A response to Katrina vanden Heuvel’s dreadful “gay Russia” oped

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the liberal magazine the Nation, had a rather odd op ed in the Washington Post this morning, criticizing the international gay community’s work to date in challenging Russia’s anti-gay crackdown.

I say “odd” because the piece was simply awful, and vanden Heuvel is anything but.

I’ve met Katrina a few times – over a long dinner at a mutual friend’s house, and also once while giving a presentation in her office in NYC.  I was, and remain, mightily impressed by her intellect, grace, and ability to communicate complex ideas in a manner that anyone can understand.  She’s one of the “good guys,” which is why I’m so perplexed that she could pen something so bad.

Photos of Stoli vodka dump at Russian consulate in NYC by ©Scott Wooledge.

Queer Nation/RUSA LGBT Russian vodka dump at Russian consulate in NYC by ©Scott Wooledge

First, let me say, that if I hear one more person tell me that the past month has been an abysmal failure, my head is going to explode.  The story of Russia’s horrific crackdown on its gay and trans citizens was next-to-nowhere on the western radar for at least two years now.  Sure, the gay blogs have written about it, and the NYT had an occasional story, but that was it.  Most straight people had never heard about the issue, most Olympic athletes had never voiced an opinion, and most governments were mum.

Then three things happened.

On July 21, 2013, Harvey Fierstein penned a blistering op ed about Russia in the New York Times.

On July 22, 2013, Matt Stopera at Buzzfeed posted 36 horrific photos of anti-LGBT violence in Russia.

And on July 24, 2013, Dan Savage called for a boycott of Russian vodka.

Harvey laid the kindling.  Matt lit the match.  And Dan poured the vodka and watched it explode into a grassroots and media frenzy, as Queer Nation, RUSA LGBT and others implemented the vodka boycott ground game that got us to where we are today.

As compared to the last two years, the last month has seen more news coverage on this issue, both domestic and international, than we’ve likely seen on any gay issue in the history of the world.

And that ain’t nothing.

Photos of Stoli vodka dump at Russian consulate in NYC by ©Scott Wooledge.

Queer Nation/RUSA LGBT Russian vodka dump at Russian consulate in NYC by ©Scott Wooledge

Not to mention, the very fact that our critics felt the need to, and were given permission to, criticize our effectiveness in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post only goes to the prove the impact we’ve had.  Those papers don’t permit you to write about things that don’t matter and haven’t made an impact.

At the risk of repeating myself – but clearly, I must – the first stage in any activist campaign is getting noticed.  We can’t energize our grassroots ground-troops if we don’t educate them first.  And we can’t educate them unless we tick them off, while at the same time getting the attention of the traditional media, which then runs stories which further tick off the troops, and so on.  Harvey, Matt and Dan created a perfect storm of anger that got the attention of the media and the grassroots, finally putting this story on the map.

Blog coverage of the Russia gay story

Let’s look at blog coverage alone over the past three months.  Below are two graphs.  The first, a sort of light salmon colored graph, shows the instances of blogs mentioning the words “Russia” and “gay.”  The second graph, in navy blue, shows the instances of blogs mentioning the words “vodka” and “boycott.”

You can clearly see that in June the issue was simmering in the news, but it was only until Harvey (red vertical line), Matt (green vertical line) and Dan (yellow vertical line) weighed in that the issue exploded, and remained in the news consistently.


But let’s go further back than two months.  This crackdown has been going on for a few years now.  So here is the incidence of Google searches on the words “Russia” and “gay” over the past three years (from January of 2011 to today):


As you can see the story blipped up in the news significantly perhaps five times over the two-and-a-half year period before this past month’s explosive coverage.

So let’s put to rest this rather bizarre discussion of how well everything was going on this issue until the “boycott” campaign kicked in.

Now, let me walk through vanden Heuvel’s other major concerns, which included quoting the top 3 stories that were critical of our campaign, yet quoting none that praised it.

We have 34 Russians already working on our campaign, and they say it’s working

Here’s vanden Heuvel:

Yet it’s not all that clear whether today’s clamor, however well-intentioned, will improve the lives and human rights of gay people in Russia.

Well, it’s only been 30 days.  I’m not sure of any campaign to influence a government that expects total victory in one month, let alone one directed at a former KGB head.  But beyond that – no, it’s not clear if we’ll win.  So we should quit?

Vanden Heuvel goes on to say she wants a “more strategic response,” but never explains what that more strategic response looks like.

Reform within Russia is already an uphill battle, yet it will become downright Sisyphean if waged from outside without a careful understanding of that country’s social and cultural history.

masha-gessenYes, it would be good to be working with people who understand Russia’s social and cultural history.  That’s why we already are, and have been, from day one.  The campaign includes nearly three dozen Russian LGBT activists – including journalist and activist Masha Gessen, who recently authored a critically-acclaimed book about Vladimir Putin – and Russian LGBT group “RUSA LGBT,” a group of mostly Russian emigres headed by Yelena Goltsman, who is also a Russian emigre.

And one of those Russians, Masha Gessen, has already said that pressure from the West can make an important difference inside Russia.  Here’s my earlier reporting on Masha’s appearance on the Chris Hayes show on MSNBC:

Masha goes on to say that the reason Russia was able to move so quickly in the direction of homophobia is because no one was watching, the world didn’t pay attention.  Russia figured it could scapegoat gays and get away with it.  And it’s been a big surprise to the Russian authorities that we’ve fought back, and “it’s making them squirm,” she says.

“They’ve really squirmed,” Masha says, about Russia’s position on the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia next February. The Olympics are a big deal for Putin, Masha says, he personally lobbied for them, they’re his big international moment.  He wants the Olympics to go off without a hitch.

Masha adds: “As long as the pressure is on, it’s not going to make them reconsider those laws. But it will possibly make them dial back the campaign of hate, and it can prevent the passage of further laws, including the law on removing children from same-sex families.”

So now those arguments fall too.  (Though I’m increasingly puzzled as to where vanden Heuvel got her information from.  She’s smarter than this.)

Blaming the victim isn’t a strategy for success

Vanden Heuvel then gets into the question of whether gays fighting back against Russia’s horrific crackdown is a “blessing” for Vladimir Putin, who wants to use gays, and westerners, as his personal whipping-boys in order to rally his base of support at home.

First off, yes, we were all already aware of why Putin is doing this, and that by fighting back we temporarily let him pull an “aha!” on us.  So what exactly is being suggested as an alternative?  Doing nothing, apparently.  I’m not sure that’s terribly helpful advice for people facing an imminent pogrom.  And in fact, as Eric Sasson wrote in the New Republic recently, it also smacks of blaming the victim:

Russian vigilantes show off a young gay boy they claim to have abducted and then doused with urine after entrapping him via a gay social media site. Reports from Russia suggest the boy may now be dead.

Russian vigilantes show off a young gay boy they claim to have abducted and then doused with urine after entrapping him via a gay social media site. Reports from Russia suggest the boy may now be dead.

This does not mean the calls for boycotts are useless. Labeling justifiable outrage and calls for justice as useless and counterproductive smacks of blaming the victim. It’s not our calls for boycotts that may cause an increase in violence against the LGBT community in Russia, but rather the law which Putin signed in July—a law that has, in effect, codified Russian homophobia and stripped the Russian citizens of the one way that they could ever expect to effectively combat it.

Next, vanden Heuvel says both an Olympic boycott and a vodka boycott are unproductive.  First, both of them put this issue on the map, and got her to write about it in the Washington Post – when it was getting next to no coverage before – so I think both have already worked in achieving their actual goal: publicity.  Second, again I ask, what’s the alternative?

Vanden Heuvel continues with the staid talking point about Stolichnaya supposedly being a Latvian company. It’s not. Stoli is made in Russia and then bottled in Latvia. Even Stoli says that the bottling in Latvia doesn’t stop their vodka from being Russian, so I think we’ll have to go with Stoli on this one. Here’s Dan Savage quoting Stoli itself:

“And what I really objected to in your coverage on Monday night is you said I called for a boycott of ‘Stoli, which is actually a Latvian vodka.’ Which is Stoli’s argument right now. They’re out there pushing that lie, and if I could read you something really briefly which is, Stolichnaya’s distributor in 2008 to Vanity Fair [said], ‘Stolichnaya as it is sold outside Russia is distilled in Russia and moved from Russia to Latvia where it’s put in bottles. There is nothing added, nothing taken away, no additions, no subtractions from the product that leaves Russia. Stolichnaya is the original authentic genuine Russian vodka brand made with genuine authentic Russia vodka from Russia.’ Period. That’s Stoli talking about Stoli, so it’s a legitimate target of a boycott.”

Another talking point down.

But again, I ask: Who is she getting these talking points from?

And now to vanden Heuvel’s final point:

Trans woman brutally beaten by Russian vigilantes, who filmed the attack and then posted it online.

Trans woman brutally beaten by Russian vigilantes, who filmed the attack and then posted it online.

But in our rush to deplore this horrible anti-gay law, are we asking the right questions? Perhaps a fundamental one, as blogger Mark Adomanis asked, is: “What do you say to ‘be heard’ in a country with a culture that is very different from America’s?”

Doesn’t a truly effective fight for LGBT rights need to be waged in Russia by Russians?

A few things.

One, anyone who actually read Adomanis’ blog post, likely wouldn’t be quoting it. It’s classic Forbes conservative disinformation.

Two, the suggestion that Russians somehow differ from all other human beings on the planet, strikes me as marginally racist.

And, by the way, you know who else has a “a culture that is very different from America’s”?  Everyone.  Arabs. And Muslims. And Africans. And Latin Americans. And Asians. So let’s stop fighting for human rights, for women’s rights, for racial equality, for gay and trans rights, for worker’s rights and for immigrant rights around the world – since all those battles face the same cultural obstacles. Right?

Three, Forbes’ Adomanis worries about how we’ll ever get our message heard.  The thing is, we’ve already been heard – ask Masha.  Ask the various Russian leaders who have been forced to repeatedly respond to the increasingly sour media that Vladimir Putin’s star-achievement, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is now getting worldwide.  That’s not to suggest that the campaign is over, or has achieved its objectives.  But to suggest that we haven’t been heard, after we got the President of the United States to weigh in, at least three times now, is disingenuous at best.

Four, Russians have been our partners in this campaign from day one. But just as importantly, the issue languished for years until last month when our “ineffective” and “counter-productive” campaign was launched, and then all hell broke loose. If this is failure, give me more of it.

As Alexander Abad-Santos wrote in the Atlantic a few weeks ago, “the Russian vodka boycott is working, whether you like it or not.”  I just wish our allies would stop sniping at us, and start actually helping. In the end, that’s what would do the most to help gay and trans people under siege in Russia.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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