Stoli Guy Meets ACT UP, Queer Nation Again

For the second time in less than two months, a Stolichnaya Vodka promotional event at a Manhattan gay bar was disrupted by activists angered over Russia’s new anti-gay legislation.

Five demonstrators affiliated with ACT UP New York and Queer Nation stormed the stage at Marquee New York in Chelsea at the start of the Most Original Stoli Guy national finale, which brought together the winners from competitions in 12 cities. Blowing horns and holding up signs with messages including “Dump Stoli,” the group –– Mark Milano, Brandon Cuicchi, Terry Roethlein, and Chris Kohler –– brought the show to a halt for about a minute, before they were dragged from the stage by the club’s bouncers.

As the men were hauled away, one of the evening’s hosts said, “We are very lucky to live in a country where we can speak freely.” The host added, “And one of the things we are celebrating tonight is the passion that is the Stoli brand, and that is passion.”

In the three months since the Russian parliament unanimously enacted 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 –– activists nationwide have called for bars and their patrons to boycott Stolichnaya. 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.

The new law includes 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. More ominously, in the wake of the new law, videos and photos have surfaced showing gay and lesbian Russians who have been entrapped and tortured by homophobic thugs –– the release of the videos and photos motivated, presumably, by a desire to brag about the barbarous activity.

Some gay activists have also called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics planned for Sochi, Russia –– an effort supported by several dozen LGBT activists in that nation –– and pressure is being applied to major Olympic sponsors such as Coca Cola, Proctor & Gamble, and Visa.

Since the Stoli push began, SPI Group has sought to distance itself from Russia, emphasizing that it is headquartered in Luxembourg and that the vodka is bottled in Latvia. The company conceded, however, that Russian ingredients are used and that production also takes place there. Emphasizing the support the company has given to LGBT events and endeavors around the world, SPI has also argued that Scheffler is politically on the outs with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The law is widely seen as an effort by the Putin regime to scapegoat gays and their allies in the West for domestic political consumption. The Russian government has offered conflicting signals about whether foreigners visiting Sochi would face penalties under the new law, though activists have emphasized that is irrelevant to the primary question of how that nation’s own LGBT community is treated day in and day out.

While he was in St. Petersburg earlier this month for the G20 Summit, President Barack Obama met with Russian human rights advocates, including some gay leaders, the White House took pains to emphasize.

Activists including members of ACT UP and Queer Nation targeted an earlier Stoli Guy event at Splash on July 30 and dumped the vodka into the gutter at a demonstration outside the Russian Consulate on the Upper East Side the following day.