To Boycott or Not (or Why We Choose to Go)

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We were asked recently if we should be going to Russia, and be promoting specialty coffee events there, if we are also supporters of gay rights given the new laws passed by the Russian government restricting gay rights. The short answer is yes, we are going, but it’s neither an easy decision nor one we take lightly. What follows is some of the reasoning behind our choice.

Barista Magazine seeks to support and grow the specialty coffee community all over the world. One of the great things about coffee is that it is truly an international and co-operative endeavor. From the pickers, to the farmers, the exporters, the importers, roasters, baristas, consumers, and more, coffee is drink, a commodity, a labor, a delicacy, and an experience that binds us all together. We need the people up and down that chain, and we respect them and value their work no matter their ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Twenty years ago, Russia decriminalized homosexuality (beating the United States by a full decade), but recent moves by the Russian government to ban gay “propaganda” has, rightly, sent shockwaves through the LGBT community in Russia and its supporters around the world. In response, many LGBT activists in the United States and other countries have called for a boycott of vodka  and the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Meanwhile, this week in the U.S., a commemorative march took place in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” most famously known now as the event where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

When Martin Luther King delivered that speech in 1963, things in America were far different than they are now. For example, at that time, in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King stood, it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person. It was also illegal to perform “homosexual” acts, and to be openly gay was to risk persecution.

Great strides in equal rights for African-Americans and ethnic minorities have been made in America since then. Though there is, without a doubt, still much more work to do. Great progress has been made on the LGBT front, too, though many of the most momentous moments have happened in the U.S. quite recently. It was only in 2003 when the United States Supreme Court overturned Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct Law” in the case Lawrence v. Texas, nullifying many states’ anti-sodomy laws. And it was just in 2004 that right-wing political operatives pushed for gay-marriage bans to be put on the ballot throughout the country (perversely putting minority rights up for a majority vote), seeing gay marriage as an unpopular wedge issue to drive more conservative voters to the polls.

In fact, a majority of the American public did not start approving of gay marriage in opinion polls until 2010. Same-sex marriage initiatives did not pass via a popular referendum in any states until 2012. Barack Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage just last year, too, the first sitting president to do so. And just this year, the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act (passed in 1993, the same year Russia was decriminalizing homosexuality) was overturned by the Supreme Court, and today 13 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. It’s been a remarkable few years.

But 13 is still a long way from 50. And undoubtedly much work still needs to be done in the United States on the road to equality.

Feeling the whirlwind of progress that’s been made in the last handful of years in America as the tide has turned in public opinion makes the situation in Russia seem particularly jarring. Instead of gaining ever greater public acceptance as in the U.S., it seems as though the LGBT community there is being scapegoated, and the dark powers of prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry are being summoned against them.

Without a doubt, a boycott is one way of addressing legitimate grievances. The aforementioned Dr. King was instrumental in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, sparked by Rosa Parks, and her refusal to bow to discrimination. And for their efforts they and many other faced threats and violence, but ultimately their actions were successful. And it culminated with a Supreme Court victory desegregating public buses across the country. Boycotts (or threatened boycotts) against corporations have also been successful. They have made companies like Nike, Fruit of the Loom,and Nestlé, along with many others, change their business practices.

But another way of changing behavior and opinion is through engagement. When one person builds a wall, we can’t increase our chances at communication by building a wall of our own, and if we can’t communicate or interact, how will we even find common ground or conversation? The great turnaround in gay rights in the United States has not come through boycotts but through interaction, awareness, and advocacy. The truth is that the greatest enemy to prejudice is experience. The greatest weakness of ignorance is how it crumbles before knowledge. Fear thrives when the “other” is foreign, exotic, and unknown. Education is the force that drives bigotry away.

Here in the 21st century, homosexuality is still illegal in some 76 countries around the globe, including all of the countries of East Africa from Egypt to Mozambique. Draconian laws against homosexuality in Uganda have promoted stories here in Barista Magazine wrestling with these same issues (see “The Boycott Debate” in the June + July 2011 Issue) and what the appropriate response is.

It is especially challenging for many of us in the world of coffee because we have an idealistic streak, and believe that  our work can really change the world for the better. It is a revolutionary kind of trade that dominates the specialty coffee industry, where social and economic justice is at a premium just as the flavors found in exceptional coffees are. And yet how many of us would be willing to let go of access to many of the best African coffees because of their governments’ stance on gay rights? And if we were to boycott, how would such an action strike at the fear and prejudice? How could we educate from a distance? Would a boycott help coffee farmers from Ethiopia to Tanzania get a better price for their product and make better lives for their families? These are difficult questions, and it’s hard to find unequivocal answers.

Again and again, when considering the question, however, I land back on engagement. We at Barista Magazine believe the best chance we have to change minds and hearts is by showing the power of example, the value of variety, and the celebration of diversity that makes our community vibrant, hopeful, and strong. We believe we as humans have great potential and wisdom in our variety of experience, and we believe that when we meet with other people, we have the chance to further the conversation, make a positive relationship, and a create connections that can change the world.

I am  inspired by a recent story we had in the June + July 2013 issue of Barista Magazine where Iranian-American barista Laila Ghambari traveled to her family’s home country of Iran. Clearly the American and Iranian governments have been antagonistic toward each other for decades now, but what Laila found there in the coffee shops she visited in Tehran was not antipathy toward her because of her nationality—it was excitement! It was a chance to meet an American in person, and (even better in the perspective of many of the baristas she met) it was the chance to interact with another coffee professional who brought a different experience to the bar. It was the foundation of a new community.

These communities can take place anywhere, across any border. These are the same communities that musicians find wherever they travel and strike up a tune, that mathematicians find in their numeric equations, that sculptors and painters find as they practice their craft wherever they go. They’re the communities that chefs and bakers and baristas build whenever they meet up whether across town or on the other side of the world. We all speak a common language when it comes to sharing the things we love.

Sarah is going to be reporting from Moscow next week as this year’s Specialty Coffee Show in Red Square gets underway with the participation of nine notable and noteworthy international baristas. They will gather in that most famous square in the Russian capital—American, Italian, Greek, Salvadoran, Spanish, French, and Turkish ambassadors of specialty coffee—and they will celebrate, promote, and share their expertise, enthusiasm, and love for coffee with thousands of Russian citizens. Connections will be made, cross-cultural friendships formed, and hopefully a few minds will be opened to the amazing world of possibilities and interconnectedness that we all inhabit.

 

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!