Update: Target CEO Addresses Pride-Themed Merchandise Controversy

Target pride merchandise

Editor’s Note: Target CEO Brian Cornell responded to the retailer’s removal of LGBTQ-themed merchandise from stores during June 2023, a.k.a. Pride Month, during an Aug. 16, 2023 call discussing Target’s Q2 financial results. He cited the “negative guest reaction” as one factor affecting the retailer’s sales in these comments:

“As you know, we have featured a Pride assortment for more than a decade. However, after the launch of the assortment this year, members of our team began experiencing threats and aggressive actions that affected their sense of safety and well-being while at work. I want to make it clear, we denounce violence and hate of all kinds. And the safety of our team and our guests is our top priority.

So to protect the team in the face of these threatening circumstances, we quickly made changes, including the removal of items at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior. Pride is one of many heritage moments that are important to our guests and our team, and we’ll continue to support these moments in the future. They are just one part of our commitment to support a diverse team, which helps us serve a diverse set of guests.”

After noting that Target customers refer to its stores as “their happy place,” Cornell tried to strike a balance between supporting LGBTQ Pride and the safety of store associates and customers:

“Specific to Pride and heritage months, we’re focused on building assortments that are celebratory and joyous with wide-ranging relevance, [and] seem mindful of timing, placement and presentation, meaning the segmentation and leveraging [of] our digital experience and reconsidering the mix of owned brands, national brands and external partners within these assortments. Our goal is to ensure we continue to celebrate moments that are special to our guests while acknowledging that every day for millions of people, they want Target to serve as a refuge in their daily lives.”

Following is Retail TouchPoints’ original coverage of the controversy, published May 31, 2023:

On May 31, more than 100 LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), GLAAD, GLSEN and Family Equality, called for Target to make a statement reaffirming its commitment to LGBTQ rights, as well as putting its full range of Pride-themed merchandise back on store shelves and online and ensuring the safety of team members on its front lines.

The organizations’ statement reads in part:

“At this moment, it’s critical that Target champions equity and inclusion as it has for over a decade. Target consistently tops the list for brands that show genuine, authentic support of the LGBTQ+ community through outreach and policies. Target received recognition for outstanding commitment to DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] from the Executive Leadership Council in 2022. It’s time to prove the recognition was earned.”

Target has been on the receiving end of fierce criticism from LGBTQ groups and their allies following its decision to remove selected Pride Month collection items from some stores. The retailer, which has offered such items for more than a decade, cited threats to its associates’ “sense of safety and well-being while at work” in “removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.”

According to AP reporting, Target “said that customers knocked down Pride displays at some stores, angrily approached workers and posted threatening videos on social media from inside the stores.” While Target didn’t specify which items it was removing, “tuck-friendly” women’s swimsuits, which allow trans women who have not had gender-affirming operations to conceal their genitalia, have attracted the most attention. Additionally, designs by Abprallen, which designs and sells occult- and satanic-themed LGBTQ clothing and accessories, have come under fire from right-wing activists.

Abprallen Founder and Designer Erik Carnell told Reuters that Target’s removal of its items represented “a very dangerous precedent to set, that if people just get riled up enough about the products that you’re selling, you can completely distance yourself from the LGBT community, when and if it’s convenient. If you’re going to take a stance and say that you care about the LGBT community, you need to stand by that regardless.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, accused Target of giving in to “fringe activists calling for censorship.

“Anti-LGBTQ violence and hate should not be winning in America, but it will continue to until corporate leaders step up as heroes for their LGBTQ employees and consumers,” said Ellis in a statement. “The fact that a small group of extremists are threatening disgusting and harsh violence in response to Target continuing its longstanding 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.”

Ellis also cited “an avalanche of research” showing that Americans are comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in marketing images and that consumer, particularly younger ones, prefer “companies that include LGBTQ people internally and externally.”

Dr. David Johns, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a Black LGBTQ civil rights organization, was unsparing in his criticism of Target’s decision: “Let’s be clear: removing items from its Pride Collection, or hiding them in the back of the store — is tantamount to insisting we all go back in the closet,” he said in a statement. “At a time when LGBTQ rights and people are under attack, at a time when extremist political forces want to exterminate us, pushing our diverse history, experience, and ways of being into the shadows — we need everyone to speak out for us — including major corporations like Target and Budweiser.”

Anti-LGBTQ activists had called for a boycott of Bud Lite, made by Anheuser-Busch, after Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender Instagram influencer, was featured in a social media promotion for the beer in April 2023, according to the New York Times.

Target’s decision comes as a surprise from a retailer that prides itself on its commitment to communities, exemplified by the managers of its Cheektowaga, N.Y. store taking in travelers trapped by a snowstorm in late December 2022. But the retailer may be caught in a Hobson’s choice: it certainly doesn’t want its customers and associates to feel unsafe in its stores — the retailer cited the impact of shrink in discussing its Q1 results earlier this month. However, the price has been potentially alienating LGBTQ shoppers and their allies.