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same old hate

The Origins of the Right’s War on Target

Target has put up Pride displays since 2015. What’s so different about this year?

Two demonstrators stand next to a Target shopping cart holding anti-LGBTQ signs.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Protesters outside of a Target store in Miami on June 1

One week into Pride month, it appears that the biggest Pride story is, as multiple outlets have put it,  a “backlash” against Target over its in-store displays of LGBTQ-affirming merchandise. Fox News (obviously) has played its part in constructing this narrative, offering everything from sympathetic coverage of the so-called backlash to flat-out fictions about children’s swimwear designed for tucking. (The product was for adults.) Target removed other LGBTQ-affirming merchandise from some stores following a pressure campaign led by various figures on the far right.

But this is not Fox’s story alone. “Target becomes latest company to suffer backlash for LGBTQ+ support, pulls some Pride month clothing,” the AP reported in May. The rhetoric in stories across the media spectrum, from The New York Times to NPR to Reuters to CNN, was that Target workers were facing harassment and death threats at work as a result of customers who are angry about Pride-themed displays. 

A backlash, one might assume, follows on from some other event, something that has motivated an opposing force. Something has to have happened to spark a reaction. But what is currently being characterized by most media outlets as a “backlash” to Pride is not a reaction to anything, let alone anything new that queer and trans people have done. 

Target has observed Pride with special merchandise and in-store displays since 2015, “the year that the United States legalized gay marriage nationwide and every corporation rejoiced at the newfound acceptability of pandering to a whole new demographic,” James Factora wrote last month at Them. But the right has been coming after Target since at least 2012, when it first debuted several Pride T-shirts with vague, rainbow-hued affirmations like “Love is Love” and (?) “HARMONY.” Target used the tees to raise money for a marriage equality group, angering same-sex marriage opponents, like in Minnesota, where a ballot initiative defining marriage as only between one man and one woman would go before voters that year. In 2014, the anti–marriage equality group National Organization for Marriage, or NOM, announced a boycott of Target, because the retailer was “Insulting Pro-Marriage Americans”—rhetoric that seems positively quaint in today’s environment. 

In contrast to years past, it is entirely unclear what Target has done this time, while the harassment has escalated to bomb threats. This year’s Pride merch is just as maybe-not-purposefully camp (a “Drag Queen Bird Decorative Figurine”) and vaguely affirming (a “gender euphoria” scented candle). But in 2023, eleven years after that first T-shirt, a tolerance for anti-LGBTQ harassment and violence has begun to migrate from the fringe to the mainstream. Protests outside Drag Story Hour events have shifted into state legislatures, with a record amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed and passed this year. 

What is new, then, is this boldness, to go after Target for its own status quo. If all this is a reaction to anything, it is to the fact that claims that children must be protected from drag now have the force of the law behind them. And this year, when harassment erupts into violence, such attacks have been met by an alarmingly muted response. 

The Washington Post reported this week on how one manager at a Target in South Florida “donned a bright safety vest over his company-issued Pride-themed T-shirt to help a customer carry goods to his car.” According to the manager’s account, “the shopper looked at him and said, ‘Oh, is that so I could shoot you easier?’” 

Rather than ask the people who are making death threats to Target workers over the store’s Pride displays to leave their stores, Target has chosen to pull the merchandise. “Given these volatile circumstances,” explains a Target corporate statement from May 24, “we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.” 

Target seems to have given in to the “backlash,” which increasingly resembles not a boycott but a terror campaign. And just as chillingly, the people making death threats are being cast—as The Washington Post did in that same story—not as extremist thugs, but as “emboldened shoppers.”  

There is an important story here, but it’s not a story of backlash. To make sense of the campaign against Target, we need to understand how an amalgam of influencers, from white Christian nationalist politicians to violent far-right street groups, have been unashamedly grafting a vintage Satanic Panic narrative of child mutilation and pedophilia onto the retailer’s annual displays of mass-produced rainbow kitsch (which is more celebrated for its high meme potential than anything else). 

The backlash, in truth, is the invention of people like Charlie Kirk, the co-founder of misinformation-peddling right-wing youth group Turning Point USA, which now increasingly appeals to Christian nationalist aims such as “restor[ing] America’s biblical values.” Kirk is just one of many figures on the right whose Twitter feeds fill at this time of year with scapegoating commentary alleging that Pride is a vehicle for “grooming”—and who spend a lot of the rest of the year pushing anti-LGBTQ propaganda too. On his self-titled streaming show on May 24, Kirk stumbled through an imagined demise of Target—“Chapter 11, OK? I want skull and bones all the way down to the absolute nails of the stores”—before steadying himself with the rhetoric of violent backlash. “The only thing [Target] understand[s] is force,” Kirk said. “Pain is a teacher, and the pain of crossing the line to perverting our children and grooming them, it’s going to be a lesson I hope corporate America watches because ordinary America is pushing back.”

On June 5, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, echoed Kirk. On the podcast hosted by Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, Huckabee claimed that Pride was “no longer about” those “people who are homosexual or lesbian” and “who just want to be able to love who [they] want to love.” (After the Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015, Huckabee invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in voicing his support for elected officials who may refuse to follow the law.) No, Huckabee claimed, “this is about forcing people to accept a lifestyle that includes the most irrational things, like mutilation of children’s bodies, and permanently and irreparably doing damage to them.” Huckabee’s daughter, current Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has signed several anti-LGBTQ laws this session, including an anti-trans bathroom ban and her own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.

If anything has ever been constant about opposition to what was once called gay liberation, it is that somewhere, someone thinks the gays have gone too far. In 2011, more than a decade before his recent chat with Huckabee, Perkins called gay rights activists “aggressive,” claiming, “they’re intolerant, they’re hateful, vile, they’re spiteful.” Far from hanging up these talking points in the post–marriage equality era, the Christian right is constantly, openly updating them. “It was about 20 years ago that a conservative commentator stated that, because the homosexual movement could not grow by reproduction, it had to grow by seduction,” the anti-LGBTQ Christian radio host and author Michael L. Brown wrote in 2021. “What this conservative commentator should had said was this: ‘The homosexual movement cannot grow by biological replication, so instead, it puts its emphasis on ideological indoctrination.’ That would remain true to this day.”

Kirk and Huckabee, along with those leading the charge against Target, are simply repurposing this old reliable schtick. The retailer joins the long list of villains—Disney, which has attracted boycotts from groups like the Southern Baptist Convention since the 1990s for not condemning Gay Day events in its theme parks; Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, decreed a stealth “gay-pride symbol” by Jerry Falwell in 1999 (when Charlie Kirk was 6 years old); Sponge-Bob Squarepants, similarly accused in 2005 by James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family—that the Christian right have claimed are trying to turn kids gay, and now, trans. 

It’s obvious that this same decades-old rhetoric is now being turned against Target. It’s equally obvious that a big box store where one can be tranquilized year-round by the repetitive neutrals of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s modern Christian farmhouse home goods line is not at all the site of mass queer and trans recruitment that its clout-chasing foes, in their endless content streams, claim it to be. 

But Target doesn’t have to be anything like that. The lazy coverage of the battlefield at Target helps these extreme groups succeed in painting themselves as merely reacting to some queer aggression, made possible in part by a political press punting on the story and instead describing these attacks on queer and trans communities as a “backlash.” It’s just another scene in an endless psychosexual drama that seems to escape political reporters, as if they don’t have evidence in their own publications’ archives.

This is, most simply put, the next stage in the right’s scapegoating and dehumanizing of queer and trans people. What is new is that the right has chosen to stage its attacks in retail stores. As Target has indicated, this is ground they will cede.