An LGBTQ+ creator received death threats after working with Target

New York

When a Target distributor approached Erik Carnell last year about possibly placing his brand, Abprallen, in Target stores, he was excited.

It was “the biggest opportunity of my career,” Carnell told CNN. “I was ecstatic at the thought of being able to share my stuff with a whole new market.” London-based Abprallen, described on its Instagram page as “art and accessories for the proud, loud and colorful,” would go from a small start-up to a brand available at a major US retailer.

In the following months, Carnell pitched Target and came up with designs that would be appropriate for the big box store, he said. Eventually, Target began selling three Abprallen items for adults: A sweater, a tote bag, and a messenger bag, each with a different phrase.

But then things fell apart. About a week and a half ago, Carnell said, he began receiving hundreds of hateful messages including death treats, some of which falsely said the collection was marketed to children, as some people lashed out at Target over the Pride offerings.

By Wednesday, Target had pulled Abprallen merchandise from its U.S. stores and online marketplace, Reuters reported.

Seth Wenig/AP

Pride Month merchandise is displayed in front of a Target store in Hackensack, NJ on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

“Since we introduced this year’s collection, we have experienced threats that affect our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work,” Target said in a statement about this year’s Pride collection.

“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,” Target said.

Carnell’s immediate reaction was relief.

“The amount of backlash I’ve had has been overwhelming,” he said. “I just hope this is the beginning of the end of the messages and the attack I’m getting.”

But for a small brand, losing access to Target’s massive reach is a blow.

“When all this has died down, I’m going to be incredibly disappointed that such a great opportunity was taken away from me.”

But Carnell understands Target’s decision regarding his line.

“I don’t know what, other than withdrawing it, can be done to protect retail workers,” he said. “Their safety must absolutely be the top priority.”

Still, Carnell is disappointed that Target wasn’t more communicative with him about the decision. Although he has heard from a distributor he worked with, he has not heard from the corporate office, he said.

Target did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Abprallen was born out of Carnell’s affinity for drawing and a desire to connect with his queer community.

“I made a couple of sticks about six years ago and it’s been growing since then,” he said. For Carnell, work is personal.

“I take what I do incredibly seriously,” he said. “I owe it to my younger self, who was so lost and in so much pain … I owe it to him to make things that he could be proud of, things that tell him that who he is is not wrong. Who he is is amazing ,” he said.

When Carnell, who is trans, thinks about his younger self, he remembers a time “when I was a kid and desperately wished I was a boy and didn’t realize there was a way to do that.” Carnell knows his experience was not an isolated one. “There are so many people out there like him,” he said, referring to his younger self.

Courtesy of Erik Carnell

Erik Carnell in Abprallen products developed for Target.

With Abprallen, Carnell wanted to create Pride items that were more than “just a rainbow randomly slapped on a T-shirt.”

Abprallen sells shirts, elaborate pins and other accessories that juxtapose pastel blues, pinks and purples with skulls, skeletons and UFOs. The images are paired with a series of phrases, such as “Transphobia sucks” and “Gay icon”. Some are in direct conversation with specific events, such as “Witches and Wizards Love Transgender People,” a response to Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s heavily criticized comments about transgender people.

But one design sparked an online uproar.

The backlash against Carnell and Abprallen has largely centered around a design that says “Satan respects pronouns.” Online, an anti-LGBTQ campaign called for a boycott of Target, which displays images of the expression on an Abprallen t-shirt. A video circulating on TikTok shows an employee being asked if she supports “satanic Pride propaganda”. Carnell has been called a Satanist in the right-wing press.

But that particular design was never available at Target.

In early conversations, the dealer told Carnell that “Satan respects pronouns,” the design would not be a good fit, he said. The designs that ended up for sale are of a more neutral tone, with the phrases “Cure transphobia, not trans people”, “We belong everywhere” and “To queer for here”.

Still, Carnell wasn’t surprised when the partnership caused a backlash (though he didn’t expect it to be this bad).

“I’m not naive. I absolutely knew there would be negativity thrown my way, he said. “I understand that people are incredibly passionate about their hatred of LGBT people. And the current political climate is one that tells those people that they have a right to feel that way,” he said.

Courtesy of Erik Carnell

Another Abprallen product for Target.

On Twitter, right-wing commentator Matt Walsh described a targeted campaign that goes beyond Abprallen or Carnell. “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic to brands,” he said. “If they decide to shove this garbage in our faces, they should know that they will pay a price. It will not be worth what they think they will get.”

The virulent language, plus the threats reported by Target, come at a time when trans rights are under attack in the United States. Over 400 anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced in state legislatures this year through April 3, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, including bills that limit access to gender-affirming care for trans youth. Transgender people are more than four times as likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people, according to a study from the UCLA School of Law.

For direct-to-consumer brands, a partnership with a major retailer is often “the holy grail,” said Ian Schatzberg, co-founder of branding agency General Idea, which works with brands big and small. “It’s very expensive to run a DTC business,” he said. “The role that the retailer plays in the lives of these brands is very critical to their success.”

In general, “if they lose distribution, they can lose business,” Schatzberg said, adding that large retailers are “vital” to small online brands.

For LGBTQ+ brands, retail shelf space is “a source of economic existence, and also of pride and visibility,” Schatzberg said. General Idea is an LGBTQ-owned business, he noted. “If you are removed, it not only creates an effect on that business owner, but it creates an effect on the community.”

Before Target, Carnell, which operates Abprallen alone, sold Abprallen products online as well as in some markets and to some wholesale customers, he said.

One part of the attention has been an increase in support, financially and emotionally. The Abprallen site has received so many orders that he temporarily closed the virtual store to catch up.

“I’ve been inundated with support,” he said, including “so many beautiful, compassionate, loving messages,” he said. “And when I have a better headspace, I know how much it’s going to have a positive impact on me.”

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