Target’s walk-back on Pride merch upsets designers, LGBTQ supporters

Target came under intense scrutiny this week after the retail giant announced that it was pulling some LGBTQ-themed merchandise following what a corporate spokesperson described as “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work.”

Target customers posted videos on TikTok showing that Pride merchandise displays had been moved to less visible locations, including the back of the store.

“So disappointed in @target right now,” one TikTok user wrote in a caption to a video apparently recorded at a Target location in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “You literally hid your LGBTQ ‘support’ so as to not offend hateful small minded people. Dont seem too concerned about offending your own employees and loyal customers though.”

Target’s corporate communications department did not immediately respond to an email containing a list of questions, including which Pride items were removed and the nature of the threats against employees.

In a statement Tuesday night, a spokesperson for Target said the company has “offered an assortment of products aimed at celebrating Pride Month” for more than a decade. But “since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work.

Pride month merchandise at the front of a Target store in Hackensack, N.J.
Pride month merchandise at the front of a Target store in Hackensack, N.J., on May 24, 2023.Seth Wenig / AP

“Given these volatile circumstances,” the spokesperson said, “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.”

The company did not immediately reply to a question about how the corporate decision might be perceived by members of the LGBTQ community.

In some stores in the South, Pride displays appeared to have been moved to less visible areas.

At a Target in Cary, North Carolina, two employees who did not want to provide their names said the Pride collection was featured at the front of the store as recently as last week. The display is now further back, in the women's clothing section, and women's swimwear has been placed near the front. One employee said management told them to "switch things around" but they were not given a reason why.

One TikTok user claimed that Target in Cypress, Texas, moved its Pride collection to the back of the store after a customer complained to upper management.

In a phone interview, the manager of the Cypress, Texas, store referred NBC News to the corporate offices, but said moving the Pride collection to the back was a “total company decision” that had “nothing to do with the store.”

The pullback did not seem to affect every store. Brian Sing, a senior merchandise planner at a Target location in Brooklyn, New York said the store’s large Pride display went up about two weeks ago and employees have not received any directions to take it down.

Target’s large selection of Pride merchandise also comes amid an unprecedented time for LGBTQ rights in America. A historic 480 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in state legislatures across the country this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, with lawmakers enacting laws to curtail education on LGBTQ issues in schools, drag performances and transition-related healthcare, among other provisions. 

In a tweet Wednesday morning, the right-wing personality Matt Walsh wrote that his “goal” was to “make ‘pride’ toxic” for brands. 

“If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price,” he wrote. “It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain.”

Walsh alluded to the firestorm around Bud Light after the beer brand partnered with transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney this spring. Bud Light sales have dropped following an online campaign and calls for boycotts.

“First Bud Light and now Target,” Walsh tweeted. “Our campaign is making progress. Let’s keep it going.”

Other conservative activists all but declared victory, too. In a tweet, the self-described "anti-woke" activist Rogan O'Handley celebrated Bud Light's drop in company value and Target stock dropping on Wednesday. "THIS IS WHAT WINNING LOOKS LIKE," he tweeted.

Target hired LGBTQ designers for its Pride collection last year, saying it wanted to “authentically celebrate the community,” according to a company news release. The brand continued its partnership with queer designers for its collection this year. 

Conservative activists have taken particular issue with the collection’s apparel for kids, and a “tuck-friendly” bathing suit for adults. Clothing items for children include supportive slogans, including “just be you” and “trans people will always exist!”

British designer Erik Carnell, one of the Pride collection’s LGBTQ collaborators had his products pulled from the company’s website within the last handful of days. He called the retailer’s decision to remove his products — which included apparel containing supportive messages, such as “cure transphobia, not trans people” and “we belong everywhere” — both “wrong” and “justified.”

“It’s difficult because on one hand I’m obviously completely against it. I think that they should stand by their principles. If you’re going to have a Pride range centered around and created by LGBTQ people, then … you need to stick that out,” he said. “However, if I were working as a retail employee at a Target store, in an open carry state, I wouldn’t feel safe. So, I do understand their thought process on pulling some of the items. Justified or not, the safety of their employees has to be paramount.”

Carnell’s partnership with Target has been scrutinized by opponents of the company’s Pride collection largely for his use of Satanic symbolism in some of his designs. None of Carnell’s products that were sold at Target contain Satanic imagery. However, that hasn’t stopped the “hundreds upon hundreds” of threatening emails he says he’s received in recent days.

Pride month merchandise at the front of a Target store in Hackensack, N.J.
Pride month merchandise at the front of a Target store in Hackensack, N.J., on Wednesday. Seth Wenig / AP

“I was overwhelmed by what a big opportunity this could be — the amount of people who would see my work who never otherwise would have been exposed to it, the people who are closeted that needed to see something positive when they’re walking in a retail store,” said Carnell. “And in the space of a handful of days, all of that has been completely taken away from me and I’m just left to deal with the death threats and to deal with the hate mail and to deal with the accusations of grooming with absolutely no support from Target.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the LGBTQ rights organization GLAAD said “anti-LGBTQ violence and hate” would persist “until corporate leaders step up as heroes for their LGBTQ employees and consumers and do not cave to fringe activists calling for censorship.”

“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 president and CEO executive Sarah Kate Ellis said.


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