Pride before Target’s fall? Retailer teams up with very dark forces to promote LGBT agenda

Transgender designer Erik Carnell has seen a surge in demand for his pins, prints, stickers, and T-shirts after U.S. retailer Target Corp (TGT.N) pulled his products amid a backlash by some customers to its Pride collection, he said on Thursday.

Target's Pride collection included more than 2,000 products from clothes and music to home furnishings, and while several are under review the only ones removed so far from its website and stores are from Carnell's brand Abprallen.

Target said this year's Pride collection led to an increase in confrontations between customers and employees and incidents of Pride merchandise being thrown on the floor.

In messages on the website and Etsy (ETSY.O) store for Abprallen, Carnell said the volume of orders was such that he had to temporarily stop taking new orders.

"Your support during this extremely difficult time means more than I can express," Carnell wrote on the brand's Etsy page, which advertises "Accessories for the loud, proud, and colorful". Abprallen, which means "ricochet" in German, is Carnell's favorite word.

Screenshots and posts on social media show that Target previously sold three Abprallen items: a $25 slogan sweater with the words "cure transphobia, not trans people", an $18 "too queer for here" tote bag, and a "we belong everywhere" fanny pack.

London-based Carnell, a gay trans man, said on Instagram that he did not know if Target would begin selling the items again and that he would know more over the coming days.

"I hope that none of Target's retail employees are the victims of further threats and that none of them come to any harm," he wrote.

Backlash on social media was mainly targeted at Abprallen products that were not sold at Target, some of which contain images of pentagrams and horned ram skulls that some people associate with Satan worship.

Products sold on Abprallen's Etsy shop included a pin featuring the slogan "Satan Respects Pronouns" for 5.20 pounds ($6.56) and an 8-pound ($10.10) enamel pin with the slogan "Trans Healthcare Now".

"I am, believe it or not, not a Satanist," Carnell said on Instagram, responding to reports and social media posts that labeled him as "Satan-loving".

Etsy, an online marketplace where people sell homemade products, did not reply to requests for comment.

Target Corp. has been rolling out a new Pride Month collection for several years. The annual limited-time collection has been criticized in the past for pandering to LGBTQ shoppers with cheesy and tacky apparel such as a polyester rainbow short suit or a tank top with an image of drag star Rupaul. But this year’s collection has been greeted with a more violent backlash among right-wing commenters online, underscoring how there’s no such thing as a humdrum annual marketing event at a time when gender-affirming teachers, doctors and other people are being pushed underground by the anti-trans wave sweeping parts of the country.

What Target has that these doctors and teachers don’t is a whole corporate infrastructure to withstand the political furor over its Pride collection. That’s if it accepts that there is no middle ground to play anymore.

Just weeks after launching its Pride collection this year, Target announced Wednesday that it is removing certain items altogether and moving the remaining merchandise to the back in some Southern stores because of “threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work.” The collection this year includes a series of T-shirts with LGBTQ-related images like a rainbow-colored brain with the words “Sorry, can’t think straight” and home decor such as a pillow designed by independent LGBTQ artists among other items.

The item provoking the most transphobic backlash online is the collection’s “tuck friendly” women’s swimsuits that allow trans women, who have not had gender-affirming surgery, to conceal their genitalia. Some people online have proffered misleading claims that the tuck-friendly bathing suit is sold for children. It is not. Some have also lashed out at the retailer’s partnership with the UK-based brand Abprallen, which they claim sells Satanic merchandise on its company website. Abprallen’s pieces in the Target collection include an image of a snake with the line, “Cure transphobia, not trans people.” A search on Target’s website on Wednesday didn’t bring up the bathing suit, though Reuters reported that only the Abprallen merchandise had been removed while other pieces are under review. 

It’s easy to see how these items would light up transphobic conversations. We’re living in a country where conservatives have pushed through or proposed dozens of laws at the state level that force the use of certain bathrooms, restrict discussions of issues like sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, and outlaw gender-affirming healthcare for minors. What’s been exposed is a fundamental disagreement about whether transgender and queer people deserve humanity, and at what age they can be acknowledged to exist and access healthcare.

Respecting clothing choices that give the community dignity and pride is a small piece of a nastier battle. In the wake of anti-trans laws, some doctors who offer gender-affirming healthcare have received death threats and regularly check whether or not they have been doxxed online. One school received bomb threats after Fox News articles targeted a teacher that it said posted on TikTok about the classroom’s queer library. 

Amid this type of violence, there is no middle ground. It calls for a whole new corporate playbook. Take the recent backlash against Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, which promoted its Bud Light beer with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Conservatives vowed to boycott the company while LGBTQ consumers called on Anheuser-Busch to take a stand against the transphobia behind the outcry. Instead, the company tweeted a six-paragraph statement that neither condemned the transphobic backlash nor apologized for partnering with Mulvaney. It played the middle and lost sales.

While the controversy is still fresh, Target has an opportunity to use its infrastructure to push back on misinformation about its products and protect its workers and Pride collection shoppers with extra security. It has a large and loyal customer base and the attention of people across the country because of the uproar. It should clarify what actions it took and why. It also has the means to protect workers and shoppers. It has a vast surveillance system and support from local police that it uses to control retail theft. Why not draw on those resources to maintain a safe place for people to shop? It should stand by what Target CEO Brian Cornell said recently on the Fortune Leadership Next podcast about the company’s push for diversity and inclusion: “It’s helping us drive sales, it’s building greater engagement with both our teams and our guests, and those are just the right things for our business today.”

And there is a lesson here for many companies as a small but powerful contingent of conservatives grapples with accepting transgender and queer people as human. As these fights become ever more toxic, companies need to be thoughtful from the get-go, not just about their deliberate actions, but also about how they will respond when they are inevitably pulled into the culture wars. There is no golden mean here.

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