Editor’s Note: Neil J. Young is a historian, writer and podcaster. He is the author of “We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics” and the forthcoming “Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Earlier this week, big-box chain Target announced it would be removing some of its merchandise celebrating Pride Month after the company and its employees were targeted by what has been described as a “volatile” anti-LGTBQ campaign.
“Since introducing this year’s collection,” the national retailer said in a statement, “we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work. 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’s announcement comes just days before the start of June’s LGBTQ Pride Month and amid a growing wave of anti-LGBTQ efforts across the nation, including escalating threats of violence. In April, CNN reported that multiple state legislatures had already proposed a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023, more than double the number put forward during the entire previous year. And White nationalists and other hate groups, sometimes bearing high-capacity firearms, have menaced gay bars and drag shows.
In Columbus, Ohio, earlier this month, neo-Nazis carrying swastika flags and shouting hateful chants stalked a drag brunch event. The group also hoisted a banner that read, “There will be blood.”
In light of such ominous developments, Target’s removal of some of its LGBTQ products may seem insignificant. (The company did not share which merchandise has been taken off its shelves, but controversy has largely centered on its “tuck-friendly” swimsuits for trans women who have not had gender-affirming surgery.)
Yet the intimidation that prompted Target’s decision belongs to more than just an effort to, as right-wing commentator Matt Walsh put it, “make pride ‘toxic’ for brands.” It’s reflective of a broader campaign against LGBTQ persons and their rights taking place in state capitols, public schoolrooms and on the internet.
These efforts seek to erase LGBTQ representation from the nation’s public life, recognizing that their increasing visibility over the last half century helped LGBTQ persons garner large public acceptance and secure fundamental rights, including marriage.
As such, Target’s decision to get rid of some of its LGBTQ merchandise is no neutral act. Though their actions are the result of coordinated pressure, they nonetheless cede ground to those who seek to disseminate hate and enact violence. And they won’t suffice.
As the recent slew of book bans has shown, there’s no limit to the extreme right’s illiberal project, no concession that will appease them. Rather than making a pesky issue go away, Target has given anti-LGBTQ activists a foothold for their bigger battle against LGBTQ rights inside their very own stores.
It’s worth remembering that the history of LGBTQ Pride Month is grounded in the Stonewall Uprising, when LGBTQ persons – tired of enduring harassment and violence from law enforcement – fought back against a police raid on New York’s Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar, in late June 1969. A year later, parades commemorating the Stonewall riots took place in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with thousands participating.
The marches demonstrated the importance of LGBTQ persons showing themselves in public. Having not even been permitted to quietly carry out their lives in private – law enforcement not only regularly invaded bars and other gay establishments but also surveilled the homes and mail of those suspected of being homosexual and gender non-conforming – LGBTQ persons marched in order to show they existed and to claim their place in public life.
These bold acts joined a longer history of homophile activism and helped bring about significant changes. Within a decade or so, most of the nation’s police departments had stopped officially targeting LGBTQ people (although anti-LGBTQ police violence continues to this day) and several cities began to pass LGBTQ rights ordinances.
That progress prompted an anti-LGBTQ backlash, fueled by a rising religious right that grew powerful through the 1980s and 1990s. The HIV/AIDS crisis in the same years emboldened some of the worst actors. The period marked a particularly dark one for LGBTQ people, with escalating violence, political demonization and the passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation at the state and federal level, including 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act. “We are trying to defeat the homosexual agenda,” a leader from the Traditional Values Coalition stated in 1993.
While church and state worked to limit LGBTQ rights, some American corporations were making themselves into LGBTQ-friendly places. As early as 1986, Apple created a support group for its gay employees. In the mid-1990s, IBM became the largest company to grant same-sex couples healthcare coverage.
Others followed suit. More Fortune 500 companies realized that extending such benefits helped them attract better employees and also improve their public standing. Beyond their own business decisions, much of corporate America became advocates for LGBTQ rights, especially the push for marriage equality.
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Just as importantly, American companies became big boosters of LGBTQ visibility, including making LGBTQ persons regular features of marketing and advertising campaigns. Corporate involvement in LGBTQ Pride Month has grown so large, in fact, that it has led to some within the LGBTQ community to criticize what is being called “rainbow capitalism,” the idea that American corporations just want to make a buck off Pride without doing much for LGBTQ rights.
To be sure, a cynical view of the corporate takeover of LGBTQ Pride Month has its merits, and the rollout of even more LGBTQ merchandise should not be heralded as the pathway towards queer liberation.
Yet as the right wages war on “woke corporations,” especially those associated with the LGBTQ community, the real threat to Pride Month may not be its capitalist excesses but instead the possibility of a corporate abandonment. That’s why Target’s retreat, however small, is so disappointing – and also so dangerous.
No doubt, Target and other companies have to take the threats they are receiving seriously to ensure the safety of their employees and customers. The decision by at least one National Hockey League team to forego their plans to wear special warmup attire celebrating Pride Night due to fears about possible repercussions to its Russian players by the anti-LGBTQ Russian government only highlights the international dimensions of this issue.
But when it comes to dealing with the growing forces of anti-LGBTQ hate, there is no appeasement. By attempting to prevent violence and diffuse confrontation, Target may have unwittingly encouraged the opposite. In giving up a couple of inches of store space, they have let violent bigots take a mile.