Why Stoli Vodka and Harvey Milk Day Make a Nasty Cocktail

Stoli bottle with Harvey Milk branding.
Stoli’s limited-edition Harvey Milk bottle.
Bottle by Stoli. Photo illustration by Slate.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

This Tuesday, California celebrated Harvey Milk Day, a holiday to honor the influential LGBTQ rights activist who became the first out queer person elected to public office in the state. Milk, who was tragically assassinated 40 years ago in 1978, would have turned 88 this week.

Stoli Vodka got in on the action by releasing a limited-edition bottle of vodka bearing Milk’s name and image. Marketed as “the vodka for the loud and proud,” the bottle has a rainbow-patterned label and features a smiling Milk holding aloft his famous bullhorn, emblazoned with his quote “hope will never be silent.”

Not unlike vodka itself, this campaign leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Though Stoli says that an undisclosed portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Harvey Milk Foundation (who approved of the campaign), something about selling vodka based on a gay rights hero’s memory feels a little off. Indeed, Cleve Jones, a noted LGBTQ activist and friend of Milk’s, agrees: In a post on his Facebook profile he wrote: “‘If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet sell more bottles of Stoli.’ #NotHarveyMilk,’” playing grimly off of Milk’s famous line about letting such a bullet “shatter every closet door.”

The fact that it’s a vodka company is the main eyebrow-raiser: Now that the LGBTQ community has proven to be a lucrative market, corporations have wasted no time capitalizing on themes of pride and equality to sell to LGBTQ customers. But the alcohol industry takes this to a whole new level. Stoli has an official LGBTQ ambassador position, and this is only the latest of many alcohol branding campaigns marketed specifically to LGBTQ customers—remember Absolut’s “Interior Illusions Lounge” on RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Why the interest in LGBTQ buyers from such a specific industry? It’s good business. The LGBTQ community engages in disproportionately high rates of alcohol and substance consumption, which means, of course, more abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that about 25 percent of LGBTQ people abuse alcohol, compared to only about 10 percent of the general population. This is driven by a number of factors. Minority stress—the stress that marginalized populations experience due to low-level, frequent discrimination—is a clear driver of addiction. Substance addiction is one of the main coping mechanisms people use to deal with discrimination and prejudice, which can have devastating effects.

Additionally, bars were historically some of the only places LGBTQ people could go to safely congregate. The bar culture of the 1930s-1950s offered lesbians and gays the one public place they could go to socialize in relative safety. Back then, many bars were run by the mafia, who bribed police to prevent them from raiding their establishments.

In her book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, scholar Lillian Faderman writes that bars were one of the only places where lesbians could go and be safe being visibly out. She notes that lesbians attempted to form baseball teams as another way to socialize, but bars were usually sponsors of the teams, and it was tacitly required that “after the game you patronized the bar that sponsored you.” In doing research for their book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community, Elizabeth Lapovisky Kennedy and Madeline Davis found that many women who were historically involved in the bar culture were now too incapacitated from alcoholism to participate in their research, struggling with health problems and memory loss from the disease.

Once LGBTQ people gained more rights, bars continued to be a center of community, with gay and lesbian bars flourishing as scenes for entertainment but also community, friendship, and a respite from isolation. There’s nothing wrong with gay bars per se, but when bars are one of the main centers for an already-marginalized community, that leads to a high vulnerability for alcoholism. Alcohol companies like Stoli must know this, and yet they still market their products heavily to the LGBTQ community. When alcohol brands sponsor pride parades, have LGBT-themed products, and tout their commitments to diversity, rest assured they aren’t doing it simply out of the goodness of their hearts.

The kind of corporate pinkwashing Stoli is trafficking in is prevalent, but from a product that can lead to so much damage when misused, it is especially insidious. Stoli might actually be trying to help the LGBTQ community through their donations to the Harvey Milk Foundation, but more than anyone else, they are helping themselves.

A Forbes article about the Stoli campaign says LGBTQ people “enjoy a high degree of spending power and aren’t known to turn their backs on a good time or a good cocktail.” While this is certainly how Stoli would like to present their interest in the LGBTQ community, it’s a disingenuous way to minimize significant struggles with alcoholism as “just having a good time.”  We should all be skeptical when brands like Stoli claim to be advocates for our community. Ultimately their rainbow-colored bottle might look cool, but I’m not buying what they’re selling.