Russia's horrific anti-gay crackdown is finally getting attention. That's the great thing about the boycotts that have been launched in recent days. Moscow journalist Masha Gessen, a lesbian and a mother, told me in an interview about reports that Vladimir Putin may push for a law in the fall to remove adoptive and biological children from the homes of gay parents (having passed the ban on homosexual "propaganda" earlier this year), an absolutely barbaric reality if it comes to pass. There's been little discussion of this or of other Russian anti-gay brutality in the American media.
So, boycotts are a way to get attention in an American media that values corporate and other interests over gay lives overseas. Some have called for the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Whatever you think of the idea -- and there's certainly well-reasoned opposition -- it's put the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the defensive and has NBC fielding criticism by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) of its contract with the IOC and its coverage of Russia's anti-gay policies.
Similarly, a boycott of Stolichnaya Vodka spearheaded by Dan Savage, Queer Nation, Cleve Jones and others has been brilliant at creating something to rally around, with gay bars worldwide dumping Russian vodka. (Queer Nation took it further today, launching a boycott, with the support of a number of Russian LGBT activists, of all things Russian.) Critics are skeptical that Russian companies can speak out in Putin's authoritarian Russia the way American corporations can critique their own government or even the Russian government, but it's undeniable that the vodka boycott has brought global media attention to the issue.
So, all good. But for the long term it will be necessary to target powerful entities right here in the U.S. who are beholden to American consumers and voters, are vulnerable on the issue and could put pressure on both the U.S. and Russian governments. Here are five:
Procter & Gamble. "Barely an hour goes by on Russia's biggest TV networks without at least one ad from Procter & Gamble, whose ubiquitous spots for shampoos, toothpaste and maxi pads have made it Russia's biggest television advertiser," the Wall Street Journal reported last year. Yes, P&G, the American multinational behemoth headquartered in Cincinnati, sinks millions into state-owned, pro-government, homophobic Russian television, and even faced a boycott threat from pro-democracy activists within Russia. P&G has a 90 percent on HRC's Corporate Equality Index and surely doesn't want its image as LGBT-friendly tarnished. P&G famously caved in to a gay boycott in 2000 when it became one of the first major companies to pull its advertising from CBS and Laura Schlessinger's doomed TV talk show after she'd outraged the gay community on her radio program, calling gays "biological error." (I was involved with StopDr.Laura.com at the time, along with John Aravosis of Americablog and others who spearheaded the campaign.)
Holiday Inn Express. And Hyatt. And Marriott. And Sheraton. And a whole bunch of other American hotels and hotel chains that have LGBT-inclusive anti-discrimination policies and, perhaps more importantly, have lucrative contracts hosting major LGBT-related events and conventions at their properties worldwide. "U.S. Hotels Investing Heavily in Russia," blared a headline just two weeks ago on the Russian news site Ria Novosti, reporting on what is a recent and dramatic expansion of American hotel chains in Russia. Marriott plans to open 20 hotels in Russia by 2015. Intercontinental Hotel Group -- which includes Holiday Inn -- will unveil 100 hotels across Russia by 2020. Chicago-based Hyatt Hotel Corporation has six hotels under development. Radisson, Ritz-Carlton, Hilton and Sheraton are all in on the new action too. Do these companies really want to be associated with a government that may snatch babies from their mothers' arms or, under the "gay propaganda" ban, will jail anyone, including gay foreigners staying at these hotels, for waving a rainbow flag?
Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave an historic speech in Geneva in December of 2011 before U.N. leaders, saying that "gay rights are human rights" and that it is "a violation of human rights" to commit violence or discrimination against LGBT people. She announced U.S. support would be tied to a nation's record on gay rights. But Clinton, also in her role as Secretary of State, was a cheerleader of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization and of U.S. companies investing big in Russia. (And though Russian gay activists pleaded with Clinton to address the Russian government's anti-gay polices during a state visit, she did not). "Russia's trading partners stand to benefit," she said at the time. "American exports to Russia could double or even triple." In a Wall Street Journal op-ed she penned just last June, Clinton wrote that investing in Russia will make it "a more just and open society as well as a better partner over the long term for the U.S." Does Clinton still believe that American companies should invest in a regime that has passed a law this year that allows the authorities to jail someone for speaking about being gay? Would she really like to see them expand their markets to a country that allows anti-gay mobs to bludgeon LGBT people in the streets and arrests gay activists for protesting? Shouldn't Hillary Clinton say something right this very minute if she truly wants the support of the LGBT community for a possible presidential run later?
Caterpillar. The company that produces heavy machinery positioned itself as a supportive of gay rights last year when it decided not to fund the Boy Scouts of America any longer over its anti-gay policies. Clearly, like Proctor & Gamble, Caterpillar bowed to pressure by gay activists. Also last year, Caterpillar, which has a facility it's been expanding just outside Moscow, became the first American non-financial company to release ruble bonds, which one analyst said indicated, "the company is going not only to invest in machine-building in Russia," but also will seek joint ventures. (It's been noted that Caterpillar machines have been "crucial" to building the aforementioned Hyatt hotels in Russia.) "The fact that such a well-known company as Caterpillar is not afraid to have business in Russia will probably inspire other Western businesspeople to follow this example," said another Russian financial analyst. What example is that exactly? Claiming to care about how gay boys are treated in the U.S. while doing business with a government that has criminalized speaking to gay boys about their sexual orientation and which looks the other way of neo-Nazis luring and torturing gay teens?
Ernst & Young. Until his retirement three weeks ago, James Turley was chairman of the multinational accounting and professional services firm (now rebranded EY) for 12 years. He also sits on the board of the Boy Scouts of America, one of two board members who publicly fought to end the BSA's ban on gay scouts. He's spoken out many times on LGBT equality, and he helped get EY a 100 percent score on HRC's index, something the firm proudly touts on its website along with its list of LGBT-related awards, including the Trailblazer Award from Out and Equal in the Workplace. Last September, Turley announced the opening of an EY office in Vladivostok, Russia to bring American and other companies to invest in the country, and was absolutely overjoyed about it. "Foreign investors in Russia -- Americans, Western European countries -- feel very positive once they are here and they have invested and they learn how to work in Russia," Turley told Voice of America. "Those companies that have been here for a long time want to increase their investment not decrease it. Companies that have not yet invested in Russia are still a little bit skittish." Something tells they could only become more "skittish" if it means being targeted by an angry and focused American gay community for investing in Putin's Russia, with its horrendous and increasing human rights abuses.
These are just a few of what are surely many more American interests, including many companies that enjoy high ratings on HRC's CEI and consider themselves pro-gay. As Russia moves in a very dark direction, a line must be drawn in the sand. American companies and politicians who court LGBT people are going to have stand against this brutal regime in no uncertain terms. And it must be expressed in actions, not just words.