A customer at the self checkout of a Target store in the Queens borough of New York, US, on May 16, 2023. Credit - Getty Images
Target’s decision on Tuesday to remove some LGBTQ+ merchandise from its stores following threats affecting its “team members’ sense of safety” has caused an uproar among LGBTQ+ supporters and activists who say the company is bowing to pressure from conservatives.
Target, which has nearly 2,000 stores nationwide, attributed the decision to violence they said their workers have been facing since its 2023 Pride Collection —which includes clothing like a “tuck-friendly” bathing suit and party supplies—launched in May. Reports of shoppers confronting employees, knocking down Pride displays and threatening the company on social media all influenced the decision, a spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. Queer activists say the company’s decision raises broader questions about corporate accountability when it comes to supporting marginalized communities.
“Anti-LGBTQ violence and hate should not be winning in America, but it will continue to until corporate leaders step up as heroes for their LGBTQ employees and consumers and do not cave to fringe activists calling for censorship,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD in a statement. “The fact that a small group of extremists are threatening disgusting and harsh violence in response to Target continuing its long-standing tradition of offering products for everyone should be a wake-up call for consumers and is a reminder that LGBTQ people, venues, and events are being attacked with threats and violence like never before.”
Target, which has been selling pride-related merchandise for over a decade, has not yet confirmed which items will be removed from its collection. (The company did not respond to TIME’s request for comment on the situation.)
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Some critics have made calls to boycott the store. “As the parent of a queer kid to whom their pride merch has meant a lot I can’t shop at a place willing to sacrifice such kids to placate hate groups,” said one Twitter user.
Bob Witeck, president of strategic communications firm Witeck Communications, says “Target has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to keep everyone safe”—and protecting its employees is important. Still, he notes that the company risks its positive credibility and reputation when it takes actions that “make their values ambiguous.”
In their public statement, Target said that its focus was now on “moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them.” But amid calls to boycott Target, experts say that the retailer has to take serious actions to prove to the queer community that they are serious about their values. That, Witeck says, can come in the form of donations to major LGBTQ+ organizations or by speaking out against legislation like gender-affirming-care bans or bathroom bills.
“Major brands like Target have a lot of power and strength in the economy,” Witeck says. “They should not shrink from using that voice to stand up for their values.”
Target is just the latest company to come under fire from the right for their support of the queer community. In April, Bud Light faced intense criticism because of their partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Hershey’s also faced criticism for their inclusion of a transgender woman in an ad for International Women’s Day.
The backlash against Target for the pride collection comes during a particularly tense period, with GLAAD reporting that marginalized groups are facing an uptick in violence. More than 160 LGBTQ+ community events have been threatened or faced violence in the past year, according to the organization.
Marketing experts say the current polarized climate makes it particularly difficult to manage a company. “Any brand right now runs the risk of showing up in a way that isn’t aligned with their ideal customer and alienating roughly half of the nation,” says Deb Gabor, CEO of branding agency Sol Marketing.
Still, for queer leaders like David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization representing Black LBGTQ+ people, Target’s response is profoundly frustrating.
“How does removing products solve root issues of hate-filled campaigns targeting minoritized communities?” Johns tells TIME. “What signals is Target desiring to communicate to our community, especially during this period of unrelenting assaults?”