← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Why Pride Merch Matters

photograph of multicolored shoes at Pride parade

Target is at the center of a controversy about pride merchandise. After years of offering a wide array of LGBTQ+ affirming products, including displays celebrating the queer community in the month of June, the major retailer has removed and relocated some of its pride merchandise in response to threats and harassment towards its employees. In a statement released near the end of May, Target said that it had “experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work” and that for that reason it was pulling some of its pride merchandise. Some workers also reported that their store’s pride display was moved to a less prominent location.

The conservative ire for Target’s inclusiveness is well-documented, with customers removing pride display signs, accusing employees of being child groomers and promoting a woke agenda, and even threatening gun violence. Conservative podcast host Matt Walsh sparked outrage by falsely stating that particular trans-affirming items were being sold for children, which helped fuel the campaign against Target. Since Target’s statement, the situation has escalated with a group of apparently fake bomb threats on a number of stores, as well as backlash from numerous directions.

In a year when trans rights are on the chopping block in numerous states, with nearly 500 anti-LGBTQ bills under consideration in the United States, one has to wonder: Does a display in a store really matter? Corporations have long been dismissed for engaging in rainbow capitalism: showing outward support for the LGBTQ+ community only when it profits them to do so. Support for a marginalized community doesn’t mean much if it lasts only as long as prevailing sentiments in the wider culture align with it. Isn’t backing down just what people have long expected Target to do?

I will argue Target’s actions do matter morally, both in their material effects and in their symbolic ones. First, the material effects. Whatever the motivation may be behind the corporate support of the LGBTQ+ community, the items sold in a store exist in the world for people to see and buy. Target has sold products for gender transition and expression, such as binders and swimwear labeled as “tuck-friendly,” in addition to the more symbolic rainbow-colored or queer-message products. The ability to go to a nearby store — the same place you may go for paper towels, diapers, and shower curtains — and pick up these items is convenient for people who are transitioning. Not everyone has easy access to specialty retailers, so Target provides a real service in bringing these products to their stores.

The pride displays also have a material effect for the LGBTQ+ creators of the merchandise with whom Target partnered. Target is a major retailer, earning a net profit of close to seven billion dollars in 2022. When a designer has their products sold at Target, their products reach a much wider customer base than can be reached with an independent store. Unsurprisingly, the creators of the pride merchandise have expressed frustration and disappointment at having their merchandise pulled. Designer Ash + Chess expressed sadness over having their products removed from stores. The brand JZD similarly made a statement calling anti-LGBTQ+ hate “devastating,” expressing that the experience of having their products pulled after more than a year of working on custom pieces was emotionally draining. While these designers may be getting support within their community as people feel sympathy and outrage for their treatment, the brands are still missing out on an opportunity that they were offered and worked hard to achieve. And seeds of distrust have been planted for LGBTQ+ brands’ prospects of working well with Target in future years.

The display matters to Target’s employees as well. Some queer Target workers have made it known that they do not appreciate their safety being used as an excuse to cave to the demands of people who wish them ill. Someone who worked at Target in part because of the company’s queer-friendly commitments might understandably feel betrayed.

As material forces in the world, pride merchandise in major retailers is worth more than whatever motivation may or may not be behind it. Its continued presence in the face of backlash is not nothing, nor is Target’s pulling some merchandise insignificant to those affected by it.

Target’s pride merchandise also matters symbolically. Symbols help connect us to each other. They allow us to recognize ourselves in each other, express our values or identities, and find common ground. In a society experiencing a noticeable backlash against the LGBTQ+ community, a rainbow pin can communicate a small bit of safety in a public place such as a restroom. I’m like you. I’ve got your back. A pride display similarly communicates acknowledgement and support of the queer community. At least it does so until it is moved out of sight.

But having pride merch and items for gender transition such as binders and tuck-friendly swimwear in major retailers like Target communicates something further. It communicates that being queer is no big deal. It counteracts the pervasive narrative of deviance that has long been wielded against queer people. As a symbol, it thus has meaning independent of the changing commitments of the corporation behind it.

Many have pointed out that the popularity of pride merchandise may be more of an indicator of social acceptance than a cause of it. Be that as it may, companies have a duty not to cave to the pressure of those who are opposed. No symbolic show of support can nullify oppressive laws, restore rights, or keep queer people safe, but symbols that also offer real material benefits can be a small source of support for people living in a society that is increasingly hostile to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both in their material effects and their symbolic nature, pride displays matter.

Toronto vs. Chick-Fil-A: Only About Chicken?

photograph of Chick-fil-a storefornt

My hometown of Toronto, Canada recently saw its first Chick-Fil-A restaurant open, to a very mixed reception. While some were excited to try a new take on fast food fried chicken (with some even going so far as to line up for hours beforehand), many others attended the opening in protest. There were a few different reasons for the protest, although the most prominent was the owners of Chick-Fil-A’s well-documented financial support of evangelical Christian organizations that oppose gay marriage and have funded so-called “gay conversion therapy” (a number of protesters were also there to express the view that the killing of animals is morally wrong, although this is not a transgression solely committed by Chick-Fil-A).

Some did not take well to the protesters. For example, in response to protesters who chanted “shame!” at those leaving the restaurant, Canadian evangelical Christian personality Charles McVety – who was leading the city’s annual “Jesus in the City” parade – encouraged people to show their support for Chick-Fil-A, instead. When interviewed, he expressed his view that:

It’s upsetting that people want to stop a business simply because it adheres to Christian values. The business is only about chicken. It should only be about chicken…It should not happen in Canada, if you just want to get chicken, you shouldn’t be shamed.

Is this a business that is “only about chicken”, though? Is there reason to think that someone should, in fact, feel ashamed when they visit Chick-Fil-A, or is it really as morally unproblematic as those like McVety think it is?

There are a couple of things to say about McVety’s statement right off the bat. First: protesters, of course, have every right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate in support of their cause, so McVety is straight-up wrong that such protests “should not happen in Canada.” Second, while Chick-Fil-A does not hide the fact that it is run by those who identify themselves as Christians, there are many Christians who would deny that supporting anti-LGBTQ causes is coherent with Christian values. McVety himself avows numerous views most typically associated with right-wing Evangelical Christianity, which, in addition to his opposition to same-sex marriage, also includes the denial of evolution and global warming. There is plenty of room, then, to be Christian and not agree with McVety, and no reason to think that in protesting Chick-Fil-A one is trying to thwart a business simply because it is run by self-identified Christians.

More to the point, though: why should someone feel ashamed, just because they want to try out a new chicken sandwich? Consider what one of those visiting the restaurant said when interviewed:

I do not agree with [Chick-Fil-A’s] ideology and the policies of the owners, but I’m not here to support the policy of the owner. I’m here to have a meal that I really enjoy.

So, here’s one way to think about the situation: one should not be shamed or feel ashamed for eating at Chick-Fil-A because the business should be kept separate from the values of the owners, and people have a right to eat what they want without being harassed. If they were supporting anything, then, it would be the consumption of fried chicken.

It is difficult to find these lines of thinking persuasive. In supporting the business, one does, of course, support the policies of the owners insofar as the money one spends profits the owners, who in turn use that money to support anti-LGBTQ causes. This may not be your overt intention, of course – you may just want to eat some chicken – but what you intend and what ends up happening as a result of your actions can be two very different things. That you are part of a larger customer base whose collective spending on Chick-Fil-A actively support these causes means that you are, at least in some way, supporting those causes as well.

But can’t someone just be neutral on the matter? Can I not just go and eat a greasy chicken sandwich in peace without having to worry about politics or being judged? Maybe I’m like the patron interviewed above: sure, all that stuff about supporting groups working against gay marriage sounds bad, and gay conversion therapy is not something I would ever endorse, but my buying fried chicken is not about that, it’s just about being hungry and stuffing something palatable down my gullet.

Again, while one’s ideologies can certainly be opposed to those endorsed by the owners of Chick-Fil-A, one’s actions may say something different. It would be nice if the business side could be separated from the ideological one, but when the profits from that business are used to directly support the ideology, it is difficult to find room to draw a line.

Okay, but wait: I order things from Amazon all the time, despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I like to take Ubers despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I buy all kinds of products from places that are no doubt not terribly concerned with the health and well-being of their employees. I don’t really feel bad about that, so why should I feel bad about buying some B+ chicken from a new restaurant in town? Is this really that big of a deal?

This is a tempting way to think about the problem insofar as it is a tempting way to get oneself to stop thinking about the problem. That one has supported a bunch of businesses with questionable business practices in the past does not, of course, excuse adding another one to the list. We may indeed wonder whether any ethical consumption is possible under late-stage capitalism, but the fact that there are problems everywhere does not mean that there are not still problems in specific cases, either.

While these are big problems to think about, what should I do when it comes to Chick-Fil-A? Perhaps the take-home message should be this: even though one’s intentions may be apolitical, and even though one may very much disagree with the causes that Chick-Fil-A’s owners have chosen to support, one does not simply get to choose to remain a neutral party if one willingly gives their money to the business. One cannot have one’s chicken and eat it, too.

HERO in Texas

Though it’s always the big-ticket national elections that draw the most public attention, we need to put Trump, Hillary, Carson and Sanders away for a few minutes and talk about the local elections. A number of interesting issues were put to vote this year on the local level. Some of the issues that were determined popular vote were fracking in two California cities, decriminalization of marijuana in Ohio, minimum wage in Washington state, a ban on GMOs in Benton county, Ohio and a LGBQT issue in Houston, Texas. Such measures, which affect citizens at the community and state level, would modify, pass or vote down certain policies.

Continue reading “HERO in Texas”