Emboldened shoppers threaten Target workers over Pride Month items

Police officers stand outside of a Target store as a group of people protest across the street, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Miami. Target announced 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. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Brandishing her own scissors in front of guest services in a Target store in south Florida, the customer chopped up her store credit card while lambasting the retail chain for carrying Pride Month merchandise. "I am never shopping here again," she warned.

This episode - recounted by an employee to supervisors - was just one of several tense encounters that workers have reported over LGBTQ+ items at the South Florida location, said the manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fear of losing his job. Target is the latest brand to be engulfed in culture wars, as polarizing social issues spill into store aisles and shoppers become more emboldened to engage in confrontational, even threatening, behavior.

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Though Pride Month and other inclusivity initiatives have been around for years, they've increasingly become litmus tests for consumers, forcing companies to fully commit on social issues or yield to critics.

Retailers such as Kohl's, Walmart and PetSmart have also felt backlash from the far right for stocking items that extol equal rights and acceptance for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

In Target's case, though, it has pulled its Pride merchandise and promotional materials back from store windows in recent days after a string of threats and harassment against employees. The move then sparked multiple bomb threats, targeting stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah, from people claiming to be angry about the removal of merchandise.

"It's not like any of this is all that unpredictable," said Lindsay Schubiner, who studies violent movements for the Western States Center, an anti-extremism watchdog. "We don't always know exactly where these sort of anti-democracy actors are going to point to next, but the increase in threats and harassment from anti-democracy movements in the U.S. has become so frequent that this is something that absolutely just needs to be planned for."

At the Target in South Florida, shoppers have called employees "child groomers," a far-right slang term for pedophiles, and accused them of "shoving your woke agenda down our throats," according to the manager who spoke to The Washington Post.

When he donned a bright safety vest over his company-issued Pride-themed T-shirt to help a customer carry goods to his car, the shopper looked at him and said, "Oh, is that so I could shoot you easier?"

That interaction leaves the supervisor with conflicting feelings about Target's decision to pull back its Pride merchandise. "It's 50-50," he said. "I hate it, but I kind of understand it."

On one hand, he felt the company had abandoned its LGBTQ+ employees. But he also can see reasons for backing down because the harassment from customers makes him feel unsafe.

Target, one of the largest American general-merchandise retailers, said it has offered products celebrating Pride Month for more than a decade. Chief executive Brian Cornell has touted his company's efforts regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. Initiatives in that area have "fueled much of our growth over the last nine years" and "added value," he told Fortune's Leadership Next podcast last month.

Target representatives did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The Target controversy follows the backlash and boycotts that Anheuser-Busch faced in April over its Bud Light partnership with transgender actress Dylan Mulvaney. Republican lawmakers chastised the brand and angry consumers posted videos on social media of themselves dumping the beer into the street.

The company later pulled back the campaign, and chief executive Brendan Whitworth posted an open letter on the company's Twitter account: "We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer." But the reversal also angered the LGBTQ+ community, and sales have dropped.

Some companies have moved forward with their plans for Pride Month despite the high-profile incidents. Nike, North Face and PetSmart have so far ignored the backlash targeted at them. Kohl's and Walmart have also gotten heat from far right fringe activists, who have called for boycotts over the stores' LGBTQ+ merchandise, but have not given in. Walmart Chief Merchandising Officer Latriece Watkins said at a panel discussion Wednesday the company has not "changed anything in our assortment."

Kohl's did not respond to The Post's request for comment.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, sees a great risk if companies back down in the face of growing attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and see stores come under threats of violence.

"As soon as you cede ground to extremists, you give them more permission," she said.

According to experts on extremism, the boycotts - and the threats and harassment that have extended from them - are part of a diffused but focused campaign that's inflamed by influential conservatives exploiting TikTok and right-wing media.

One of those is Matt Walsh, an anti-LGBTQ commentator for the right-wing Daily Wire, who tweeted in April that conservatives should "pick a victim, gang up on it, and make an example of it."

"We can't boycott every woke company or even most of them," he tweeted. "But we can pick one, it hardly matters which, and target it with a ruthless boycott campaign. Claim one scalp then move onto the next."

Right-wing figures such as Walsh target businesses because corporate actions can suggest broader acceptance of queer individuals, said Schubiner of the Western States Center. Conversely, when companies self-censor their product offerings or promotional materials because of outside pressure, they become well-established weak points in the Pride movement, she said.

Vocal extremists that companies rebuff or ignore generally move on in search of others to victimize, while businesses and organizations that react, either aggressively or cautiously, position themselves as easier targets, Schubiner said.

"Bigoted and anti-democracy groups try a bunch of different things to see what will stick," she said. "They're doing some experimentation."

Far-right critics have even turned against fast-food chain Chick-fil-A - whose charitable foundation has been criticized by liberals for donations to anti-LGBTQ groups - after a conservative political strategist tweeted that the company has a vice president in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion.

GLAAD's Ellis noted that violence against the LGBTQ community has been on the rise as GOP lawmakers "demonize our community." They include Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who amplified a transphobic music video on Twitter that accused Target of "targeting your kids."

More than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills - though most will not pass - have been introduced in states across the country so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 29 bills targeting transgender rights have become law in 14 states so far this year, according to The Post's analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

For his part, the Target supervisor has seen the rhetoric amp up over the three years he has worked there: More customers have openly expressed homophobic and sexist views, especially since Florida last year enacted a law backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to limit the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools.

"People here are feeling they can really come forward and speak their opinion," he said.

Wen Parks, who works part-time at a Target in Normal, Ill., said her store has not received any threats. But some customers have become aggressive and are raising their voice when complaining about the store's Pride merchandise "even after stock was limited," she said in an email to The Post.

Late last week, managers were instructed to take down the display, Parks said. As a queer employee, she found the decision devastating.

"When I started here at Target, I went through countless inclusivity and anti-discrimination trainings, and they are even required to be taken again at a certain time," Parks said. "Employees are strongly led to believe that these are Target's values, that everyone is equal and belongs. But taking down displays sends the exact opposite message. I no longer feel valued as an employee."

Hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community and businesses that support it has accelerated so rapidly, corporate security experts say, that it's difficult for businesses to keep pace with evolving threats.

A big-box retailer might position extra uniformed or plainclothes security around a store, especially if the shop is in an area where there is less public support for LGBTQ individuals, said Kristin Lenardson, vice president of embedded intelligence services at Crisis24, a corporate security consultancy that works with major businesses. Crisis24 does not work with Target.

The retailer could also stage security in the parking lot, or at another location nearby to more quickly respond to disturbances, Lenardson said. Corporate security teams also frequently draft employee guidance to help managers de-escalate tense interactions.

Despite an increasing number of confrontations at the manager's store in south Florida, Target has not brought in more security or implemented new policies when interacting with customers, the manager said.

"Retail workers, like everybody else, are living in a highly volatile and politicized environment right now," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "They're seen too often as being invisible and disposable and not as people who should be treated with respect."

Appelbaum noted that companies need to make these changes to better protect its workers and customers - and retire the idea that "the customer is always right."

Some groups that study extremism and extremist actors online have begun encouraging employers to instruct staffers to simply walk away on grounds that it's not worth drawing a staffer into a potentially violent interaction or viral video with a right-wing provocateur.

Businesses could also benefit from building relationships year-round with pride event organizers, local elected officials and law enforcement, who can provide logistical and public support in the event of an anti-LGBTQ incident, Schubiner said.

"We know when these things are going to be happening and how to plan for them in advance," Lenardson said. "Does it make it any easier … or any emotionally easier on employees? No, it doesn't. I think the security part is the easy part."

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