Pride Month is a time when retailers across the country install displays of LGBTQ+ merchandise, much of it consisting of rainbow-bedazzled tchotchkes and T-shirts with supportive, PG-rated slogans.
For many LGBTQ+ people, this June “pinkwashing” is a mixed blessing: an undeniable sign of acceptance that simultaneously feels like a cynical cash grab. At worst, it can spur a backlash against both the product and the wider community, as with personal care brand Every Man Jack’s ill-considered appeal to “groom with pride,” which Twitter trolls leapt on with savage glee.
This year, though, things are different. The climate has shifted remarkably, with heated rhetoric around the sexualization of children, opposition to transgender people playing sports and legislation equating drag performances with child abuse. These campaigns have combined to create a potent, multipronged assault on LGBTQ+ people that threatens to undo decades of progress.
Last year’s Lil Nas X M&M's and Taco Bell touring drag brunch have given way to people filming themselves upending rainbow displays in the name of family values. The Los Angeles Dodgers disinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a philanthropic troupe of drag nuns founded in San Francisco, from appearing at Pride Night (after pushback, the team reinvited them).
Target, in particular, has been singled out for the alleged sexualization of children, with commentator Candace Owens saying that anyone who shops there is a pervert. In response to the conservative uproar, the Minnesota-based retailer pulled numerous LGBTQ+ products in late May.
Bud Light took a big hit as well. After the beer—a staple of queer bars everywhere—put trans actor and TikToker Dylan Mulvaney on the can, conservatives erupted about Anheuser-Busch going woke. Two executives were put on leave, Bud Light alienated people on all sides, and sales have reportedly fallen by almost 30%.
The response from some quarters of the LGBTQ+ community has whipsawed from mild annoyance at rainbow capitalism’s clumsiness to outrage as it goes away. As Carolyn Wysinger, the former president of San Francisco Pride, put it, “We say eff the corporations but then get mad when they give into the right.”
This fight is not an isolated dust-up to get Target to stop selling certain clothes; it’s one theater in a wider war.
At a Target in Downtown San Francisco’s Metreon shopping center, the Pride display remains intact. Somewhat haphazard, with rainbow doormats and cake mixes abutting transgender flag socks, it’s actually the first thing customers see when they ascend the elevator from ground level.
At the same time, the “Take Pride” sign in front of the collection shows a smiling man and woman, a configuration that’s about as heterosexual as it gets.
One employee was decked out in sparkly eye makeup and rainbows, including a fluffy, iridescent tail—the very portrait of an openly LGBTQ+ person working an ordinary job.
“I’m accessorizing with the merchandise,” said the associate, who declined to give their name. “We’ve gotten no complaints. Just lots of nice comments. Most people want to touch my tail.”
Indeed, no one at the Metreon was stomping all over T-shirts with the word “QUEER” on them or setting fire to the latest release by the nonbinary musician Sam Smith.
The same is true over in the Castro District, home of the 75-year-old Cliff’s Variety. Cliff’s may be unique in the American retail landscape, perhaps the one place where you can buy Unicorn Snot glitter and naughty birthday cards while thumbing through paint swatches and getting keys duplicated.
The 75-year-old shop hired openly LGBTQ+ people in the 1970s, and it’s stocked Pride-themed products for almost as long.
“As soon as it came out, we carried it,” said Terry Asten Bennett, one of the owners. “When I graduated from college in 1997, we were full-blown into the rainbow merch.”
As the most famously gay store in the most famously gay neighborhood, it’s endured only a few benignly disgruntled customers.
“The only people who ever complained about the rainbow were old gay men,” Bennett said.
Bennett gets many of her products from Prerogatives, the wholesaler that runs pridecatalog.com. The business, founded by CEO David Wilson, has been in operation since 1988, working with as many as 45 Pride festivals in the firm’s first 15 years. It has subsequently moved out of retail to become a wholesale-only company, largely dedicated to adult products.
“I’ve always thought it was funny that Target had its Pride section, because it was so poorly thought out in the past,” Wilson said. “The idea of the mainstream deciding to jump on the gay bandwagon was something that I’ve never fully supported myself, because we have always been the underdog.”
Prerogatives made stuff like little rainbow flags and “freedom rings”—those necklaces that look vaguely like the Olympics insignia and were ubiquitous at Pride parades decades ago. These items were meant for the LGBTQ+ community to wave and to wear during a time when doing so was a small act of bravery, especially for people in smaller cities or anyone just escaping the closet.
Before e-commerce, they were also much harder to find. Now, the category of “gay products” has expanded to include all manner of products, often emblazoned with slogans like “Love Is Love” that feel banal and inadequate in light of the fervid reaction against queer and trans visibility. Nor do they necessarily look as though they were made for LGBTQ+ consumers.
“I don’t think they actually asked a gay person to design it,” Wilson said of Target’s displays. “I found the selection of products to be not very creative, considering that they’re marketing to the gay community.”
Those retailers, he said, should reframe those sections as what you might call a “straight ally department.” Otherwise, it feels disingenuous.
“Target is never going to work with small, independent artists,” Wilson added. “They just make it impossible.”
Dave Sloan, a former merchandising executive who worked at LGBTQ-friendly San Francisco-based companies like Levi’s and the Gap, sees the question a little differently.
Target, he said, “had a whole bunch of queer- and trans-owned companies that they were buying merch from. Several got caught because of this backlash.”
The current climate, in which companies publicly dither over whether to work with LGBTQ+ organizations or sell LGBTQ+ products, has left him unsettled as a gay man.
“It’s pretty clear that, to some degree, companies are scared,” he said. “You can see it with what happened with Target and the backlash with Bud Light. ‘We want to avoid a Bud Light incident,’ when said by executives, is a pretty scary statement for the LGBTQ+ community.”
Creating a product line, then, is not about seeing a gay dollar to cynically extract then swooping in for the kill. It’s about a huge company that may very well have large numbers of LGBTQ-identified employees recognizing that their customer base is both gay and straight and trying to create stuff that’s cute and interesting and attractive to the widest range of buyers.
Sloan sees the current fight in more existential terms than merely fretting over the next quarterly earnings report.
“If you’re pushing these illogical agendas that are just grounded in culture wars, and there’s no true basis in anything at all, you’re not going to coincide anything,” he said. “You’re going to fight until you get what you want, and they want an eradication of queer people, of trans people. You’re giving them strength in their movement.”
Some of the invective in conservative quarters bears this out. Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA made use of notably blood-soaked rhetoric, demanding “skull and bones all the way down to the absolute nails of the stores.”
Although Target CEO Brian Cornell issued a memo in support of the chain’s employees, the company did not reply to several requests for comment.
Resurgent hatred has left many LGBTQ+ people fearing that their hard-won gains may soon be extinguished, but the contours of the issue have also grown somewhat cartoonish. No less a conservative stalwart as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has come under attack for his lukewarm support of the Target boycott, and for expressing reservations that Uganda now treats homosexuality as a capital crime. Fast-food giant Chick-fil-A, long seen as a bastion of Christian values, has faced criticism for hiring a vice president of diversity.
Then there’s the belief that LGBTQ+ people aren’t people at all, but malevolent supernatural beings. Moms for Liberty and other ultra-conservative groups have promoted a meme that shows the words “PRIDE MONTH” gradually disappear until all that remains are the central letters: “DEMON.” This year at Pride, expect to see plenty of LGBTQ+ people proudly wearing it as they march, unfazed. A queer and trans artist named Veya reappropriated the design and put it on a shirt.
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org