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Target giving in to conservative pressure on Pride is not a great sign

Companies have been embracing Pride for years. Why is this year hitting different?

A “Take Pride” campaign in a Target store. A rainbow arcs over a table of merchandise.
Signage for Target’s #TakePride initiative in celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month ... in 2016.
Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Pride Month is upon us. It’s a time to celebrate and defend LGBTQ equality and rights. It’s also a time for corporate America to lean in on the rainbow branding, to let the queer community know that they’re with them — or at least they would like them to think they are for the month of June. But this year’s Pride is hitting differently, due to the current political climate in the United States and the anti-trans sentiment sweeping much of the American right.

Conservative angst about brands being too “woke” has been on the rise, specifically when it comes to appealing to queer people and, more specifically, trans people. Bud Light inadvertently kicked up a firestorm in early April when it sent a handful of beers to transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

The right is now on the hunt for more targets. It’s found one, pun clearly intended, in Target, which on May 24 said it would remove some items from its annual Pride collection after it “experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work.” To be clear, plenty of Pride-themed merchandise is still available at the retailer and is still featured quite prominently on its website. (These queer Tarot cards, for example, seem neat.) But Target deciding to pull some items is a sign it’s on edge, as are, potentially, many companies.

Given all the marketing campaigns in the pipeline for Pride 2023, it’s highly unlikely Target will be the last major corporation to find itself on the receiving end of conservative ire — and having to make some tough decisions about what to do about it. It’s quite the corporate conundrum.

“Companies are getting backlash that they’ve never gotten before,” said Joanna Schwartz, a marketing professor at Georgia College & State University who specializes in LGBTQ marketing. “It’s really hard to find products that completely disregard the LGBT market altogether, but companies are going to have to be careful about the way that they do product drops, just given the extreme nature of the political environment in the United States.”

For many queer people, rainbow capitalism has always been a bit complicated — a sometimes-uncomfortable corporate bedfellow that nevertheless did confer a sense of social legitimacy.

What’s different this year isn’t Target’s embrace of Pride, it’s the political context

Target has offered products celebrating Pride Month for years, generally without much pushback. Indeed, Target’s CEO, Brian Cornell, said on a podcast in mid-May that the company’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion “has fueled much of our growth over the last nine years.” This year, however, some people on the right began to seize on Target’s fairly par-for-the-course Pride marketing efforts to encourage a boycott of the retailer. Some made scenes in stores.

Much of the controversy appeared to center around misinformation that Target was selling “tuck-friendly” bathing suits for kids. As the Associated Press points out, they were only available in adult sizes.

Some conservatives were angered by Target’s partnership with Abprallen, a UK brand that they believe is associated with Satanist designs. Conservative media outlet the Washington Examiner posted about Abprallen, which is “headed by a self-proclaimed gay, transgender man,” offering sweatshirts that read “cure transphobia not trans people” and a tote bag that says “too queer for here.” It also points to a design on the brand’s Instagram that says, “Satan respects pronouns.” (Rolling Stone points out that while some of Abprallen’s designs do feature horns and pentagrams, none of that was on sale at Target. The designer behind the brand, Erik Carnell, also told the outlet he was getting death threats.)

In light of the blowback, Target put out a statement on May 24 trying to calm some waters. “For more than a decade, Target has offered an assortment of products aimed at celebrating Pride Month. Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work,” the company said. “Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior. Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”

Target did not respond to Vox’s request for more information on exactly which items it was pulling. Reuters reported that various products were “under review,” but the only ones being removed were from Abprallen. According to Fox News, some Southern Target locations are moving their Pride merchandise to the back of stores.

Target supporting the LGBTQ community is really nothing new, nor is the company facing backlash over it. In April 2016, after North Carolina passed its now-infamous bathroom bill requiring transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their sex assigned at birth, Target was one of the first companies to take a stand. It put out a blog post saying its workers and shoppers could use whatever fitting room or bathroom fit their gender identity. Conservatives called for a boycott then, too.

Companies aren’t allies

The corporatization of Pride has long been problematic for a multitude of reasons. Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos lays out the many issues in play here: Much of the commercialized support is empty, it commodifies “awareness,” and companies’ mouths are not always where their money is. Plenty of companies say they care about the LGBTQ community and draw attention to their donations to certain causes. At the same time, they donate to politicians who support anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation and ideas.

“Brands promoting gay pride and the LGBTQ community may not always be consistent in actually supporting the LGBTQ community, but they still capitalize on the help that people want to give that community,” Abad-Santos writes.

Target’s follies are a prime example of why corporate Pride is problematic on both sides of the political spectrum. The right takes its marketing efforts as evidence the retailer is selling out to the woke mob, that it’s betraying those with more “traditional” values and promoting more progressive values they don’t agree with or find offensive. On the left, Target’s backtracking, even if it’s relatively small, is evidence it is not sincere in its outreach to the queer community. It’s something many in that community have long suspected.

“Extremist groups want to divide us and ultimately don’t just want rainbow products to disappear, they want us to disappear,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, on Twitter. “The LGBTQ+ community has celebrated Pride with Target for the past decade. Target needs to stand with us and double-down on their commitment to us.”

It’s a tough situation for Target. It’s a corporation whose ultimate goal is to make money for shareholders. It doesn’t want to lose sales by angering conservative consumers by being what they might view as too overtly progressive. It also wants to make sales by appealing to LGBTQ consumers and their allies — and doesn’t want to risk losing sales by making them mad by appearing wishy-washy.

“At a time when the LGBT community is coming under attack so heavily both by legislation and by conservative media, this is a time when standing with the community, showing your concern, it really counts,” Schwartz said. “It’s easy to be somebody’s friend when the weather is nice.”

Part of the reason everything blew up so much for Bud Light is that its small campaign with Mulvaney, the trans influencer, was largely performative. Once the storm hit, it took the brand and its parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, very little time to start to panic and flounder.

Buckle up

It’s understandable for Target to be worried about safety in its stores. Target associates have not signed up to serve as security guards when someone waltzes into a store and has a meltdown over a sweatshirt that says “Super Queer” on it. It’s also understandable for the queer community and their allies to worry that the appearance of Target caving to conservative attacks over relatively mundane marketing and merchandise, even a little bit, will energize those people to do more.

“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,” GLAAD CEO and president Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement in response to Target’s move.

The right is aware it might be onto something that might at least work for a while. Conservatives can’t boycott every brand — because, really, where will those people shop — but they can make enough noise to make companies nervous. Right-wing commentator Matt Walsh has been quite open about the approach, advocating for picking a “few strategic targets” and making them “pay dearly” once identified. “That’s enough to make wokeness a lot less appealing to the corporate world. Stop trying to bring down the whole line of dominos at once. Start with one, and then the next,” he wrote on Twitter.

For brands that only saw dollar signs and never meant it when they said they were allies and cared about LGBTQ causes, it’s a tactic that might work, or, at the very least, probably has some boardrooms a little uneasy.

“Companies that were just going to roll out what they had planned to do are finding that in the wake of what has become a really polarized political environment, [those campaigns] are landing differently,” Schwartz said.

Pride Month isn’t going away, nor is corporate America’s embrace of it. But this year is distinct from years past amid the current state of America’s culture wars. A rocky rainbow-themed road is ahead.