The religious right no longer has the numbers or the influence to stop corporations from catering to shifting cultural norms, but they're becoming more and more willing to use harassment and violence instead.
[Previous: Attack of the woke brands]
Believe it or not, the gay-hating Christian who filmed this exchange thought it made him look good:
(You can also read a transcript and description of the video’s contents.)
June is Pride Month. To commemorate the occasion, Target featured collections of LGBTQ-friendly merchandise. But that infuriated Christian bigots, who responded with a flood of threats, harassment, and disruptive acting out in stores. Eventually, Target capitulated and took down its Pride displays:
The company removed some items from its collection for Pride Month in June, which honors lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, saying a rash of threats made workers feel unsafe. That move followed “many difficult days of deliberation and decision-making,” Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell said in an internal memo.
“What you’ve seen in recent days went well beyond discomfort, and it has been gut-wrenching to see what you’ve confronted in our aisles,” Cornell told store employees in the memo, which was sent on Wednesday and viewed by Bloomberg. He also thanked service-center staffers for their “patience and professionalism through high volumes of angry, abusive and threatening calls.”“Target’s CEO denounces customers who threaten employees over LGBTQ-themed products: ‘It has been gut-wrenching to see’.” Brendan Case, Fortune, 25 May 2023.
I can’t fault Target too much for this decision. They do have some responsibility to protect their own employees. It’s not fair for low-paid service workers to bear the brunt of abuse and harassment over decisions made by executives.
On the other hand, once you let that logic in the door, it’s hard to see where it will stop. What’s next? Will bookstores stop selling books with gay or trans characters? Should we banish all mention of diversity from the public square so as not to anger the thin-skinned?
If violent bigots are appeased once, they won’t go away. They’ll learn that these tactics work and grow emboldened to use them more often. The more they get away with it, the more their demands will grow. How long will it be before Christians start demanding that stores fire their LGBTQ staff?
Sometimes, defending pluralist, secular democracy needs people to step up even if they don’t have a stake in the fight. If Target wanted to show it was serious about supporting LGBTQ Americans, and not just marketing to them, its executives could have done more. They could have beefed up security at their stores. They could have announced, loudly, that threats and harassment of their employees won’t be tolerated. (The North Face did just this.)
A good and bad sign
In a perverse way, this is a good sign. It’s a herald of the religious right’s dwindling cultural power.
As I’ve written previously, brands are going “woke” for one reason: it’s where the money is. Big corporations don’t care about inclusion, except to the extent they legally have to—but they do care about their bottom line. They want to be in step with cultural trends and to sell what their customers want to buy.
Retailers like Target see that the culture is moving toward greater tolerance for LGBTQ people, so their merchandise and advertising reflects those preferences. And it’s not just Target. Even Chick-fil-A, known for its friendliness to conservative and religious causes, has come under fire for un-Christian behavior like caring about diversity and wanting everyone to feel welcome.
In the past, the religious right would have arranged boycotts, pickets, fire-and-brimstone denunciations from the pulpit. These tactics used to be enough to intimidate corporations into bowing to their demands. However, they don’t have the numbers or the influence to do that anymore. That’s why they resort to these aggressive harassment tactics, because that’s all they’re capable of.
But at the same time, it means they’re more dangerous. They’ve abandoned peaceful methods, but they still feel entitled to get their way. Some of them, like the man in the video I linked, are resorting to petty harassment and berating store employees. But in other cases, much like the Muslim extremists who threaten to murder anyone who draws Mohammed, they’re increasingly willing to use threats and violence.
In America’s gun-sick culture, that’s nothing to scoff at. Mass shootings have been committed for less. How long will it be before some angry and unstable person shoots up a store because it sells Pride merchandise?
More than one shade
Insofar as these Christians have any argument at all, it’s that Pride merchandise, or LGBTQ-themed displays in general, harm or sexualize children. This is patent nonsense.
If Pride imagery “sexualizes” children, so do fairy tales about beautiful princesses marrying handsome princes, or gun-slinging heroes rescuing damsels in distress, or sitcoms with working dads and demure stay-at-home wives. All these stories have implicit values. All of them send messages about how people should behave and relate to each other, what healthy and loving relationships look like, what families look like.
What right-wingers are upset about is that kids are no longer being raised in accordance with their beliefs about sex and gender. In classic invisible-politics fashion, they treat their values as the default and anything that’s different as scary and deviant. They argue that Pride merchandise is “confusing” children, or “redefining” morality, because they treat their own opinions on morality and gender roles as the only ones that could be valid.
These Christian bigots can’t stand the idea that there’s more than one way to look, dress, fall in love, have sex, or raise a family. They want to crush the rainbow of human diversity down to a single shade (and if you guessed that shade is white, you’d be right).
That project necessarily entails crushing people who don’t conform. Their violent tantrums show that, if they had the power to do it, they would.