Rash of legislation, intimidation, threats of violence pressure LGBTQ allies
On eve of Pride Month, companies, nonprofits wrestle with how public their support for equality should be
Target’s Pride Month displays have led to threats of violence and confrontations in stores, the company said this week. (Photo: Joe Killian)
When the giant retail chain Target rolled out its line of LGBTQ Pride Month merchandise earlier this month, it was welcomed as a bright spot in a dark year of near unprecedented legislative assaults for the community.
More than 700 bills have been filed across the country, including in North Carolina, that would restrict how LGBTQ people can express themselves and participate in youth sports, the medical decisions they can make with their families and doctors, and which lessons and books dealing with queer figures can be taught in public schools.
With nearly 2,000 Target locations in 51 U.S. States and territories, the major retailer brings a lot of eyes to marginalized communities with products during Black History, Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage and Pride months and partnerships with minority designers and influencers throughout the year. For more than a decade, the company has celebrated Pride month each June.
But in a political environment in which Anheuser-Busch recently experienced a major conservative backlash for helping a trans influencer celebrate her transition with a personalized Budweiser beer can, some questioned how they would proceed this year.
Target opted for a bold approach. It located large and colorful displays near the entrances to its stores with shirts and jackets featuring messages like “Trans People Will Always Exist,” “We Belong Everywhere” and “Queers Take Care of Each Other.” The products were met rapturously by the LGBTQ community and its allies, with breathless TikTok reviews and an explosion of photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Those celebrations were dulled this week, however, when Target announced it was pulling some of the merchandise following right-wing complaints, confrontations, and threats of violence against its stores and its employees over the line of products.
“Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work,” the company said in a written statement posted to its website. “Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior. Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”
For many in North Carolina, it felt like the latest in a series of incidents in which people, organizations and companies once recognized as allies have bowed to political pressure and, increasingly, extremist violence from anti-LGBTQ forces.
“Wrong and cowardly”
Last week, the North Carolina Bar Association, canceled a planned drag trivia night at MotorCo Music Hall in Durham. Unlike Target, the private association, which is separate from the North Carolina State Bar, didn’t cite threats of violence. Instead, it told members that a drag night might be seen as too political and thereby hamper its lobbying efforts with the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly that is backing a bill to criminalize drag performances.
“The cancellation of this event is wrong and cowardly,” LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality NC said in a statement on the cancellation. “In the past few years, we’ve seen escalating attacks on the LGBTQ+ community from our opposition, seeking to marginalize us. These attacks are nothing new. For decades, extremists have used harmful rhetoric to attack LGBTQ+ people and build their own power at the expense of others. And in times like these, we need our allies to take a stand for our community – not cave to extremist demands.”
This week Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC, told NC Newsline the cancellation of that event was deeply disappointing, particularly because LGBTQ attorneys within the Bar Association had planned it as a celebration of their community and the LGBTQ people they serve.
“Laws criminalizing drag are a matter of censorship, plain and simple,” Johnson said. “These attorneys understand that. To say that it would be seen as political is not enough.”
“If our allies back down at the first sign of a threat, then all is lost, really,” Johnson said. “We’re at a place where we need people to do what is right. And not what is comfortable.”
That said, Johnson said she had sympathy for Target — a long-time corporate ally torn between standing up for the LGBTQ community and trying to protect is own employees from the very real violence anti-LGBTQ forces perpetrate every day.
“Fascism in action”
“It’s terrible when allies either retreat or are silent,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, they are facing literal fascist violence threats. That’s fascism in action — they will carry out violence if they can’t intimidate you in other ways.”
“What shouldn’t be missed is that these are the threats and the violence that our community has always faced and is increasingly facing right now,” Johnson said. “And we’re seeing it expand now, to threats and violence against anyone who stands with us, anyone who is an ally.”
As Newsline reported last fall, calls for intimidation and even violence over LGBTQ issues are becoming more common at even the highest levels of elected office in the state.
In October, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, now a candidate for governor, gave a speech in which he bemoaned that Christian conservatives are not willing enough to physically confront — and, if necessary, assault — people to suppress LGBTQ literature in public libraries and prevent public drag performances.
“No longer is a Christian willing to grab that whip and walk into the public library,” Robinson told a crowd at an event held by the conservative American Renewal Project. “And tell them, ‘In this library you will not use my tax dollars to promote sin to these children, and if I have to come in here and tear these books out myself and run that drag queen out of here myself, I will!’”
Protests and threats against libraries for carrying books and holding events to which conservatives object are in fact on the rise the last few years. One group taking the steps Robinson suggests: neo-Nazis. Last July about 20 members of a neo-Nazi group in Boston mounted just such a library protest, leading to the arrest of their leader.
Closer to home, the Forsyth County Republican Men’s Club protested a Drag Queen Storytime event in last June — not at a public library but at Bookmarks, a privately owned independent bookstore in Winston-Salem. Messages promoting the protest called it “perversion” and the chairman of the county GOP called it the work of “militant gay leftists trying to separate children from their parents.”
The incident, an assault on the right of private businesses and their customers to peaceably hold legal events on their own property, was the sort of escalation the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented and explored through recent studies on the rise of extremism in America.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a small but very vocal group of far-right, anti-LGBTQ forces dialing up the volume and cruelty of their extreme rhetoric,” said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. “Their goal is to bully allies of the LGBTQ+ community into silence and retreat. What is missing from this conversation is that the vast majority of the country does not agree with this radical, hate-filled agenda and we are seeing an unprecedented level of public opinion polling showing supermajority support for LGBTQ+ equality.”
“It is important that the loudest, angriest, most reactive voices do not prevail and that corporations and policy makers know that most Americans support equality and LGBTQ+ people having the right to live their lives with dignity, respect and freedom,” Beach-Ferrara said.
“Republicans buy sneakers too”
As a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills passed the House and Senate last month, Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), the Senate Majority Leader, said the business community should “strengthen its back” as LGBTQ community and its allies call on corporations to oppose such laws.
“If you look at Anheuser-Busch, you look at Disney, I think the business community is waking up to the notion that they need to serve their shareholders, complete their fiduciary duty to their shareholders and stay out of the politics of social issues,” Newton said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who announced a bid for president this week, has been feuding with the Disney corporation over its criticism of conservative policies in his state. With DeSantis threatening legislative and executive action against the company, Disney announced last week it was pulling the plug on a planned $1 billion investment in the state and a division relocation that would have brought 2,000 jobs from California.
Newton invoked a North Carolina native basketball legend to make his point.
“I suggest to you many years ago that Michael Jordan had it right when he said that ‘Republicans buy Nikes, too.’” Newton said.
In fact, Jordan is reported to have said “Republicans buy sneakers, too” — a comment he says he made in jest among teammates to explain why he was privately donating to Democrat Harvey Gantt’s campaign to defeat then-Senator Jesse Helms, rather than publicly endorsing him.
While Jordan stayed out of an actual political campaign, he and the Jordan brand have in fact given millions to progressive social causes. Jordan still has a close and lucrative relationship with Nike, whose CEO John Donahoe this week encouraged corporations to express and stand by their social values even in the face of political pressure of the type Disney has faced. Nike values racial and social justice and isn’t shy about it, Donahoe said in an interview at a CNBC forum.
“In addition, our core consumer for the Nike brand, the Jordan Brand, the Converse brand, are urban Black and brown communities,” Donahoe said. “That’s where sneaker culture started. And so, we listen to our athletes and to our consumer about what they care about and they care about racial and social justice and so we view that as core to who we are, core to our identity … so it gives us a little more courage to speak out.”
More CEOs and corporations need to take that sort of stand, North Carolina Rep. Marcia Morey (R-Durham) told Newsline as anti-LGBTQ bills proliferated in the state this session.
“I would hope the business community would have some leverage,” Morey said. “Is this a good climate to bring your business if this is the type of priority starting out our legislative session?”
A number of the bills that seem destined for Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk and a veto fight this session didn’t even get a vote in the last session, as the state was courting Apple to bring an east coast campus to the Triangle. Now that Apple is here and these things are passing in the state, Morey said, the company should think about its values and its employees.
“Look at [Apple CEO] Tim Cook,” Morey said. “He’s gay. Does this seem like a very welcoming state for your business?”
Apple was one of the largest of the 300 companies that signed on to a Human Rights Campaign statement opposing anti-LGBTQ legislation earlier this year. But the company hasn’t taken the sort of vocal stand in the states where it does major business — perhaps, Morey said, because the battle is now being fought on so many fronts in so many states.
“There was total shock when you read about some of these things in Florida,” Morey said. “But then this red wave from state to state and we pick up the playbook — from Texas to Florida to wherever else.”
“There are other ways of advocating”
Corporations may not be as publicly vocal as they were when anti-LGBTQ laws were passing in just a handful of states, Johnson said. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t opposing them.
“There are other ways of advocating and being an ally,” Johnson said. “I know a lot of that is happening behind closed doors right now. There are different ways of negotiating, I think.”
From privately lobbying lawmakers without a public confrontation to moving employees who no longer feel safe in states with anti-LGBTQ laws, Johnson said, she’s aware of a number of large companies who are still living their values. Indeed, earlier this year the Carolina Hurricanes hosted and celebrated their own “Pride Night.”
“We know that there is still discontent in the business community with the legislature moving in these directions,” Johnson said. “And just because we don’t see visible representation, just because people have not signed on to letters or statements does not mean that they’re not voicing their discontent behind closed doors. That’s just the reality. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t had and are not having all the conversations to talk about the impact that this will have on their businesses.”
“We’ll have to see if they will listen,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to see the difference that makes.”
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