It would’ve been unbelievable just a handful of years ago that the right wing would today be boycotting Target for siding with transgender customers. Or that the retail chain would’ve supported the case for marriage equality at the U.S. Supreme Court.
But that’s exactly what’s happened.
Do boycotts work? A lot of people are arguing that perennial point in the wake of North Carolina passing its unprecedented anti-LGBT law. Musicians and showrunners are deciding: To go, or not to go?
Target’s own history might suggest which boycott — LGBT supporters of North Carolina, or right-wingers of Target — will ultimately prevail in the latest tug of war over LGBT equality.
Target department stores this month made a public declaration of welcoming trans employees and customers to use the bathrooms and fitting rooms that correspond with their gender identity — something that’s now illegal in government-run facilities in North Carolina.
The evolution of Target into an LGBT-supportive company being vilified by the radical right started with a boycott of its own.
Target was once, upon at time, dropped from the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyer’s Guide. And LGBT news outlets including The Advocate started reporting on celebs spotted at the store. Bisexual pop star Lady Gaga even canceled a deal to sell an exclusive version of her album Born This Way at Target.
A lot has changed since then. Target has been forgiven many times over by its LGBT customers, after years of back and forth. On the following pages, see what triggered the boycott in 2010 and how it helped transform Target into the LGBT ally it is today.
Until now, Target had been assumed to be LGBT-friendly. Then media discovered a $150,000 contribution to Minnesota Forward, a political action committee that spent the cash on TV ads for Republican Tom Emmer in the race to become Minnesota governor. Emmer was surely antigay. And when asked about why it would back him, Target claimed it was just another Minnesota company looking out for its financial interests: "Target supports causes and candidates based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests." Talk of a possible boycott began quickly. It wasn’t long before a viral video showed one angry mom returning hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise because she has a gay son.
August 2010: The Apology That Went Nowhere
Facing a growing anger over donating to an antigay Republican’s campaign for governor, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel sent an apology letter to the whole company. "The intent of our political contribution to MN Forward was to support economic growth and job creation,” he wrote. “While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry." Well, sorry was all well and good, but the Human Rights Campaign called on Target to donate the same amount, $150,000, to a pro-gay candidate or group. Emmer’s presumed opponent, Mark Dayton, was pro-LGBT. But the company refused. That might’ve been in part because Target’s shareholders were demanding that it end all political donations because of the potential for unexpected consequences.
August 2010: It’s a Boycott for Sure
There’s always a little uncertainty about whether a boycott is really happening. Shoppers wondered: Are we doing this? Then HRC dropped Target from its Equality Buying Guide. And activists from Queer Rising grabbed the microphone at a Target store and announced the day’s “Bigot Special.” They told shoppers, “Good afternoon, Target shoppers. When shopping at Target, know that your money is fueling hate and discrimination. Today’s bigot special — two-ply toilet tissue. Cause when you’re full of shit like Target is, you need something to wipe the shame with.” It was pretty clear the boycott was on. When musicians Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson were spotted in a Los Angeles Target, it made headlines on Hollywood gossip sites as a potential betrayal of their LGBT fans. The discount website Gilt found itself having to defend merely selling clothes from Target’s designer collaborations. The message from LGBT customers: All associations were verboten.
December 2010: But Wait, There’s More
Republican Tom Emmer lost that election for governor to Democrat Mark Dayton. And maybe bygones could’ve been bygones. Then The Awl, founded by out editor Choire Sicha, reported that Federal Election Commission documents showed Target was actually still making donations to antigay politicians and PACs. The report showed that even after its CEO apologized, Target gave $31,200 more. That news precipitated another wave of focus on the department store chain.
January 2011: No More Giving, We Swear!
The company’s political giving policy got a revamp, which wouldn’t be reported publicly until February 2011, by the Washington Blade. The new policy established a committee of senior executives expected to chaperone the CEO and board of directors on decisions about political activities. Target said it had donated money to pride events in Minnesota and would soon expand to San Francisco and Chicago. Activists greeted the new policy coolly with a wait-and-see attitude.
February 2011: Target Loses Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga was planning to partner with Target to release an exclusive version of her Born This Way album on the condition the company make some changes. "That discussion was one of the most intense conversations I've ever had in a business meeting," the bisexual performer toldBillboard of the agreement, which required Target to give to LGBT charities and make amends in other ways. The deal fell apart, though, with sources tellingThe Advocate, “She and Target didn't see eye to eye on Target's policy of political donations and how they affect the LGBT community.” This was not a good sign for Target.
March 2011: Target Gives LGBT Activists the Boot
Activists with a group called Canvass for a Cause had been passing out fliers in support of marriage equality outside a Target store in San Diego — until Target kicked them off the property. The company argued in court that the marriage equality supporters were “angry and aggressive” when customers said they opposed LGBT rights. But a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that Target couldn’t override the group’s First Amendment rights. So the boycott went on.
June 2011: It Gets Better?
The company’s annual shareholder meeting just happened to be scheduled in June, Pride Month, and it was happening as a marriage ban headed to the ballot in Minnesota. CEO Gregg Steinhafel was repeatedly confronted by people wanting Target to voice opposition to the ballot measure. He refused, saying Target would be “neutral.” Organizers of Twin Cities Pride, of which Target was a sponsor, said they were “appalled” by the supposed neutrality. Nearly a year after the boycott got its start, tensions were easing, but the boycott hadn’t ended. Until, later that month, a group of LGBT employees at Target released a company-sponsored It Gets Better video. “Dignity is the one thing that no one can take away from you,” said one employee in the nearly nine-minute video.
September 2011: How Will This Go Over?
Michelle Obama caused a national ruckus when she was photographed doing some shopping at Target. The mainstream media mostly stared in wonder at the first lady shopping at a low-cost store. LGBT people wondered if they’d been betrayed or maybe this boycott thing was over. Earlier that same month, Gloria Estefan told PrideSource she was partnering with Target on selling her new album, and she said Target had made amends. "I think that every human being needs to stand on principle," she said. "But I've got to tell you: I would never work with someone who is antigay." Estefan said Target had "apologized profusely” for its donation and “established an actual committee that oversees all political donations to make sure that this doesn't happen again.” Then she claimed Target had started donating to LGBT groups. “They've also donated a half-million dollars to LGBT organizations,” she said. “They're part of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. They give domestic partner benefits. They have 300,000 employees that are from all walks of life, and it's very important for them to be supportive. They've extended family medical leave benefits and adoption benefits to their gay employees. They've really supported very much their gay peeps."
May 2012: Target Puts Itself in Right Wing’s Bull's-eye
With LGBT customers still hesitant to return, Target really put itself out there. The company started selling T-shirts for pride season under the not-at-all-subtle slogan “Wear It With Pride.” There were rainbow-hued “Harmony” shirts and actual rainbows and the word “Pride” in bright red lettering. All of the proceeds went to support the Family Equality Council. By June, the backers of that antigay ballot proposal in Minnesota were furious. “It’s really kind of a slap in the face,” said the top organizer for the antigay group, Minnesota for Marriage.
July 2012: Target Seems to Support Marriage Equality
As that Minnesota for Marriage group was trying to pass a ban on same-sex marriage in Target’s home state, the store still hadn’t officially taken a position. The T-shirts were obviously pro-LGBT. Then the retailer started selling greeting cards tailored for same-sex weddings. The cards said "Mr. and Mr." and "Women. Love.” If that wasn’t clear, Target started running LGBT-inclusive ads for its wedding registry. The ads included two joyful brides and two loving grooms. The Minnesota ballot initiative would go on to lose, marking a major win for LGBT people who remembered Target as having taken their side.
July 2013: Not More Donations!?
A strange thing happened. Target got caught by Right Wing Watch donating to the Republican Governors Association. But there were a lot of qualifiers in that news, since Target had donated an equal amount — $50,000 — to the Democratic Governors Association. When asked about the donations by The Advocate, Target clarified that it had paid dues and stipulated they "not be used for any individual electoral campaigns or other electioneering efforts.” That seemed to be explanation enough for LGBT customers, and the boycott didn’t return.
August 2014: Target Makes It Official
Target signed on to friend of the court brief in two marriage equality cases being weighed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh District, making the argument that discrimination is bad for business. “Now is the right time to more directly share our views on this issue,” a spokesperson said. The president of the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, praised the company. "We are grateful to Target,” he said, “for speaking out and standing up for the rights of not just its LGBT employees, but Americans from across the country who deserve to be treated with fairness and equality under the law." On the other side, the National Organization for Marriage launched a boycott — that basically went nowhere.
September 2014: Queer Families Get Target’s Backing
Although Target had already signaled its support for families headed by two moms or two dads by very publicly donating to the Family Equality Council, it went even further in an ad campaign featuring two dads with their son. They finger-paint together under the slogan “Made to Matter.” The Human Rights Campaign pointed out that Target had scored a 100 percent on its latest Corporate Equality Index, a stark turnaround from the days of the boycott.
April 2016: Target Stands Up for Trans People
After North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, signed a law banning transgender people from using the bathrooms and locker rooms (in government buildings) that match their gender identity, Target took a strong stance. The company very publicly proclaimed that trans employees and customers at its stores can use whichever bathroom they like. For that, Target has been the sustained subject of boycott discussion from the likes of commentator Glenn Beck and the American Family Association. AFA, which is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, took the truly bizarre approach of sending cisgender men into women’s bathrooms at Target, claiming it was “testing” to see if anyone would stop them. Then there was the transphobic man screaming and causing such a scene at an Illinois Target that he caused a panic and 911 was called. But if the right wing is going to stay angry over having to use bathrooms with transgender people, it’s also going to have to skip Starbucks, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barnes & Noble and a growing list of businesses that say they won’t discriminate. Even Donald Trump said Caitlyn Jenner is welcome to use the women’s bathroom at Trump Tower.