Target in Pride Month’s crossfire amid culture war over LGBTQ+ merchandise

The customer brandished her own pair of scissors in front of guest services at a Target store in South Florida, cutting up her credit card while she was leaving the retail chain to carry Pride Month merchandise. “I’m never shopping here again,” she warned.

That episode — recounted by an employee to a supervisor — was just one of several tense encounters workers have reported about LGBTQ+ items at the South Florida site, said the manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. Target is the latest brand to be engulfed in culture wars, as polarizing social issues enter the aisles and shoppers become more emboldened to engage in confrontational, even threatening, behavior.

Although Pride Month and other inclusion initiatives have been around for years, they have increasingly become litmus tests for consumers, forcing companies to fully engage with social issues or cave in to critics.

Retailers such as Kohl’s, Walmart and PetSmart have also felt backlash from the far right for stocking items that promote equal rights and acceptance for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

In Target’s case, however, it has pulled its Pride merchandise and promotional materials from store windows in recent days following a series of threats and harassment against employees. The move then prompted several bomb threats, targeting stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah, from people who claimed to be angry about the removal of merchandise.

“It’s not like any of this is that unpredictable,” said Lindsay Schubiner, who studies violent movements for the Western States Center, an anti-extremism watchdog. “We don’t always know exactly where these types of anti-democratic actors are going to point next, but the increase in threats and harassment from anti-democratic movements in the United States has become so frequent that this is something that absolutely just needs to be planned for.”

At Target in South Florida, shoppers have called employees “child groomers,” a far-right slang term for pedophiles, and accused them of “pushing the vigilante agenda down our throats,” according to the manager who spoke to The Washington Post.

When he donned a bright safety vest over his company-issued Pride-themed t-shirt to help a customer carry merchandise to his car, the shopper looked at him and said, “Oh, so I can shoot you easier ?”

This interaction leaves the supervisor with conflicted feelings about Target’s decision to withdraw the Pride merchandise. “It’s 50-50,” he said. “I hate it, but I kind of understand it.”

On the one hand, he felt that the company had abandoned its LGBTQ+ employees. But he may also see reasons to withdraw because the harassment from customers makes him feel insecure.

Target, one of the largest U.S. general merchandise retailers, said it has offered products celebrating Pride Month for more than a decade. CEO Brian Cornell has touted the company’s efforts regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Initiatives in this area have “driven a lot of our growth over the last nine years” and “added value,” he told Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast last month.

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

The Target controversy follows the backlash and boycotts that Anheuser-Busch faced in April over Bud Light partnership with transgender actress Dylan Mulvaney. Republican lawmakers chastised the brand and angry consumers posted videos on social media dumping the beer on the street.

The company later pulled the campaign, and CEO Brendan Whitworth posted a open letter on the company’s Twitter account: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” But the reversal also angered the LGBTQ+ community, and sales have fallen.

Some companies have gone ahead with their plans for Pride month despite the high-profile events. Nike, North Face and PetSmart have so far ignored the backlash directed at them. Kohl’s and Walmart have also drawn heat from far-right activists, who have called for a boycott of the stores’ LGBTQ+ merchandise, but have not relented. Walmart Chief Merchandising Officer Latriece Watkins said during a panel discussion Wednesday that the company has not “changed anything” in our assortment.”

Kohls did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of LGBTQ media group GLAAD, sees a huge risk if companies back down in the face of increasing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and see stores threatened with violence.

“As soon as you give in to extremists, you give them more permission,” she said.

According to experts on extremism, the boycotts — and the threats and harassment that have led to them — are part of a diffuse but focused campaign fueled by influential conservatives exploiting TikTok and right-wing media.

One of them is Matt Walsh, an anti-LGBTQ commentator for the right-wing Daily Wire, who tweeted in April that conservatives should “pick a victim, beat on it and make an example of it.”

“We can’t boycott all vigilante companies or even most of them,” he tweeted. “But we can pick one, it doesn’t matter which one, and target it with a ruthless boycott campaign. Claim a scalp and move on to the next.”

Right-wing figures like Walsh target businesses because corporate actions may suggest broader acceptance of queer individuals, said Schubiner of the Western States Center. Conversely, when companies self-censor their product offerings or promotional materials due to outside pressure, they become well-established weak points in the Pride movement, she said.

Vocal extremists that companies reject or ignore generally continue looking for others to victimize, while businesses and organizations that respond, either aggressively or cautiously, position themselves as easier targets, Schubiner said.

“Nice and anti-democratic groups are trying a bunch of different things to see what will stick,” she said. “They are doing some experiments.”

Right-wing critics have even turned on the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A — whose charitable foundation has been criticized by liberals for donating to anti-LGBTQ groups — after a conservative political strategist tweeted that the company has a vice president with responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion.

GLAAD’s Ellis noted that violence against the LGBTQ community has been on the rise as GOP lawmakers “demonize our community.” They include rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who amplified a transphobic music video on Twitter that accused Target of “targeting your kids.”

More than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ laws — though most won’t be approved — have been introduced in states across the country so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 29 bills targeting transgender rights have become law in 14 states so far this year, according to The Post’s analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Target supervisor, for his part, has seen the rhetoric escalate in the three years he’s worked there: Several customers have openly expressed homophobic and sexist views, especially since Florida last year passed a law backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to to limit the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

“People here feel like they can really stand up and speak their mind,” he said.

Wen Parks, who works part-time at a Target in Normal, Ill., said her store has not received any threats. But some customers have become aggressive, raising their voices in complaining about the store’s Pride merchandise “even after inventory was limited,” she said in an email to The Post.

Late last week, managers were told to take down the screen, Parks said. As a queer employee, she found the decision devastating.

“When I started here at Target, I went through countless inclusion and anti-discrimination trainings, and they even have to be retaken at a certain point,” Parks said. “Employees are strongly led to believe that these are Target’s values, that everyone is equal and belongs. But taking down screens sends the exact opposite message. I no longer feel valued as an employee.”

Hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community and businesses that support it has accelerated so quickly, corporate security experts say, that it’s difficult for businesses to keep up with evolving threats.

A big-box retailer may place extra uniformed or plainclothes security around a store, especially if the store is in an area where there is less public support for LGBTQ individuals, said Kristin Lenardson, vice president of embedded intelligence services at Crisis24, a corporate security consultancy that works with large corporations . Crisis24 does not work with Target.

The dealership can also set up security in the parking lot, or at another nearby location to more quickly respond to disturbances, Lenardson said. Corporate security teams also often draft employee guidance to help managers de-escalate tense interactions.

Despite an increasing number of confrontations at the manager’s South Florida store, Target has not introduced more security or implemented new policies when interacting with customers, the manager said.

“Retail workers, like everyone else, are living in a very volatile and politicized environment right now,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “They are too often seen as invisible and disposable and not as human beings who should be treated with respect.”

Appelbaum noted that companies need to make these changes to better protect their workers and customers — and push back on the idea that “the customer is always right.”

Some groups that study online extremism and extremist actors have begun encouraging employers to instruct employees to simply walk away on the grounds that it’s not worth dragging an employee into a potentially violent interaction or viral video with a right-wing provocateur.

Businesses can also benefit from building year-round relationships with pride organizers, local elected officials and law enforcement, who can provide logistical and public support in the event of an anti-LGBTQ incident, Schubiner said.

“We know when these things are going to happen and how to plan for them in advance,” Lenardson said. “Does it make it easier … or something emotionally easier for employees? No, it doesn’t. I think the safety part is the easy part.”

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