Vodka boycott in U.S. spreads on concerns over gay rights in Russia

Thu Aug 1, 2013 9:01pm EDT

1 of 5. A piece of carpet with a logo of Stolichnaya, a brand of Russian vodka, is marked with black tape during a news conference at Micky's nightclub in West Hollywood, California August 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn

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(Reuters) - Gay rights activists in New York City dumped vodka onto the street on Wednesday to protest new laws in Russia targeting homosexuals, as a growing number of gay bar owners across the United States vowed to stop pouring Russian vodka.

"Boycotts are set for a reason. We're trying to influence change, and maybe change what's happening in Russia," said Chuck Hyde, general manager of Sidetrack, the largest gay bar in Chicago, which stopped carrying Stolichnaya about a week ago.

The boycott was called last week by gay rights activist and Seattle-based sex advice columnist Dan Savage in response to anti-gay violence and restrictive laws in Russia. Since then, owners of mostly gay bars from San Francisco to New York have vowed to stop serving Stolichnaya and other Russian vodka.

Gay rights advocates in New York City, carrying signs that read "Russian vodka: infused with hate," gathered outside the Russian consulate on Wednesday protesting Russia's stance on gay issues. They emptied bottles of Russian vodka onto the pavement.

The call to "dump Russian vodka" came after Russian investigators said in May that a 23-year-old man had been tortured and killed after revealing to a friend that he was gay.

In June, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law banning gay "propaganda," which critics have said effectively disallows all gay rights rallies and could be used to prosecute anyone voicing support for homosexuals. Putin also banned same-sex couples from adopting Russian children.

The boycott has focused heavily on Stolichnaya vodka, which is made from Russian ingredients, even though the company has said it supports gay rights.

In an open letter sent a day after Savage's call for a boycott, Val Mendeleev, chief executive of Stolichnaya's parent company the SPI Group, distanced his enterprise from the Kremlin's policies and emphasized that the Russian government has no ownership stake in the Luxembourg-based company.

"Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community," he wrote. "We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference."

Russia is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Savage wrote in a column last week that an Olympic boycott was neither practical nor necessarily desirable.

"There is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other U.S. cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin's increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA," he wrote.

Savage was on vacation and did not immediately respond to an email request on Wednesday for comment on the widening boycott.

Ben Kampler, a bartender at the Stonewall Inn bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, said most gay bars in the area, including Stonewall, had joined the boycott.

"It's pretty much every bar in the area," he said, adding that the bar had asked brands like Absolut to supply vodka to match the Stoli flavors that are popular with customers.

Moby Dick, a bar in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood, joined the boycott last week but its owner, Joe Cappelletti, said he stopped it on Wednesday after learning that Stolichnaya has been a longtime advocate of gay rights.

(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, Edith Honan in New York, Laila Kearney in San Francisco; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Toni Reinhold)

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