Anti-‘Pride’ backlash can have legal consequences, 15 attorneys general tell Target CEO

Transgender Juanje Garrido/Shutterstock

LGBT Pride displays and merchandise at the retailer Target recently provoked controversy, including calls for boycotts and, in some cases, apparent anti-LGBT harassment and property destruction. This has been followed by apparent pro-LGBT threats of violence against the company after it removed the merchandise from some stores.

Now, attorneys general from 14 states and the District of Columbia have written to the CEO of Target voicing support for its LGBT Pride merchandise and warning that some actions against Target or its employees can have legal consequences.

The June 16 letter to Brian C. Cornell, chair and CEO of Target Corporation, came from the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Minnesota, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

They deplored “intimidation of Target staff” and “destruction of certain Pride-related merchandise” at Target stores. They said that in their view the company’s stores have been the victim of “potentially criminal acts.”

“If Target again finds itself facing anti-LGBTQIA+ harassment — whether of customers or employees — store management or the corporate office are encouraged to reach out to our offices,” the attorneys’ general letter said, using an LGBT acronym that adds queer, intersex, and asexual.

Target has hosted Pride displays for more than a decade. This year’s items have been particularly controversial.

Target has sold adult women’s-style swimwear intended to help transgender-identifying men conceal their genitals. It has rejected claims it sold such swimwear for children, the Associated Press reported. However, it does sell a children’s swimskirt with a tag describing itself as fit for “Multiple Body Types and Gender Expressions.”

One of its merchandise partners, the U.K.-based Abprallen, provided three items with pro-LGBT slogans.

Abprallen designer Eric Carnell sells other fashion designs not used in Target that contain occult imagery. One shirt, modeled by Carnell on Instagram, praises Satan for respecting pronouns, Fox News reported. Other Abprallen merchandise includes a pin that says “heteronormativity is a plague,” while another depicts a guillotine as a “homophobe headrest.”

Carnell is a transgender man (a biological woman who identifies as a man). Carnell claims not to believe in a literal Satan, but treats Satanic imagery as symbolic. Carnell reported receiving hundreds of hostile messages, including death threats, after the Target merchandise and other Abprallen offerings became a focus of controversy on social media.

Target removed Pride offerings from some stores, including “items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior,” it said in a May 24 statement.

Some incidents at Target stores have come from vocal critics of Pride displays.

In late May, a man in a Missoula, Montana, Target tore down a Pride merchandise display and harassed two college students described as a transgender couple, The Daily Montanan reported.  

In early June, a manager at a Target in South Florida told the Washington Post that some shoppers have called employees “child groomers.”

Unknown persons who depict themselves as LGBT advocates have also threatened violence.

On June 10, in identical emails to news outlets, an unknown person threatened several Target stores in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. The messages accused Target of betraying the LGBT community, the Washington Post reported.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, police searched two Target stores after bomb threats from unknown people claimed Target “betrayed the LGBTQ+ community” and are “pathetic cowards who bowed to the wishes of far-right extremists who want to exterminate us.”

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People claiming to be angry about the removal of merchandise made several bomb threats to stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

The FBI and the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force are assisting with some investigations of the threats. Local police also investigated Target stores for safety threats.

The 15 attorneys general told Target CEO Cornell that they understood why the company would pull some Pride merchandise on grounds of worker and customer safety. They voiced readiness to address “anti-LGBTQIA+ threats and harassment” and said Target’s Pride merchandise “helps LGBTQIA+ people see that they enjoy considerable support and that loud and intimidating fringe voices and bullies do not represent the views of society at large.”

They said that as Target considers its response, the company should be mindful of its obligations under their states’ anti-discrimination laws that protect sexual orientation and gender identity.

“While these laws certainly do not create a legal obligation for retailers to offer any particular merchandise or create any particular displays, they do demand that customers be treated equally,” their letter said.

Massachusetts’ law, the letter noted, allows customers or other members of the public to be held liable if they discriminate on the basis of a protected class, and those who believe their rights are threatened by threats, harassment, intimidation, or coercion may seek legal injunctions. The Minnesota Human Rights Act also bars anyone from intentionally obstructing or preventing any person from complying with its law.

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