Target has pulled some of its products celebrating Pride Month and the LGBTQ community in response to threats and "confrontational behavior" at certain stores.
In recent days, social media has buzzed with conservative backlash to Pride merchandise at Target. One video showed a man taking down and stomping on a rainbow #takepride cardboard store display. Others showed people confronting store employees about the Pride sections or products.
Target has also received calls threatening violence on its customer hotline. Target declined to go into specifics, including if any direct threats were made to its Minneapolis headquarters and what items are no longer available.
"Since introducing this year's collection, we've experienced threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and wellbeing while at work," the company said in a statement. "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."
While Target didn't list the specific items removed from its shelves, the online outrage appeared to center on a few products.
Some were swimwear made for those who identify as transgender with a "tuck-friendly" crotch and "light binding" chest construction. Several social media users, including some prominent politicians, incorrectly said the swimsuits were made for children. Those items were still available online and part of the Pride displays at the fronts of the Nicollet Mall and Minneapolis Quarry stores Wednesday.
The other apparel and accessory items were from U.K.-based brand Abprallen, which critics accuse of expressing "Satanist" views in its designs. On the brand's website, the designer — who identifies as a gay, trans man — explained that he juxtaposes the use of pastels with "imagery of skulls and spooky things," an interest of his since childhood as "there's something magical about the unknown, the frightening and the mystical."
Those products are no longer on Target's website. But one of the designer's items — a pink fanny pack with a space theme saying, "We belong everywhere" — was still on shelves at the Minneapolis Quarry and Richfield stores.
Rebecca Droste of Minneapolis said she felt torn about Target's response, since it's important to protect workers but also to show support for the LGBTQ community.
"It's really sad that people are so hateful that they would be upset about Pride. It's heartbreaking," Droste said.
Krista Tinei, also of Minneapolis, was shopping the Richfield Target for Pride merchandise for her nonbinary child and was disappointed to hear the news.
"It makes me so mad that people have the power to censor this," she said. "This is supposed to be a celebration."
In recent years, many companies have tried to weigh in on hot-button issues. That's partly because it has grown increasingly important for many shoppers — particularly young ones — to know "what side of the fence" companies are on, said Kim Sovell, a marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas.
"Companies are no longer able to straddle this fine line," Sovell said. "Companies nowadays need to take a stand."
Bud Light recently endured similar outcry for partnering with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a sponsored social media video in early April. That spurred some critics to call for boycotting the beer.
What Target workers are enduring is a reflection of the heightened aggression the LGBTQ community has faced in recent months, said Kat Rohn, executive director of the prominent local LGBTQ rights group OutFront Minnesota.
Rohn said some of the cause for the open hostility is likely increasingly divisive political rhetoric, like in Florida, where several anti-LGBTQ laws have passed recently.
"The idea that you can walk into a store and threaten somebody about a Pride display is something that should be seen as unacceptable," Rohn said.
OutFront would like confirmed details from Target on what items it's pulling before deciding if the organization supports the decision.
"We don't want the message to be that if people bully companies, they win," Rohn said.
Sonia Thompson, a Tampa, Fla.-based inclusive marketing strategist and consultant, said she's been a big fan of Target and its focus on inclusivity both internally and externally. She acknowledged this particular situation is tricky because it involves safety concerns, and she appreciates the retailer wanting to keep its employees safe.
At the same time, instead of giving in to "a vocal minority," she wishes the retailer had responded differently.
"It feels like they are backtracking," she said. "I think a better approach would be to beef up security, do more training for team members and to prosecute the people making threats. I think that would show a deeper commitment to safety. It also adds respect to the LGBTQ+ community because you're acknowledging what they go through on a regular basis."
This isn't the first time Target has made concessions on transgender issues. In 2016 — shortly after North Carolina passed a law restricting public bathroom use to a person's biological gender — the retailer announced customers could choose whichever bathroom aligned with their gender identity.
That also incurred mixed reactions, including loud social media debate between politicians. Within a couple months, Target decided to invest $20 million to add private restrooms to stores that didn't already have them to appease critics.
In a podcast interview with Fortune last week, Target CEO Brian Cornell backed Target's dedication to diversity and its culture of "helping all the families" despite possible backlash.
"The facts are in the results for us and the things we've done from a [diversity, equity and inclusion] standpoint," he said. "It's adding value. It's helping us drive sales. It's building greater engagement with both our teams and our guests."
Last year — just as it has done for a decade — Target featured a Pride collection with more than 250 pieces of apparel, pet accessories and party supplies. The displays showcasing the assortment arrive in stores in May in advance of June's Pride Month.
"Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community," read Target's statement, "and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year."