While the #DumpStoli tag grows in the social media world, the debate over the effectiveness of the Stoli boycott grows in the activists world. True, Stoli probably isn't homophobic. Yes, Stoli is not even made in Russia. A public boycott has little to do with a desire to actually change the behavior of the Russian government. Consumer boycotts are one of the ways the American LGBT community communicates with itself. Some communities start conversations with buttons, or gestures, or cups of coffee. Americans boycott.
I suspect that many progressive Americans my age had this exact conversation in college:
"I'm hungry. Do you want to get something to eat?"
"Yes. Lets order pizza"
"I don't want that. I support a woman's right to choose."
The relationship between pizza and abortion is familiar to millions of Americans who wouldn't eat Domino's pizza because of the company's political contributions to anti-choice causes. No one knows whether the boycott had a major effect. For most people it was making a personal statement.
The Pew Research Center recently issued a major study on Lesiban, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community engagement. Thirty-one percent of LGBT adults say they did not buy a product or service because of lack of support for LGBT rights. This is a higher number than the percentage who said they attended a gay pride event (19 percent), donated to a politician or an political organization (15 percent), were a member of an LGBT organization (14 percent), or attended some other rally or march (9 percent). When asked about consumer decisions more than 12 months ago the number increased even more, 51 percent of LGBT adults say that they didn't buy a product because of lack of support for LGBT rights, 49 percent said they did a product because of support for LGBT rights.
In the late 1990s it was about beer. The Coors company gave massive amounts of money to the campaign of Senator Jesse Helms, the architect of many anti-gay laws. Gay bars had "Dump Coors" nights when everyone would take kegs out to the street and dump the beer in the gutters. Folks would hand out information about campaigns and campaign financing. If someone ordered a Coors the bartender would say "We don't serve Coors" and point to a poster on the wall explaining what the boycott was about.
Last year the Chick-fil-A boycott sprang from nowhere and was supported people in all parts of the country, but often only two people at a time. The owner of Chick-fil-A funded campaigns against gay marriage. In addition to some organized LGBT community actions, same sex couples began mounting spontaneous, self-directed protests. The boycott gave an opportunity for anyone at anytime to grab a pen, make a sign about gay rights, go to the neighborhood Chick-fil-A and make a public statement. Social media was covered with pictures of couples kissing in malls and parking lots in front of Chick-fil-As.
Maybe consumerism has become such a huge part of our culture that it is easier to talk about purchases than politics. I think it stems more from a desire for activity. I once travelled to (actually, to avoid offending I wont say where) a region of the world where there were ongoing incidents of anti-gay violence. For several evenings, I sat with the LGBT people there who would gather in the same lovely cafe and talk. Every night. For hours. It was dreadful. I thought maybe we were waiting for something or possibly someone was ill. But this is how it was done in that community. Asking them to stop talking and and change methods would have been illegitimate and unproductive. Discussion and (oh my god endless) analysis was the authentic method of building information and will.
Activity engages Americans. Possibly it is the same desire that anyone in the world has to define themselves. People everywhere want to have control over their own life and decisions. For Americans that occasionally is about what to consume, and why. For me the boycott of Stoli has nothing to do with its effect on the finances of a corporation any more than the use of the color purple everywhere in the community has a damaging effect on the use of the color orange. It's just not about that. If Americans want to enter into engagement about international issues and this is how that conversation starts, then by all means, pour the Stoli in the gutter and lets start talking about what else we can do. Asking them to stop is the equivalent of shutting down the conversation.
By the way, Chick-fil-A? The sales have increased 12 percent since the boycott started. Coors? After the Coors family gave a hefty amount to establish conservative foundations the company merged with the gay friendly Miller Beer. HRC now gives MillerCoors a 100 percent rating. The Foundations continue to be two of the largest conservative institutions in the country. It doesn't matter. It wasn't the point. Americans would do it again.