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Stoli Vodka donates US$300,000 to fund gay rights leadership program in the US

How far will donating US$300,000 to a gay rights group go to improve the brand’s image in the eyes of the LGBT community?
Activists from Gays Without Borders and the Facebook group Boycott Russian Vodka protesting outside the Original Stoli Guy pageant at a gay bar in San Francisco's SOMA district on Aug 14, 2013
Photo: Bill Wilson, Gays Without Borders

Having been singled out as a target of a boycott following Russia's ban on “homosexual propaganda” in June 2013 to limit the rights of the country’s LGBT people, Stoli Group (USA) has announced that it would donate US$300,000 to the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center in California, U.S.

Under the three-year partnership scheme, the funds will be used to support the Center's Leadership LAB (Learn, Act, Build) program to help current and future LGBT leaders and allies throughout the country and around the world to develop critical leadership skills, according to a press release issued on Friday.

"(W)hile we're also making gains internationally, there have been big and significant setbacks. Extremists, acknowledging they're losing the battle here, are expanding their influence in other countries by demonising LGBT people and attacking our freedoms. Their influence must be countered. This extraordinary commitment by Stoli Group USA sets a terrific example for all corporations," said Lorri L. Jean, Chief Executive Officer of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

John Esposito, President, Stoli Group USA, said: "Our position at Stoli is clear. We stand with the LGBT community in the fight for equality, and are proud to be working with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center to make our joint vision possible. Through our strategic partnership we hope to harness the power of our global community, cultivating leaders on a local level in the U.S. to create meaningful change throughout the world."

Stoli Group USA is the North American subsidiary of Luxembourg-based SPI Group which the company says is not affiliated with the Russian government. The Stolichnaya vodka sold internationally (outside of Russia) is distilled in Russia from Russian-grown wheat and rye, and further processed and bottled in Latvia while the vodka of the same name is made in Russia for the local market is owned by a state-controlled entity.

The boycott was first initiated in July by US writer and activist Dan Savage who appealed to the LGBT community to boycott the brands to “show solidarity” with LGBTs in Russia. The boycott, which was widely reported in the media, gained momentum with the support of LGBT groups while gay bars in the US and other countries reported that they have dropped Stoli and other vodka brands.

Last year, Val Mendeleev, chief executive of SPI Group said in an open letter to the LGBT community: “The recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you. I want to stress that Stoli firmly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparency and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community.”

With the Sochi Olympics opening on Feb 7, John Esposito, President, Stoli Group USA, in an op-ed published in The Advocate last week decried the anti-gay attacks in Russia and around the world and said that corporations like Stoli that support equality have a “responsibility” to “make a difference."

“These are not simply LGBT rights. These are basic human rights. Success in achieving them universally, unequivocally and irrevocably, will make the world a better and more humane place for all of us.”

News of the donation has attracted criticism online with many questioning the relevance of donating to a LGBT centre in the U.S. when needs of LGBT people are much greater elsewhere.

Will Kohler, a gay activist, wrote on his blog Back2Stonewall.com: “Why donate to a Gay Center in California, a state where sexual minorities already enjoy equality? How about the lives of LGBT Russians who have been raped, tortured, beaten, terrorized, imprisoned, silenced, or murdered because of the Nuremberg style laws.  If they were sincere and not just looking for free USA publicity to fight the backlash, Stoli should be donating that money to a Russian LGBT group. And as for the L.A. LGBT Center. We know you need the money but isn’t your integrity and the lives of LGBT Russians worth more than 300k? Whores.” 

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