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LGBTQ+ activists call for new strategies to promote equality after Target backlash

By DENISE LAVOIE and ANDREW SELSKY - Associated Press | May 30, 2023

A sign outside a Target store is seen Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Target is removing certain items from its stores and making other changes to its LGBTQ+ merchandise nationwide ahead of Pride month after an intense backlash from some customers including violent confrontations with its workers. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Following Target's announcement last week that it removed products and relocated Pride displays to the back of certain stores in the South, activists in the LGBTQ+ community are calling for new campaigns to convince corporate leaders not to cave to anti-LGBTQ+ groups.

"We need a strategy on how to deal with corporations that are experiencing enormous pressure to throw LGBTQ people under the bus," said California state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, a member of the LGBTQ legislative caucus.

"We need to send a clear message to corporate America that if you're our ally -- if you are truly our ally -- you need to be our ally, not just when it's easy but also when it's hard," he said.

While the retailer said its actions were aimed at ensuring the safety and well-being of its employees after protesters knocked over Pride signs and confronted workers in stores, the controversy comes at a time when conflict over LGBTQ+ rights is simmering.

Nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures around the country this year. At least 18 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

The hostile environment has prompted some groups to hire security consultants to advise them on activities planned for Pride Month, which begins on Thursday.

"We are forced to think differently about how we handle security at our events and whether or not we can post our staff's names and emails on our website," said Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit legal rights organization based in Boston.

Debra Porta, executive director of Pride Northwest, in Portland, Oregon, said there have been discussions about a possible boycott, a letter-writing campaign and other actions directed at Target, but plans for an organized protest haven't yet materialized.

"Because the news is fairly new, more actions may be announced, especially as Pride Month gets here," said Porta.

Target isn't the only company grappling with public criticism.

Bud Light is still dealing with fallout from its partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who in April posted a picture on Instagram of a beer can with her face on it. In response to the hate-filled and transphobic backlash that followed, the company said it "never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people," but didn't directly address the rhetoric or signal clear support for Mulvaney. Bud Light's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, is tripling its U.S. marketing spending this summer as it tries to restore lost sales.

In early May, several gay bars in Chicago stopped selling Anheuser-Busch products to protest the company's response.

Chicago's 2Bears Tavern said the company's response "shows how little Anheuser-Busch cares about the LGBTQIA+ community, and in particular transgender people, who have been under unrelenting attack in this country."

"Since Anheuser-Busch does not support us, we will not support it," said the company.

Sidetrack, the largest gay bar in the Midwest, did the same, saying Anheuser-Busch "wrongfully validates the position that it is acceptable to acquiesce to the demands of those who do not support the trans community and wish to erase LGBTQ+ visibility."

In Florida, Disney has been engaged in a legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis since the company expressed its opposition to the state's classroom limits on discussing gender identity and sexual orientation.

And the Los Angeles Dodgers announced last week that a satirical LGBTQ+ group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will again be welcome at the team's annual Pride Night -- nearly a week after the team rescinded its original invitation, citing backlash from conservative Roman Catholics and politicians who accused the group of mocking the Christian faith.

"Now's not the time to back down," said Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG, an organization founded in 1973 to advocate for LGBTQ+ people and their families.

"I think both business and us as citizens need to look within ourselves into new strategies. The old models aren't necessarily working," he said.

Some people remain concerned about the impact of Target's Pride displays on children, said Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative, faith-based organization in Richmond.

"Target is paying the price for telling kids to be discontent with their bodies, putting ideology ahead of the interests of investors, and creating a hostile store environment for parents with children," Cobb said in a statement.

In a Richmond Target store on Sunday, Pride merchandise was prominently displayed at the front of the store.

Brenda Alston, a 75-year-old retiree, said she bought a pair of rainbow sandals to show support for the LGBTQ+ community and for Target.

"If you come in the store and this is not what you support, keep on walking and get what you need in another part of the store," Alston said. "Who are you to tell me what to buy and what Target should offer their customers?"

Still, some see the hostility toward Target and other retailers as just the latest obstacle in a decades-long struggle for equality.

"To me, this is a sign that we're winning," said Derek Mize, a gay attorney who lives in an Atlanta suburb with his husband and two children.

"I think that these people moaning about our visibility are the last breaths of a dying prejudice," he said. "Society is changing, and most people are not concerned about Target selling an LGBTQ shirt."

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Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon.

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