and illegitimately 'nationalized.' Since that time, we have been locked in a legal battle with the Government over the ownership of the trademark.'

In 2000, within weeks of taking office, the new Russian government issued an order to confiscate the Stoli brand without compensation to SPI. 'Our offices were raided, our files taken. The Russian courts, being what they are, supported the government over our claims,' said the source.

The company was soon thereafter forced to move its headquarters to Europe (today it is in Luxembourg). Unfortunately, the Russian government did not stop there and since 2000 has been trying to seize the brand in other countries.

'Since SPI Group was kicked out of Russia, we have been fighting the government tooth-and-nail in courts around the world to retain control of our brand in the 150 countries we sell Stolichnaya Vodka,' continued the source. 'They have used friendly lawyers, misleading press releases, and other tactics to try and confuse the public and grab control of the brand from us. It drives them crazy that we continue to sell this high-quality vodka outside their control.'

'Our influence in Russia is limited because Stoli cannot have any sales, marketing or PR activities in the country; however, we have been one of the few companies over the past decade that has been very vocal in the fight with the Russian State about numerous matters including the ownership of the brand in Russia,' they said.

ASSURANCES OF SUPPORT
SPI Group told Seattle Gay News, 'We support the LGBT community around the world to be free and equal members of society and free from persecution and laws that prevent their freedom. Therefore we oppose the laws recently passed by the Russian government against the LGBT community there and the violent attacks members and supporters of that community have endured.'

'While our sponsorships of Pride events are most widely known, we do support the LGBT community through other programs and nonprofits that need outside support to function and produce their events,' said SPI officials. 'Nevertheless, as the situation in the Russian LGBT community has significantly deteriorated over the past few weeks, we are actively studying this matter and looking into what is in our power to do to help, including making donations to charities or NGOs that will be better equipped than us to lobby against the laws.'

In addition, SPI officials told SGN, 'We wanted to make it clear that while we are proud of our Russian heritage, we are not a Russian state-owned brand nor do we support their laws and actions against the LGBT community there. Over the past four years our marketing campaign has been focused on originality and the diversity of people and respect of different people when different people have fun and enjoy their lives and delivering a consistent product that is the highest quality on the market.'

SPI also addressed the allegations that they use Russian workers and goods when distilling the vodka. 'Stoli's production process involves both Russia and Latvia. Stoli is made from Russian ingredients (wheat, rye, and raw alcohol) blended with pure artesian well water at our historic distillery and bottling facility, Latvijas Balzams, in Riga, Latvia (formerly part of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union, today an independent state part of the E.U.), which has been one of its main production and bottling facilities since 1948.'

The takeaway from all of this, I think, is that the pro-Stoli boycott folks aren't wrong, and neither are those who say they won't participate in the boycott. What Dan Savage was able to successfully do is give people a focus point, locally, and begin the conversation about what we intend to do about the trouble in Russia. That conversation has sustained for well over three weeks now. Mission accomplished, Mr. Savage.

TO BOYCOTT, OR NOT?
Then there is the question of what should be done about the Olympics. At first, the simple answer would be for all democratic nations to boycott the 2014 Games, to be held in the Russian resort city of Sochi. But what activists have learned about this issue is that it ain't that simple.

Nearly 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on people to 'Stand Against Russia's Brutal Crackdown on Gay Rights: Urge Winter Olympics 2014 Sponsors to Condemn Anti-Gay Laws.'

'In Russia, it is basically illegal to say that you are Gay,' said the petition's sponsor. 'You cannot kiss your partner in public. You can't have a rainbow flag in public. You can't even acknowledge that you are Gay, or else you face possible imprisonment and fines.'

'Russia is becoming one of the most anti-Gay places in the entire world. But it's also going to hold the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where the world is supposed to come together in a spirit of community and togetherness,' continued the sponsor. 'But how could LGBT people and their families be welcome, when they run the risk of being thrown in jail or fined just for being who they are?'

RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking American association for members of the Gay community, says that LGBT athletes and spectators will not be safe in Sochi. The petition sponsor says that given the Russian government's recent actions toward LGBT people, nobody should feel safe during the Olympic Games.

'That's why I'm asking the major sponsors and partners of the Sochi 2014 Olympic games - Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Visa - to condemn Russia's anti-Gay laws, which are some of the most repressive laws in recent history, and pull their sponsorship from Russia's Olympic games,' said the sponsor.

You can sign the petition here: www.change.org/petitions/stand-against-russia-s-brutal-crackdown-on-gay-rights-urge-winter-olympics-2014-sponsors-to-condemn-anti-gay-laws.

'It's time for these companies to put their support for LGBT people first, and send a message to Russia that their anti-Gay laws are not only contrary to basic human rights, but fly in the face of the spirit of the Olympic Games, which celebrate human dignity and community above all else,' concludes the Change.org petition.

MOVE THE GAMES?
Another tactic, say activists, is to move the Olympic Games out of Sochi, and Russia, altogether.

LGBT Activist and U.S. Navy Veteran Brian Stone said in a Huffington Post op-ed, 'If we don't boycott the Olympics, we're going to be watching NBC's beautiful landscapes of the Russian countryside while Gays and Lesbians are beaten to death in the dark streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow.'

Stone asks, 'Are we going to allow a repeat of 1936, when the Nazi regime used the Berlin Summer Olympics as a propaganda front?'

He also supports the boycott of corporate sponsors. 'We need to tell the world that any products advertised during the Olympic Games in Sochi are going to be boycotted indefinitely. Corporations have no right to our business, or to our family and friend's business, if they are going to try to sell products during a Russian propaganda festival.'

'Russia and the Russians have made their choice,' he said. 'And they've chosen a homophobic dictatorship. It's past time we stopped rewarding them for it.'

MUTKO'S MIXED MESSAGE
Urging critics of Russia's new anti-Gay law to 'calm down,' the country's sports minister said last week that the rights of all athletes competing at next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi will be respected.

Vitaly Mutko did, however, insist that athletes would 'have to respect the laws of the country' during the Feb. 7-23 games in the Black Sea resort in southern Russia.

Mutko said 'the athletes can come and compete,' and the chase for medals should be their primary concern.

'This is a sports forum,' he went on. 'This is a sports festival and we have to talk only about it.'

He insisted that, beyond the law, Russia has 'a constitution that guarantees to all citizens rights for the private life and privacy.'

'Rest assured that all the athletes and all the sports organizations should be relaxed,' he added, saying the issue had been blown out of proportion by a groundswell of protest and unease outside Russia.

FRY'S IMPASSIONED PLEA
Openly Gay actor Stephen Fry wrote an open letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee calling for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The letter is receiving a lot of attention because Fry compares Putin to Hitler.

'An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere - in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world,' said Fry.

'He is making scapegoats of Gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. I know whereof I speak. I have visited Russia, stood up to the political deputy who introduced the first of these laws, in his city of St. Petersburg. I looked into the face of the man and, on camera, tried to reason with him, counter him, make him understand what he was doing,' he said. ' All I saw reflected back at me was what Hannah Arendt called, so memorably, 'the banality of evil.' A stupid man, but like so many tyrants, one with an instinct of how to exploit a disaffected people by finding scapegoats.

'Putin may not be quite as oafish and stupid as Deputy Milonov, but his instincts are the same,' Fry continued. 'He may claim that the 'values' of Russia are not the 'values' of the West, but this is absolutely in opposition to Peter the Great's philosophy, and against the hopes of millions of Russians, those not in the grip of that toxic mix of shaven-headed thuggery and bigoted religion, those who are agonized by the rolling back of democracy and the formation of a new autocracy in the motherland that has suffered so much (and whose music, literature and drama, incidentally, I love so passionately).'

'I am Gay. I am a Jew. My mother lost over a dozen of her family to Hitler's anti-Semitism,' he concludes. 'Every time in Russia (and it is constantly) a Gay teenager is forced into suicide, a Lesbian 'correctively' raped, Gay men and women beaten to death by neo-Nazi thugs while the Russian police stand idly by, the world is diminished and I for one, weep anew at seeing history repeat itself.'

IAAF KEEPS ITS DISTANCE
The International Association of Athletics Federations has urged Russia to reconsider its views on Gay rights, but the head of track and field's ruling body said Thursday the federation did not want to raise political issues about the law.

'I don't have the feeling there is a problem whatsoever,' IAAF President Lamine Diack said. 'There is a law that exists. The law has to be respected. Some things have to be respected. We are here for the world championships.'

The trouble is, the law that the IAAF president wants respected is leading to the senseless and violent deaths of LGBT Russians.

In May, a 23-year-old man was tortured to death in Russia in an apparent homophobic attack, investigators said, amid the rise in anti-Gay sentiments in the country.

The victim's battered and naked body was found in the courtyard of an apartment building in the southern city of Volgograd on May 11.

The young man had suffered numerous injuries, including to the genitalia, and had been sodomized with several beer bottles.

'He was raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed with a stone,' Natalia Kunitskaya, a spokeswoman for the Volgograd region branch of the Investigative Committee, said.

She confirmed the attack was believed to have been a hate crime, in a rare admission from Russian law enforcement agencies on the sensitive issue of homophobia in the country.

In June, a 39-year-old airport senior airport administrator was savagely stabbed and trampled to death before his body was stuffed in a box, placed in his car and set on fire.

TEENAGERS TARGETED
In July, Gay victims aged 12-16 were reportedly lured in by group Occupy-Pedofilyay, led by Maxim Martsinkevich, known under the nickname 'Cleaver.' Videos were then filmed and circulated of the victims being made to come out as Gay, with parents, schools, or friends finding out about their sexuality.

An uncensored image of one of the victims, covered in red paint, holding a sex toy, and being held down, appeared on the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance blog, as well as a video of the torture of one victim who was sprayed with urine in public.

A report from May notes that 19-year-old Alex Bulygin, a victim of the 'fighters with pedophiles' branch of the group, committed suicide after having his sexuality revealed online.

The group was established with the intention of revealing the identities of pedophiles, but after turning to adult Gay men, it has now begun targeting teenage boys.

The Spectrum report says that no police action has been taken against the incidents, despite numerous victims, and that more than 500 similar groups have been formed across Russia using the VK social networking site.

SOSEA RESPONDS
As co-founder and president of Social Outreach Seattle, I can tell you that my organization is not taking this issue lightly. Last Friday, we held an awareness rally, 'To Russia With Love' to protest these terrible crimes and the law that the Russian government and so many of its people have embraced. We are planning future actions at the Consulate General of the Russian Federation's office (600 University St., Suite 2510, One Union Square Building, Seattle). Please visit www.socialoutreachseattle.com for more information. There is more that can be done and we intend to build a coalition of organizations that call on the Russian government to undo this law, police its people, and stop the hate and cruelty it is inflicting on its LGBT citizens.

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