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Tuesday 13 October 2015

The shine and misery of LGBT boycotts

Posted in: Comment
By Alexander Lowë - 12th June 2014

'Simple living' poster by Nadia Plesner
New Zealand born Russell Crowe became a target of an enraged on-line gay community for his opposition to boycott a Beverley Hills hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel is part of the Dorchester collection hotel chain owned by an Investment company from Brunei, a country that had just introduced sharia law that lists stoning for adultery and gay sex.

The gladiator actor stressed out that while he supports LGBT rights he opposes the boycott being concerned with how it has been affecting hotel employees who he knows personally, their income and jobs, rather than making any impact on the 20bln worth Sultan of Brunei, who would hardly even notice if a hotel stays empty for years as do many of his million dollar palaces around the world.

But this position portrayed Russell as a villain in the LGBT media, becoming a target of thousands of abusive personal comments. And it does not matter that the actor has been a supporter of LGBT rights since his debut in the “Rocky Horror Show” play, also that the hotel in question is famous for its equality policies and has many LGBT employees.

It was Stephen Fry who called for the boycott of the Dorchester Collection of hotels, getting support from Ellen DeGeneres, Sharon Osborne and Kim Kardashian. Then more and more celebrities joined in, including Richard Branson, who put a company -wide ban for Virgin employees on staying in the hotel chain hotels. Designers and fashion houses followed the new trend with finally the 'Devil wearing Prada' herself, Anna Wintour, making boycott the official fashion fad for the season.

But only a few would know that this boycott had actually started over a year ago, well before sharia law was even considered in Brunei. It was organized by UNITE HERE Local 11, massive hospitality union with over 20,000 members across California that has been trying to unionize the iconic Beverley Hill hotel since 1990. By last year UNITE HERE had unionized almost all other Californian hotels, including the Hayat hotels, where during several years of boycott it used such tactics as waking up hotel guests at 6am with fire alarms and picketing LGBT gala event. The Union was looking for a marketing 'hook' to promote its boycott of the Beverley Hill hotel and then discovered that it was owned by the sultan of Brunei, one of 77 countries where homosexuality is illegal. So UNITE had wrapped its boycott into rainbow colours and marketed it to the LGBT media. But last year the strategy did not play out very well, the original on-line petition had not until today reached the required 200 signatures.

But all changed this year, UNITED stole gold with its campaign when sharia law came into force; the boycott gained snowballing attention from the celebrities capitalizing on the emotions of the enraged LGBT community that snaps at anybody daring to question it.

Ruth Hunt, the Active Chief Executive of LGBT charity Stonewall criticised the boycott suggesting consulting with the LGBT community inside Brunei before making actions that can actually damage their position. She claimed that LGBT rights progressed not because of boycotts, but rather through educational work and engagement with the wider community. “However satisfying protests may be, in the short term they’re often most rewarding to the individuals taking part.” - She said “The crucial questions for Stonewall are whether there is a mandate for the boycott and would such a boycott work? We believe the answer is no, on both counts.”

But Stonewall had to capitulate and reluctantly join the boycott after several days of a massive on-line bullying campaign where the most vocal and furious bashers did not even knew where Brunei was, could not afford staying in Beverley Hills anyway, but were still eagerly endorsing 'collateral damage' of possible LGBT employees layoffs for the sake of 'big idea', while refusing to make any personal sacrifices themselves or come up with something constructive and tangible for the elusive LGBT community in Brunei, a country of 400,000.

As for the celebrities, it proves to be so easy to cancel their bookings to a Dorchester Collection’s hotel and check into a Savoy hotel instead, or one of the Fairmont Hotels or Four Seasons properties that are all owned by the Saudi Princes who do execute their LGBT citizens. But celebrities can still get their frequent flier points and bonus publicity dividends for 'supporting LGBT'. And they can continue shopping in “Harrods” owned by Qatar, and fly first class around the world on one of the UAE carriers, courting sheikhs as their most valuable customers.

I can then only praise actress Rose McGowan who in these circumstances dared to join Russell and look at the humanitarian toll of the questionable boycott. She gathered LGBT party of friends and employees of the hotel. Her friend and fellow actress Amanda Goodwin said: “I am gay... I hate what the sultan is doing to people in Brunei. But I don't think that responding to what he's doing with more hate is the answer. I really feel that way. I think it's great that we're here, being gay, sitting on his sofa. I really want to gay this place up. Trust me -- the person who's suffering right now is not the sultan, it's my friend Ruth, who's been working in the diner downstairs for years, and can barely pay her rent." I believe such LGBT parties in defiance of Sultan in Sultan owned hotel are likely to be a louder statement and real PR damage for him inside his own country.

With all their history, boycotts prove to be rather inefficient, specifically LGBT boycotts. Gay activists boycotted now classical movies ‘Basic Instinct’ and ‘Monster’. Most famous recent LGBT boycott in the USA was boycott of Chick-fil-A restaurants due to the anti-gay stance of its owner. However, despite various loud protests and mass same-sex kiss-ins in front of the restaurant outlets across the states, company managed to increase it sales, proving the axiom that 'all publicity is good publicity'.

Another recent initiated by Stephen Fry boycott of the Olympics in Sochi has spectacularly flopped. Before that, protesting ‘gay propaganda’ law in Russia, gay bars across the world targeted Stolichnaya vodka, ignoring the fact that it has been a LGBT supporter for many years and that it was produced in Latvia, not Russia. But while Stolichnaya vodka (or was it water in used bottles?) was poured down the drain in front of the gay bars during the day time, go-go boys were dancing in tiny 'Stoli' speedos inside the same bars at night at company’s sponsored events.

Indeed, boycotts of a global company/event by a minority group seem to be only efficient as PR for their initiators and an advertising opportunity for the smaller competitors. When Barilla pasta was boycotted after its chief claimed that he will never feature same sex couple, numerous competitors jumped on the free publicity wagon advertising their 'gay friendly' pasta.

LGBT media interest to Russia's 'gay propaganda' law has been exploited with various companies promoting their rainbow stickered ice-cream, Soviet style underwear, fake gay Orthodox calendars 'in support of repressed Russian LGBT'.

Some pasta is more equal than others

Sochi Olympics LGBT controversy was also exploited as just another marketing opportunity. New Zealand's speed runner Blake Skjellerup collected over nzd 40,000 in donations from LGBT supporters in and outside NZ to get him to Sochi and ‘display a rainbow LGBT pin during the games’, effectively signing sponsorship deal with LGBT community for participation in games and promotion of LGBT symbol during the events, while rule 40 of the Olympic Charter forbids participants from advertising or sponsorship in relation to the games as well as setting any financial consideration for the entry or participation. He eventually failed to qualify and did not go to Sochi for any ground support at all, but still got awarded by GLAAD in New York.

Flamboyant US figure skater Johnny Weir had also used Sochi Olympics to the full PR potential. He was switching from downplaying the Russian law one day to scaring with it on the next day to become the permanent character on American TV, alternating between showing off his rainbow fur coat and Russian Army costumes, giving advices to the athletes on what to wear and how to behave in Russia. He failed to qualify as well, but got more than he could have bargained for by becoming the commentator during the events. Out in times for the Olympics, he has been brandishing his gay marriage to a Russian immigrant but chose to delete information about working for the Russian Consulate.

Last September AllOut had collected nearly nz$100,000 to support Russian LGBT, pledging half of the amount for legal costs of LGBT trials in Russia, while apparently keeping 50% of donations for internal operation. This donation scheme was slammed by the most known Russian gay rights advocate Nikolay Alexeev as “scam and money laundering”. He, the lawyer who successfully sued Russian Government in European Courts, pointed out that it was not clear who was going to get the money in Russia when there were no LGBT trials scheduled to commence, that Russian lawyers did not get paid anything near the collected amount and that he does not charge for his help during LGBT related trials.

AllOut had separately collected nz$15,000 for payment of court fee and legal costs for Russian LGBT organization 'Coming Out'. Interestingly, ComingOut had been fined exactly for taking overseas donations but not officially declaring itself as foreign aids beneficiary. Days after AllOut’s collection, 'Coming out' succeeded in getting the fine dropped and case dismissed, probably with the help of volunteer lawyers that it had advertised for on its website.

It is not therefore clear how well AllOut donations were spent but these tactics do not appear advancing LGBT rights in Russia or increasing acceptance or visibility of LGBT Russians. Only two gay activists turned up for the last month gay rally in Moscow, plus a Lada car drove by with LGBT banners.

Boycott of a global brand by a marginal group is indeed foremost publicity and PR campaign that could at most increase awareness of the issue rather than make something happen. Gay people boycott of a mainstream company could be compared to the vegan’s boycott of the meat industry - great cause but 0 chances of succeeding.

Yet education and shift in public opinions is itself the victory. For example, Organic eggs may never eliminate cage farming but they provide ethical choice for customers, both boost organic farming and encouraging better practices, higher quality and additional scrutiny for traditional farming.

We are all becoming increasingly cautious customers, reading through contents of product, checking if it was produced locally, if it is environment-friendly, healthy, balanced, does not include chemicals and is natural rather than GM. The next step for LGBT customers should be information on how ethical the company is, what is the company's equality index and what the company stands for.

Not only the companies but also celebrities are being increasingly scrutinized on ethics. Scarlett Johansson had found controversy when signed a deal with SodaStream. This Israeli Company has a factory in the West Bank, so Scarlet was effectively blamed for supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In another world, designer Galliano had been dropped by Christian Dior House for making anti-Semitic remarks. Mozilla’s recently appointed boss had not lasted in his job for long, once it was brought out that he made donations to anti-gay marriage campaigners.

Weather we are vegetarians, green, support organic, made in NZ etc. produce we should be all naturally committed to equality and responsible LGBT customers should have opportunity to support LGBT-friendly businesses. Small business sometimes display a rainbow sticker in their window to signal that they are gay-owned or gay-friendly, appealing to loyalty and protectionism of LGBT customers. Why don’t we follow the USA and Australia and introduce LGBT equality index for NZ operated companies so that businesses get opportunities to show their true colours and LGBT customers could make the ethical choice. So we could decide if we should fly on Emirates, Qantas or Air New Zealand, choose if we would rather spend our holidays in Hawaii or Cook Islands, think again about buying 'great straight” Fagg's coffee, anti-lesbian Moa or anti-gay Tui beers. We could reconsider voting for a politician who says 'gay' means 'weird', and reconsider donating to the Salvation Army or World Vision. And we could think twice about allowing radio host Dominic Harvey famous for his 'rug munching' remarks become 'queen for a day' in Auckland Pride Parade.

Let’s be less dramatic and more pragmatic. Before letting our emotions getting the best of us let’s check out who may be using particular issue merely as a marketing ‘hook’, who is initiator and real beneficiary behind the boycott, is it just a free PR opportunity? Let us responsible customers requiring true information on the issue, on the product, on the company, so that we could make the right choice and if required facilitate the change to better not worse for those affected with LGBT right violations, let’s stop celebrities from hijacking LGBT campaigns to shine in the spotlight amidst the misery of LGBT right violations.

Alexander Lowë - 12th June 2014

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