Pride Month has had a rough start this year, including for retailers that have attempted to celebrate it.
Recently, Belk reportedly canceled its traditional drag show in Charlotte, North Carolina, just before it was slated to begin. Days before, the department store stopped selling Pride garments for kids. Belk did not respond to questions regarding its decisions around Pride events and merchandise.
In late May, just ahead of Pride Month, people raging against Target’s Pride collection in stores prompted the retailer to bowdlerize its displays. That was about a month after a Bud Light collaboration with a transgender influencer incited right-wing ire, and Anheuser-Busch sidelined the marketing executives responsible for it.
The backlash, following years of retailers and brands embracing Pride without much incident, is emanating from the far right and serves as a test for corporate diversity efforts, values and marketing, experts say.
“The currents that we're facing are not social change,” said Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, who for 30 years has specialized in LGBTQ+-related communications strategy and market research. “They're inspired and instigated by individuals and media influencers who have made the decision that they shall attack all that is ‘woke,’ and all that is left and all that is LGBTQ, especially transgender.”
‘Get woke, go broke’
The word “woke” is taking a beating these days.
For most of the 20th century, “wake up” and “woke” were used by labor activists and the Black community to urge awareness, lest workers and Black people fall prey to those who would take advantage of them, according to Yale professor Stephen Carter, a novelist who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As described by novelist William Melvin Kelley in 1962, in a New York Times essay on Black and Beatnik slang, “woke” meant “well-informed” and “up-to-date.” Into the 21st century, the word regained political urgency when it was invoked after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri. Merriam-Webster today defines it as “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
Several pundits and politicians on the right have seized on the word, employing it to ridicule companies and people who defend the human rights of marginalized groups. The dictionary notes that it can be used in a “disapproving” sense, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate with a penchant for right-wing jargon and legislation, has become a champion of that. During a June 3 speech in Iowa, he uttered the word seven times in 26 seconds.
The phrase “Get woke, go broke” prevails on social media among those cheering the purported stock declines seen at Bud Light and Target after the pushes to boycott those companies. But the war on words isn’t ending there. Groups like Consumers’ Research, once led by Joe McCarthy defender M. Stanton Evans, are also working to make not just “woke” but also “ESG” — “environmental, social and governance” initiatives — “a dirty word,” according to the Global Strategy Group. DeSantis has also made that link.
In this climate, Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm that also works with private corporations on reputation initiatives and social impact efforts, counsels against using the term “ESG” and suggests discussion of “issues that bring about social change” instead. But ESG initiatives have been embraced by companies because they help them meet regulatory, investor and consumer demands, according to Alison Taylor, executive director of the Ethical Systems program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. It does those efforts no good if a company only listens to the most strident voice in the room, she said by phone.
“The only real place it makes sense for you to ground corporate values in this very fraught world is human rights and your commitment to human rights, dignity, freedom of expression, bodily autonomy, etc.,” she said. “If you respond to whoever's yelling at you, and try and keep your head down, you have no moral grounding. You can't take the middle ground on apartheid. You can't take the middle ground on civil rights. In a polarized environment, if you've got backlash, you need to get clear on your values and you need to stick to them.”
In the extreme
It’s not clear whether consumers participating in boycotts against Target and others, or even some of the politicians cracking down on “wokeness,” fully appreciate who is stoking their outrage.
As videos of people wrecking Target’s Pride merchandise in stores went viral, Kimberly Fletcher, founder of Moms For America, emailed a statement to reporters, saying that “moms will not tolerate sexualized marketing that targets our children and pushes radical far-left propaganda on them.” The communication describes the organization as “a nationwide network of hundreds of thousands of moms,” and the group says its “mission is to empower moms to raise patriots and promote liberty for the healing of America.” But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes and extremist activity, including by the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement and antigovernment militias, has listed Moms for America and several of its state chapters as hate groups.
The day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Moms for America organized protests against the 2020 election in Washington. Fletcher herself later invoked the Fifth Amendment numerous times when she was deposed by the House Select Committee investigating the riot. Since Jan. 6, extremist groups have prioritized culture wars, with a focus on attacking the LGBTQ+ community, according to watchdog groups. As of November last year, far-right militias and militant social groups like the Proud Boys had increased their anti-LGBTQ+ activity by over three times compared to 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
In some areas the disturbances at Target stores escalated to bomb threats tied to the Pride fallout that were ultimately deemed not credible.
Threats are also legislative. At the Conservative Political Action Coalition’s conference in March, “anti-transgender hate was at the top of the agenda,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, which was founded in the early 20th century to combat antisemitism and now conducts research into and activism against many forms of extremism. With more than 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills signed into law this year, more than double last year’s, the Human Rights Campaign, a 40-year-old LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, on June 6 declared its first-ever “state of emergency” to help ensure the safety of LGBTQ+ people.
“The multiplying threats facing millions in our community are not just perceived — they are real, tangible and dangerous,” HRC President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “In many cases they are resulting in violence against LGBTQ+ people, forcing families to uproot their lives and flee their homes in search of safer states, and triggering a tidal wave of increased homophobia and transphobia that puts the safety of each and every one of us at risk.”
Retailers’ defensive moves against anti-Pride retaliations have consequences for the community and the retailers themselves, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. On Wednesday, James said that she had sent a letter, co-signed by 14 New York city and state lawmakers, urging Target CEO Brian Cornell to reconsider the decision to remove Pride merchandise. Target declined to comment on the letter beyond its initial May 24 statement.
.@Target's decision to pull some of its pride merchandise because of backlash from anti-LGBTQ+ customers is wrong.— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) June 14, 2023
Hatred and bigotry can't win: New York elected officials and I are urging @Target to reverse its decision and stand up for #LGTBQ+ rights.
“When fringe beliefs and anti-social behavior are used to strong-arm one of the nation’s largest general-merchandise retailers, it dissuades the broader business community from standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community,” James wrote. “It also suggests that Target and other companies can be pressured into retreating from efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Target has long championed these values and it is distressing to see your company appear to be cowed into taking a step away from them.”
“[W]e urge Target to demonstrate your long-standing commitment to investing in and standing with the LGBTQ+ community by putting all of your Pride-related merchandise back on the shelves, while taking strong measures to ensure employee safety,” she also said.
Out of step
The capitulation seen at companies like Bud Light and Target runs counter to policies they have endorsed in their own internal and external communications, and to the values held by most U.S. consumers, experts say.
On its website, under “Sustainability and ESG” and “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion,” for example, Target calls inclusivity “a core value” and details a wide range of efforts to support the LGBTQ+ community. The retailer didn’t respond to requests to comment for this story, and has remained silent amid calls from the LGBTQ+ community to reiterate its longstanding support.
Its customers, and the American public at large, appear to support such ESG and DEI efforts. Nearly 85% of parents surveyed by publication ParentsTogether, for example, said that “companies should celebrate inclusivity and diversity, even if it upsets a small group of customers” and 59% blamed angry Target customers for the Pride Month controversy.
The mid-term elections last November — when Democrats defied expectations by retaining control of the U.S. Senate and leaving House Republicans with a razor-thin edge — also represented a rejection of extremism, including anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, according to a post-election poll taken by the Human Rights Campaign. Nearly 90% of Americans approve of companies that try to have a positive impact on the communities where they operate; 77% approve of those that speak out on issues that are important to their employees and customers; and 83% say they trust companies over politicians when it comes to whether a company should take a stance on an issue, according to Global Strategy Group.
This year, as Pride Month approached and videos of destruction in Target stores went viral, boycotts were attempted against more retailers, including Kohl’s, PetSmart and The North Face. Others, including Walmart, have been largely spared despite having their own Pride collections.
The North Face stood by its campaign with drag queen and environmentalist Pattie Gonia, saying in an emailed statement that “Creating community and belonging in the outdoors is a core part of our values and is needed now more than ever. We stand with those who support our vision for a more inclusive outdoor industry.”
The focus on transgender people
This year, transgender issues have become a flashpoint for anti-Pride campaigns, which experts say reflects society’s discomfort with gender identity. In Target’s case, deceptions about the merchandise — including the debunked claim that a trans-friendly swimsuit was designed for children — helped whip up reaction on social media and eventually at stores.
Former President Donald Trump, who is again running for president, noted how easy it is right now to rile up his supporters with the topic, saying in a June 10 speech, “It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that, you see — I'm talking about cutting taxes, people go like that. Talking about ‘transgender,’ everyone goes crazy.”
Americans in general are ambivalent about certain transgender issues, and views have grown more conservative as the rhetoric has heated up, according to a Washington Post-KFF poll released last month. That found a majority of Americans are opposed to gender-affirming medical treatments for children and trans athletes competing in sports. But there were also signs of acceptance, as even bigger majorities favor gender-affirming therapy for children and protections against discrimination, according to the poll.
The poll is just one snapshot of issues that will remain in flux for a while, because most Americans are just thinking about them now, according to Witeck. But, as Americans get to know and accept more trans and nonbinary people, tolerance will grow, as it has for gay and lesbian people, he said. Indeed, Gallup has found that 13.1% of Gen Z Americans say they are bisexual, 3.4% are gay, 2.2% are lesbian and 1.9% are transgender, percentages that are higher than all other generations. Market research firm Toluna last year found that Gen Z is “extremely concerned” about LGBTQ+ rights.
"How can a retailer educate people about sensitive topics like transgender people? It’s just very hard to imagine that a display is going to push the envelope in terms of acceptance."
President, Witeck Communications
As a mass-market retailer with a ubiquitous presence, Target may have gotten ahead of itself with the trans-focused aspect of its offering, according to Witeck. The retailer probably wanted to meet a genuine need of transgender people, but it also leaned into the kind of declaration of support that might be found on a bumper sticker, he said.
“It’s like expecting the people behind you to see that and automatically say, ‘Oh, I see,’” he said. “Awarenesses does not happen that way. How can a retailer educate people about sensitive topics like transgender people? It's just very hard to imagine that a display is going to push the envelope in terms of acceptance. I credit them for trying. But these are really real issues, for real families and real people.”
Witeck and others say that these challenges present a company with the opportunity to make good on its stated values. Protestors on social media or in stores railing against these issues may be expressing anxiety about them, but that shouldn’t mean retreat, they said.
“Anxiety is exactly how gay people feel. So if you understand this anxiety, imagine it times 10 for somebody else, and then sympathize with that,” Witeck said. “Say ‘Our job is not to make more people feel anxious or to make them feel insecure. Our job is to be principled.’ And when you say you value someone, act like it.”
Agitators may come after companies that take a stand, but the vitriol has a shelf life, especially if companies stand firm, according to Witeck, who has worked with several major brands including American Airlines, Marriott and Ford.
“You may be pinched or prodded or poked by opponents and adversaries, but they won't keep it up. It won't last,” he said. “The Proud Boys and others who are fomenting some of these attacks believe in their gut that there's a herd out there, and that if they can hurt two or three brands, they can get the rest to follow. I think that's overstepping. They may believe there is a complete lemming instinct on the part of marketers and CEOs, but there’s not. They each have their own personality characteristics, their values, their leadership. And most of them, that I'm familiar with at least, are pretty principled.”