Local gay immigrant from Russia calls vodka boycott ‘good idea,’ reconsiders visit to his homeland during Sochi Games
David Wyrick hasn’t visited Russia in five years, but now he fears returning to his homeland at all in light of a recent anti-gay crackdown.
Wyrick, a gay Russian immigrant, moved to Oklahoma at 13 when he was adopted. He later moved to Dallas.
The last time he went to visit his Russian friends was before anti-gay sentiment became extreme. He’d planned a ski trip in February and hoped to see some of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But the trip may have to wait.
“I might have to reconsider until things calm down,” Wyrick said. “I might not go for my own safety.”
Wyrick said he has gay friends in Russia who are trying to flee the country. One friend was beaten up for being gay and the others fear for their lives.
Wyrick voiced support for the international boycott of Stolichnaya Vodka and other Russian spirits, calling it “a good start” to get the attention of the Russian government. Stoli should do more than sponsor LGBT events in the U.S., he said. The company should work with Russian citizens to help change the government’s views of LGBT people.
“From the LGBT perspective, it’s a great way to get your voice across and stand up for what you believe to be unfair treatment,” Wyrick said of the boycott. “For Russia, it’s a complicated web. They are a nation in identity crisis, led by a dictator who is enforcing his views rather than the majority’s.”
Most gay bars in North Texas continued to serve Stoli this week, despite the growing boycott of the company.
Randy Norman, who owns the Rainbow Lounge and Best Friends Club in Fort Worth and Cherries in Dallas, announced that his establishments would no longer carry Stoli. The Brick and Joe’s and the Deep Ellum lesbian bar Eden Lounge have also stopped serving it. The Dallas Eagle, meanwhile, reportedly stopped carrying Russian spirits a few years ago because of the country’s anti-gay views.
The local response comes a week after Seattle activist Dan Savage called for a Stoli boycott to start an international dialogue about the treatment of gays in Russia. LGBT advocates remain divided about whether the boycott is a good idea, but proponents say if nothing else it has raised awareness about the situation in Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a “gay propaganda” bill into law last month. The law prohibits citizens from providing information to minors about homosexuality and bans Pride rallies. Foreign residents face deportation under the law and gay tourists have already been detained in its short enforcement period. Putin also recently signed a bill forbidding same-sex couples from adopting Russian children.
The law has sparked concern about the safety of tourists and Olympians at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi next year.
Some have called for a U.S. boycott of the Olympics and said the Winter Games should be moved. But because those scenarios are highly unlikely, gay athletes and LGBT advocacy organizations are discussing the best way to make a statement at the Games.
According to the International Olympic Committee, the Russian government has said gay athletes and spectators won’t be targeted, but Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said Thursday, Aug. 1, that athletes and visitors to the games will be subject to the country’s laws.
Some cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Lansing, Mich. have tried to cut ties with their Russian sister cities unless those city officials speak out against the anti-gay laws. Dallas and Saratov, Russia, have been sister cities since 2004. Paula Blackmon, Mayor Mike Rawlings’ chief of staff, didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the city would consider ending the relationship.
But while the sister city effort has been slow to catch on, the Stoli boycott has caught fire, with Russian vodka all but blacklisted at gay bars from New York to West Hollywood to London and Australia.
The company that owns Stolichnaya Vodka, Luxembourg-based SPI Group, sent out a statement last week saying it isn’t connected to the Russian government. Company officials also clarified that the vodka’s production is divided between Russia and Latvia.
SPI Group CEO Val Mendeleev said in an interview with Michelangelo Signorile on SiriusXM Progress radio this week that the company has a distillery in Russia and uses Russian ingredients. Mendeleev said production in the country has been reduced over the years and that the company would look to other countries for ingredients, but he didn’t outline a plan to cut ties with Russia altogether.
In response to the boycott, Mendeleev said the company would make a donation to an unspecified group working on behalf of Russian LGBT activists fighting against the government’s anti-gay policies.
While SPI group owns the Stoli name worldwide, the company cannot sell the brand inside Russia, where a state-owned company owns and sells it. However, SPI still sells other brands in Russia.
“Stoli has been a friend of the LGBT community and has been an opponent of the Russian government,” Mendeleev said. “Stoli was singled out by the community with which we associated in a way that we don’t believe was appropriate.”
While the company has been a supporter of the LGBT community, its Dallas support has been waning, according to one local bar owner.
Howard Okon, who owns The Brick and Joe’s, said he’s stopped serving Stoli. He said although Stoli has touted its LGBT support in response to the boycott, the company pulled out as a sponsor of Razzle Dazzle Dallas in 2013 after being the major liquor sponsor of the June gay Pride event for the last two years.
“They had been a big sponsor of Dallas,” Okon said. “It left us to scramble to find another sponsor.”
Okon was in charge of sponsorships for the event and said the company told him they were pulling out of the gay market. It would’ve been different, he said, if Stoli was changing Dallas venues, such as deciding to sponsor Black Tie Dinner instead of Razzle. He said he won’t serve Stoli until the company offers an explanation or invests in Dallas’ gay community again.
Stoli representatives didn’t respond to emails requesting comment on the sponsorship.
Kristi Holman, co-owner of the Eden Lounge, said the bar has joined the boycott and will no longer serve or order Stoli.
“If there’s something that a group of us can do, the more of us the better,” she said.
Mark Frazier, co-owner of the Dallas Eagle, replied to comment on a DallasVoice.com article, explaining that the bar decided not to carry Russian spirits a few years ago because of the country’s anti-gay views.
Other bar owners seemed hesitant to take a stance on the boycott.
Chris Bengston, on-site events coordinator with Caven Enterprises Inc., which owns Sue Ellen’s, JR.’s, Station 4 and TMC: The Mining Company, said the company currently has no comment on the boycott.
Caven’s bars were still serving Stoli this week and were promoting “The Most Original Stoli Guy” Dallas search on their social media pages. The competition is Aug. 17 at Station 4.
Alan Pierce, co-owner of the Round-Up Saloon, said he didn’t plan to join the boycott because the company behind Stoli was a strong supporter of the LGBT community and “people jumped on board too quickly.”
“Stoli has an international presence in GLBT support,” Pierce said. “I think we should be careful before we rush to judgment. It’d be easy to say we disagree with Russia. We all do. It doesn’t have anything to do with Stoli.”
Michael Doughman, executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild, made up of Oak Lawn area bar owners, said the organization’s bylaws prevent the organization from getting involved in day-to-day operations of its members, including which products they sell.
“That decision as far as pulling the liquor from the shelves will be decided club by club,” he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 2, 2013.