Leading U.S. retailer Target disappointed human rights organizations earlier this year when it failed to push back against a wave of aggressive anti-LGBTQ behavior related to its Pride Month merchandise. Now Target has another chance to get it right, and the stakes are high.
Anti-LGBTQ activists confronted staff at several Target stores in May, during the runup to Pride Month. Instead of pushing back, Target removed the offending displays. “Target is pulling some LGBTQ merchandise from stores that it rolled out for Pride Month after confrontations with customers,” Jessica Guynn of USA Today reported on May 23.
Guynn cited a statement from Target, in which the company referred to “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety,” as well as "volatile circumstances” and “confrontational behavior” that influenced its decision to remove merchandise.
That decision was roundly criticized by hundreds of human rights groups in a letter organized by the Human Rights Campaign on June 5. However, some saw it as a case of better safe than sorry. The confrontations at Target go beyond the actions of a few scattered individuals. They reflect a dangerous environment of anti-LGBTQ entitlement leading to physical attacks on LGBTQ events and individuals. That includes confrontations sparked by the white supremacist organization Proud Boys, a group the Justice Department has connected to the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021.
This environment of entitlement has built up over years of sustained, state-sanctioned attacks on LGBTQ rights. Critics say former President Donald Trump imprinted anti-LGBTQ activists with approval from the highest office of the land throughout his tenure ending in 2020. That was followed by a fresh torrent of state-based anti-LGBTQ legislation in 2021, on the heels of the January 6 insurrection.
New anti-LGBTQ legislation has been cropping up ever since, including a rising tide of book bans directed against LGBTQ authors. That also includes anti-ESG (environmental, social and governance) legislation, which leans heavily on the “woke capitalism” canard to stop businesses from pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion goals.
Social media has also played a key role in raising the profile of anti-LGBTQ activists. The social media effect burst into full flower in April when activists aimed their fire at a promotional relationship between the trans actor and influencer Dylan Mulaney and the Bud Light brand of AB-InBev.
Rightwing commentators including Matt Walsh said the social media campaign against Bud Light aimed to "make ‘pride’ toxic for brands," Fortune's Ellen McGirt reported. Guynn of USA Today quoted another such activist, who wrote on Twitter: "Target deserves the Bud Light treatment. We will work to put the pressure on them."
Seven state attorneys general — representing Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and South Carolina — appeared to get the message.
On July 5, they issued a joint public letter to Target CEO Brian C. Cornell that all but threatens legal action unless Target stops selling any “potentially harmful” products to minors. “As the chief legal officers of our States, we are charged with enforcing state laws protecting children and safeguarding parental rights. … In light of these responsibilities, we wish to communicate our concern for Target’s recent ‘Pride’ campaign,” they wrote.
The letter sparked a wave of media attention, much of it focused on several products that the attorneys general singled out for removal. However, the letter is far more interesting for its recommendations on what to put in, not what to take out.
“It is likely more profitable to sell the type of Pride that enshrines the love of the United States,” they recommended. “Target’s Pride Campaign alienates whereas Pride in our country unites.”
“We live in a different day and age from our nation’s founding. But certain immutable precepts and principles must always endure so long as America is to remain free and prosperous,” they admonished.
As for what type of products and images reflect “love of the United States” and “immutable precepts and principles,” the letter leaves that up in the air. It does, however, strongly suggest that removing all LGBTQ symbolism from products is just the first volley in an attack on any kind of image that appears to be “anti-Christian.”
“Target also sold products with anti-Christian designs, such as pentagrams, horned skulls and other Satanic products,” the attorneys general note.
The anti-Christian accusation is sensational, but it appears to be woven out of thin air. The letter apparently refers to images in a weeks-old social media post that were identified as fabricated back on June 2, yet here they are popping up again in an official letter from seven state attorneys general.
Spotting “anti-Christian designs” where there are none is just one more example of the fact-free thinking that has come to characterize policy-making by many Republican office holders from the Supreme Court on down. It’s no surprise to find the same mindset at work elsewhere in the letter, where the attorneys general attempt to show that Target’s Pride campaign was an abrogation of its fiduciary duty to stock holders.
“The evidence suggests that Target’s directors and officers may be negligent in undertaking the ‘Pride’ campaign, which negatively affected Target’s stock price,” they charge.
That’s news to Wall Street analysts. Target's stock was on the downswing long before the Pride controversy, falling 32 percent in 2022, according to an April analysis posted on Forbes. The analysis, conducted by Trefis, linked the company's wavering stock price to “a slowing economy, supply chain worries and shifting consumer sentiment,“ along with inventory issues and higher logistics costs.
By May, MarketWatch discerned a spark of good news. “After a difficult 2022, when Target was one of the more highly visible examples of the inventory glut that plagued retailers last year, the benefits of being cleaner were notable in the [company's first quarter 2023] report,” D.A. Davidson analyst Michael Baker wrote on the platform.
Bringing the news up to date on July 6, the investor organization Motley Fool was even more optimistic. “Target is dealing with major sales and earnings challenges stemming from a sharp demand shift away from merchandise categories that were booming during the pandemic,” observed Motley Fool reporter Demitri Kalogeropoulos, who completely ignored the steamy rhetoric from anti-LGBTQ activists. “Yet inventory levels are down, potentially setting the business up for a solid rebound over the next few quarters."
If Target learned anything from Pride Month, it’s that nothing will satisfy anti-LGBTQ activists, whether it's an unhinged individual loudly confronting a store clerk or a phalanx of state attorneys general quietly issuing letters. The best defense is a good offense, as the saying goes. And the retailer has a real opportunity to change its tune.
Image credit: Daniel ODonnell/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.