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Minnesota LGBTQ leaders who not long ago considered Target one of their greatest corporate allies have begun to question the Minneapolis retailer's values after last week's announcement it would no longer sell its commemorative Pride merchandise in all stores.

While LGBTQ advocates expected changes after conservative boycotts exacerbated already declining sales for the retailer a year ago, they said the push to remove Pride items from a large number of Target's nearly 2,000 stores has undermined the years of progress the company has made to be more inclusive. They added it could also alienate LGBTQ customers, especially in areas with less Pride visibility.

"It can feel trivial to some of us who get to see rainbow flags or get to see Pride gear in June pretty much everywhere we go in the Twin Cities metro area, but to have that Pride T-shirt at that front display ... is a sign of being part of the broader conversation in your community," said Kat Rohn, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Outfront Minnesota. "When those things are taken away, particularly when they have been part of communities or they have been part of stores for a while, it can really hit people hard."

Last May, Target pulled some of the products from shelves in what the company said was an effort to protect employees after confrontations with angry customers. During that time, Target experienced a rare dip in its comparable sales of more than 5% — its first drop in six years — as the retailer navigated the Pride pushback on top of inflation-weary consumers spending less in its stores.

While all Pride products will still be available online this year, Target — which reports first-quarter financials next week — chose what physical stores would sell the products based on consumer research and where demand was historically highest. The stores that will feature the Pride collection this summer accounted for 90% of total Pride month sales from 2022 and 2023.

"Target is committed to supporting the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month and year-round," Target said in a statement last week. "Most importantly, we want to create a welcoming and supportive environment for our LGBTQIA+ team members, which reflects our culture of care for the over 400,000 people who work at Target. We have long offered benefits and resources for the community, and we will have internal programs to celebrate Pride 2024."

Facing the outrage

For about a dozen years, Target has offered a limited collection of LGBTQ-specific items for Pride month and a slowly growing inventory throughout the year. In 2021, Target began to sell its Pride collection at all its physical stores.

A year ago, though, Target received pushback on social media and in stores during June's Pride Month. Many of the shoppers who called for a boycott were upset about apparel they deemed inappropriate for children and posted videos on X, ridiculing items like Pride toddler leggings and baby clothes. Critics also disliked adult swimwear designed for transgender people and the inclusion of U.K.-based brand Abprallen, accused of expressing "Satanist" views in some non-Target designs.

After the backlash, Target leaders said the chain would have a more curated assortment for Pride and other cultural celebrations like Black History Month going forward. But the company said it would continue to support LGBTQ organizations — including donating to the Human Rights Campaign and Family Equality — as well as participate in Pride events.

Target has said its 2024 collection would include "adult apparel," but notedly didn't mention children's products, a central cause of contention last year.

Nick Alm, founder of Twin Cities LGBTQ inclusion consultancy Mossier — which has worked with Target and the Star Tribune — said while Target has done more than many companies to be inclusive, the LGBTQ community will now view it with skepticism. He added it will take years for Target to rebuild trust.

"They should have never gone into all stores if they weren't prepared to stand by that decision," Alm said.

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ lobbying organization in the United States, said LGBTQ people make up 30% of Generation Z and are "in every zip code in this country."

"Companies need to understand that community members and allies want businesses that express full-hearted support for the community," Robinson said in a statement. "That includes visible displays of allyship. Target's decision is disappointing and alienates LGBTQ+ individuals and allies at the risk of not only their bottom line but also their values."

Facing the issues

Target isn't the only company dealing with such issues. Anheuser-Busch InBev reported last year its U.S. revenue dropped more than 10% after it partnered with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a virtual marketing campaign for Bud Light. Busch, which has received criticism from the LGBTQ community for its response to the controversy, has since backed away, saying customers want it to "focus on beer."

Richfield-based Best Buy has also recently responded to concerns from the conservative think tank National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) about its past financial donations to LGBTQ organizations. In correspondence with the NCPPR, Best Buy's attorneys said employee groups' contributions would be "screened to ensure they do not advocate or support the causes or agendas" the NCPPR found concerning.

Best Buy representatives said the company has not changed the way it gives to LGBTQ groups.

"Brands cannot get away from delving into issues of some kind, social issues, political issues, because they have to be able to navigate the conversations around the stuff that people care about," said Jack Mackinnon, senior director of cultural insights for consumer research company the Collage Group.

Brands should know backlash is likely when they take a stance on issues, said Twin Cities-based Mackinnon. In the future, Target has to proactively highlight how it advocates for the LGBTQ community outside of what it sells, Mackinnon said.

Target will still have a large presence at Twin Cities Pride Festival this year, with the company even upping its sponsorship level from last year, said Andi Otto, executive director of Twin Cities Pride. Otto encouraged people to share thoughts on Target's Pride products with company representatives during the festival.

"I'm disappointed that they are pulling [Pride] out of some stores, and they didn't include a children's line," Otto said. "But my goal is to continue to meet with their executives and steer them in the right direction for next year."