AUSTIN, TEXAS – JUNE 06: Pride Month apparel is seen on display at a Target store on June 06, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Businesses across the United States have begun advertising LGBTQIA+ apparel to mark this year’s Pride Month. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Amidst bomb threats and boycotts against companies that sell products aimed at attracting the LGBTQ+ community, what is often being depicted as an organic response by consumers is instead, according to experts, a coordinated, violent hate campaign.
This year’s version of this ongoing effort began in April when transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a video celebrating her one-year transitioning anniversary with a custom can of Bud Light featuring her face.
Almost immediately, an anti-trans campaign descended on Bud Light manufacturer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, best exemplified by a video from musician Kid Rock, an outspoken right-wing Republican, firing an assault rifle at a collection of Bud Light cans. Soon, spurred on by right-wing activists, including Ben Shapiro, a boycott of the brand ensued.
In response, Anheuser-Busch’s US CEO Brendan Whitworth released a statement seemingly backpedaling from the association with Mulvaney.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” it read.
Meanwhile, Bud Light sales declined 23% in May to the point that it lost its ranking as America’s best-selling beer, and prompted it to create a major summer ad campaign that includes weekly $10,000 giveaways to consumers, as well as rebates on beer over the Independence Day weekend.
Luke Londo is the Hazel Park mayor pro-tem and the first “out” member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as an openly bisexual man. Speaking to the Michigan Advance in a personal capacity, Londo said throwing cash at the issue is essentially as if the company is publicly admitting it should never have had any such association.
“Bud Light ran an absolute clinic on how to handle this issue as poorly as possible — lifting up a trans woman and then seemingly abandoning her with a non-apology apology, which managed to alienate the LGBTQ community and allies as well as opponents in the same breath,” he said.
Mulvaney said on social media this week she felt abandoned by the company and faced personal threats.
“For months now, I’ve been scared to leave my house,” Mulvaney said. “I have been ridiculed in public. I’ve been followed, and I have felt a loneliness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
A similar contrived controversy also embroiled retail giant Target in May when an online misinformation campaign wrongfully claimed that the retailer’s Pride collection features a bathing suit for kids that is labeled “tuck-friendly,” when, in fact, such suits were only made and marketed to adults.
After reported instances of people angrily confronting employees and tipping over displays, Target removed some items from its LGBTQ+ merchandise ahead of Pride month, although it failed to quell the dispute, with a series of bomb threats in the weeks following that decision.
“The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic for brands. If they decide to shove this garbage in our face, they should know that they’ll pay a price. It won’t be worth whatever they think they’ll gain. First Bud Light and now Target. Our campaign is making progress. Let’s keep it going,” right-wing commentator Matt Walsh wrote on Twitter.
Some Republicans, like 2024 presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy, also have made an issue out of Target’s LGBTQ+ merchandise, saying the company chose to “spit in” the face of conservatives.
“Target just put a target on its back from its base of consumers,” he said.
It’s also created negativity with the very community Target had sought to ally.
Erik Carnell, a London-based transgender designer whose products were among those pulled from Target stores, called it a “dangerous precedent.”
“If you’re going to take a stance and say that you care about the LGBT community, you need to stand by that regardless,” said Carnell.
“In Target’s case, they stated they were pulling Pride merchandise because team members were concerned about their safety and well-being,” he said. “While I’m sympathetic to that argument, allyship isn’t supposed to be comfortable, and they left us to endure the fallout on our own.”
Much analysis has painted these episodes as a “wake-up call” to corporations to pay closer attention to their customer base, or as negative customer reaction to products and policies. However, extremism experts and LGBTQ+ advocates say they’re manipulations of the LGBTQ+ community as a culture war weapon, with violence as an end result.
R.G. Cravens is the senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. He says while some anti-LGBTQ+ extremists seek to make the concept of LGBTQ+ Pride “toxic” for corporations, “it also creates a climate that encourages violence,” pointing to a memo in May from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warning law enforcement agencies about violence at Pride Month events and health care facilities.
“These issues include actions linked to drag-themed events, gender-affirming care, and LGBTQIA+ curricula in schools,” said the memo. “High-profile attacks against schools and faith-based institutions like the recent shooting in Nashville have historically served as inspiration for individuals to conduct copycat attacks.”
And, in fact, those threats have materialized. In May, a Kansas man threatened to bomb and “commit a mass shooting” at a Pride event in Nashville, Tenn.
And in June 2022, 31 members of the white nationalist group Popular Front were arrested near a Pride event in Idaho.
Cravens told the Advance that the ultimate target of these campaigns is not the broader public, but the LGBTQ+ community itself.
“Anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups and right-wing media personalities continue to highlight the importance of Pride Month and LGBTQ+ visibility by showing their goal is the total suppression of LGBTQ+ people from American public life,” he said. “The attacks on businesses with LGBTQ+ inclusive marketing is not “backlash,” but evidence of the continuing efforts of anti-LGBTQ+ extremists to intimidate LGBTQ+ people and their allies.”
Jared Todd, senior press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), concurred, telling the Advance that the backlash against corporations supporting LGBTQ+ equality runs much deeper than a one-off protest based on misleading information from conservative media.
“This is part of an orchestrated and well-funded effort by extremist right-wing organizations and individuals looking to split the LGBTQ community from its allies,” he said. “They’ve said it’s about ‘making Pride toxic’ for companies,” noting that these incidents are occurring simultaneously to a coordinated nationwide legislative push.
“This is coming at the same time we’ve seen a record 520-plus anti-LGBTQ bills introduced across the country, with more than 70 being signed into law,” said Todd. “These bills primarily target the trans community, attempting to dictate which bathrooms they can use or sports teams they can play on while stripping away access to healthcare. From the vile “groomer” narrative to anti-LGBTQ legislation to company harassment and backlash, it’s all informed by the same tired playbook of right-wing extremism that we’ve experienced for decades. Pushing LGBTQ folks back in the closet is their main goal.”
These various controversies have also created a renewed conversation over the concept of “rainbow capitalism,” or corporate efforts at making a profit off of and through the LGBTQ+ community.
Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told the Advance that absent meaningful change, companies that seek to display allyship solely through product marketing, are not contributing to an equal relationship.
“While I appreciate the gestures of support and nice words and visible images of solidarity, it’s just not enough,” said Knott. “I don’t think right now that our side is angry with corporations for not showing up or backing down when they’re under pressure from a very coordinated, extremist group of folks that are trying to ‘Abolish Pride’ or ‘Hide Pride’ or whatever tagline you want to use. Rather the LGBTQ+ community is asking questions like, ‘What’s the backup? What’s behind the gesture? Is there anything substantial or material that will actually help transform LGBTQ Michiganders’ daily lives and make our communities and states safer and more inclusive for us?”
Knott said she’s not criticizing corporations that show up and promote allyship, but is concerned when they do it through purchasable goods instead of through activism.
“I would like to see corporations showing more activism so that they’re indirectly fighting back against the erasure of the LGBTQ community,” she said.
As to what that activism might look like, Knott says it can take several forms, including making a principled stand for human rights.
“Where are these corporate players flexing their political power and muscle to say, ‘I’m sorry, no, we’re not going to continue this anti-trans rhetoric aimed at trans kids?” she said.
Londo blasted the failure of corporations to follow up words with deeds.
“Performative allyship is disappointing, but performative allyship driven by profit motive is disgusting,” he said. “The impacts of the LGBTQ community can be seen across every aspect of our culture, so it’s reprehensible to exploit us for profit and then abandon us when we’re demonized as groomers, pedophiles and worse. We endure enough as a community without also having to worry about whether or not our friends are truly our friends.”
Corporations often spend enormous resources trying to keep in step with public attitudes and preferences. And attacks on the LGBTQ+ community are not popular.
A Data For Progress survey of 1,220 likely voters conducted in March indicated that 64% of all likely voters, including 72% of Democrats, 65% of independents, and 55% of Republicans, think that there is “too much legislation” aimed at “limiting the rights of transgender and gay people in America.”
Gallup reported last month that support for same-sex marriage remains at a 71% high — the same as it was in 2022. The polling firm notes that same-sex marriage has consistently polled above 50% since the early 2010s.
Knott said wading into politics is not the only avenue available to companies, as tangible advances in their corporate structure would also be very meaningful.
“If they don’t feel comfortable putting a card of support in on a particular bill as an example, at the legislative level, they could introduce policies and practices that protect LGBTQ+ people, including promoting more queer people, especially BIPOC people to higher up positions within their own corporation,” she said.
Performative allyship is disappointing, but performative allyship driven by profit motive is disgusting. ... We endure enough as a community without also having to worry about whether or not our friends are truly our friends.
– Luke Londo
The HRC’s Todd echoes that sentiment.
“It makes good business sense for companies to support the community externally as well as internally,” he said. “Among Gen Z, 1 in 5 identify as LGBTQ – that’s a huge number of current consumers and employees that companies cannot afford to ignore.”
He points to research that shows if a brand publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding and protecting LGBTQ+ rights, Americans are twice as likely to buy or use the brand, while Americans ages 18 to 34 are more than five times more likely to want to work at a company if it publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding and protecting LGBTQ+ rights.
Knott said while corporate partners have provided great assistance on many of these issues, the LGBTQ+ community needs to leverage its economic muscle more effectively, noting statistics that their buying power is over $1 trillion in the United States alone and over $3.7 trillion globally.
“We need to do a better job as a movement talking about, even if we’re not buying goods or services, you still want to do right by the LGBTQ+ community, because we’re watching,” she said. “There is just an increasing ramp up of hate and violence and targeting by these extremist groups. It’s happening in local communities all across the state. It’s not an urban problem, a suburban problem [or] a rural problem. It’s happening everywhere. We really would benefit from the political power and muscle of our corporate partners to say ‘Enough is enough’ and to help us fight back what’s going on in local communities all across the state.”
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