Experts warn against canceling Pride campaigns after extremists threaten Target

(NEW YORK) — Target reported that its employees faced threats over its new Pride collections celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and responded by pulling some of the merchandise that had caused the most “significant confrontational behavior” to protect the safety and well-being of its employees, according to a statement from the company.

Extremism experts and LGBTQ advocates warned that removing merchandise could be seen as a success by anti-LGBTQ extremists and violent protesters which could lead to copycat behavior threatening the already marginalized community.

Several Targets also received bomb threats over Memorial Day weekend related to the controversy, according to Cleveland 19 News. The threats reportedly called for the return of LGBTQ+ items to the shelves, according to the local news outlet, which said it received the bomb threats.

“I think this will embolden alt-right actors, who now are going to believe that with social media campaigns and targeted actions against retailers that they can proceed in limiting visibility of LGBTQ people,” said Sophie Bjork-James, a professor at Vanderbilt University, who researches the white nationalist movement, in an interview.

The rise coincides with political rhetoric targeting and demonizing the LGBTQ+ community, as well as legislative efforts targeting LGBTQ+ rights to gender-affirming care and inclusion in education.

Drag shows and drag story hours, even children’s hospitals, as well as other LGBTQ+ pride events have faced death and bomb threats as well as protesters in recent years. In November, a Colorado LGBTQ+ bar was the site of a mass shooting, stoking heightened fear within the community.

“Target’s giving into this,” said Victor Asal, a professor at Albany and extremism researcher. “Other extremists will say ‘hey, that’s a great idea. We should do that."”

Michael Edison Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, believes extremists are making calculated efforts to redefine LGBTQ+ Pride as a “toxic” or dangerous thing.

Bomb threats, he said, are intended to scare the community and supporters into silence.

“It’s a real concern,” said Hayden. “Bigots feel emboldened largely because of mainstream politicians giving them a pat on the back,” referring to some conservative political and media figures who have recently resurfaced harmful stereotypes against LGBTQ+ people.

The Department of Homeland Security said that intensifying waves of threats and calls of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community could lead to a rise of potential attacks against larger targets, such as public spaces and healthcare sites that may be linked to the community.

According to a report by The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, anonymous forum websites detailing hate crime fantasies or plans against the LGBTQ+ highlight the growing threat of violence against this community.

National LGBTQ+ organizations, including Family Equality, GLAAD, GLSEN, The Human Rights Campaign, and more are calling on Target and all businesses to stand up against anti-LGBTQ+ extremism.

“When values of diversity, equity and inclusion are tested, business must defend them unequivocally,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

Target has been a long-time supporter of the LGBTQ+ community in its merchandising, hosting Pride campaigns annually.

“Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work,” Target 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.”

Target re-affirmed its commitment to the queer community in a statement following the controversy.

“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,” Target said.

Organizations are pointing to the actions of North Face, an outdoor sporting gear company, as an example of how to respond to boycott calls against Pride campaigns. The company defended its ads featuring a drag queen in the face of criticism in a statement and has continued to roll out its Summer of Pride campaign.

“The North Face has always believed the outdoors should be a welcoming, equitable and safe place for all. We are honored and grateful to support partners like Pattie Gonia who help make this vision a reality,” the brand said in a statement to ABC News. “The Summer of Pride series, now in its second year, has helped foster a more accessible and welcoming environment for individuals from all backgrounds to gather and experience the joy of the outdoors.”

Representatives for Target and the National Retail Federation did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.

“If you are going to take these steps to embrace the LGBTQ+ population in a public way, you have to have the courage of your convictions to see it through,” said Hayden in an interview with ABC News. “Once you make that decision to do that, and you back away in fear, it is those people you are putting at risk, who are frequently a target of harassment, intimidation – as we’ve seen also, catastrophic violence.”

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