US companies celebrating Pride Month are facing harassment

Numerous companies that openly support LGBTQ+ groups have been subjected to boycotts, in a conservative offensive against inclusivity and sustainability

Police officers protect a Target store in Miami in the face of protests called against the company by conservative groups over its support for LGBTQ+ rights.Lynne Sladky (AP)
Miguel Jiménez

Defending the rights of the LGTBQ+ community is becoming a high-risk activity for some American companies. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initially started this trend with his harassment of Disney, while conservative groups are now targeting numerous companies with harassment and calls for boycotts over their inclusive policies or messages.

Retailers such as Target and Kohl’s, the Chick-Fil-A restaurant chain, the Budweiser beer brand, Lego constructions and even M&Ms have been subjected to attacks that have cost the firms billions of dollars in stock market losses. In the background, there is an offensive against the ESG principles of sustainable investment — environmental, social and corporate governance criteria — which some conservatives attack as an imposition by progressives. However, despite everything, some companies are maintaining their support for Pride Month.

The worst case scenario of this backlash is when companies draw pushback from both trenches of the culture war. This has happened with corporations such as Anheuser Busch — the owner of Budweiser and many other beer brands — and Target. While part of the calls for boycotts and the confrontations have come via social media, there have also been scenes of violence and threats against some of the stores and distributors. At times, the police have had to intervene.

The Target department store chain included some 2,000 items in its LGBTQ+ pride collection this year, including clothing, books, music and household items. Among the items for sale were some from the Abprallen brand, which works with the transgender designer Erik Carnell — who has drawn controversy for his satanic creations — and also children’s books, such as Bye Bye, Binary and I’m not a girl. Products like these — along with others, such as a sweater with the slogan “cure transphobia, not trans people,” or a swimsuit that was marketed as being able to help transsexuals hide their genitals (something that was falsely said to have been meant for children on social media) — provoked a reaction of harassment from some of the customers.

“Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work,” the Minneapolis-based company 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.” This angered many LGBTQ+ groups.

As reported by Insider, the head of Target acknowledged in a letter to his firm’s LGBTQ+ employees that “one of the hardest parts in all of this was trying to contemplate how the adjustments we’re making to alleviate these threats to our team’s physical and psychological safety would impact you and your wellbeing and psychological safety.” He went on to write that “we stand with you now and will continue to do so — not just during Pride Month, but each and every day.” Meanwhile, Target’s valuation has fallen to its lowest level in three years, with an 18% collapse in the stock price over the past month. This is a loss valued at around $10 billion.

The hardest impact on sales and stock valuation, however, has been suffered by Anheuser-Busch. In April, the company put out an ad showing transgender celebrity Dylan Mulvaney holding a can of Bud Light beer with a picture of their face on it. This sparked a boycott from conservative consumers. Bud Light sales have since plummeted, dropping as much as 25-30% in a few weeks, according to data from Nielsen. Many consumers uploaded videos to their social media profiles, where they can be seen pouring the company’s beer on the ground.

The management of the company has since removed those responsible for the ad campaign. Brendan Whitworth, the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, released a statement to try to calm things down, albeit without much success: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” Despite this attempt to cool tensions, the drop in sales has spread to the company’s other brands, such as Budweiser and Busch. Anheuser-Busch’s shares have fallen by 15% in two months, causing about $15 billion in losses for the company.

Persecution and harassment can reach delirious heights. Some ultra-conservative groups have launched a campaign against the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A, simply because the company has a director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (who has been in the position since 2021). In the past, the company was criticized for donating money to groups that are hostile to the LGBTQ+ collective and for pointing out that its corporate purpose is to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”

The fast-food chain’s long record of conservatism has not freed them from being bullied.

On Elon Musk’s Twitter, which gives hate messages more visibility, an influential conservative commentator posted a threatening message that has more than seven million views: “We have a problem. Chick-fil-A just hired a Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This is bad. Very bad. I don’t want to have to boycott. Are we going to have to boycott?” He then added, to a long thread of atrocious statements: “It’s only a matter of time until they start putting tranny semen in the frosted lemonade at this point.”

The most politically-significant case has been the one that has seen the Disney Corporation face off with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over a state law that prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity, known among its detractors as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Disney has since halted investment in Florida and is now taking DeSantis to court. Meanwhile, it has maintained “Gay Days” in its amusement parks, which bring together thousands of people every year.

A culture war

In the past, there were concerns that corporate support for the LGBTQ+ community would be perceived as inauthentic. Today, in a change of events, big companies fear that they will be subjected to harassment and boycott campaigns should they show support. Anti-LGBTQ+ activists aren’t hiding their intentions: “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,” read a tweet by conservative activist and commentator Matt Walsh, who has 2.1 million followers on Twitter.

In May and June 2022, there were 400 calls on social media for boycotts in relation to Pride Month. This year, more than 15,000 were already ongoing as of May, according to data from RILA Global Consulting. Companies such as North Face, Walmart, Kohl’s and Lego have had to deal with such campaigns, in what appears to be a reflection of the growing polarization and intolerance in the United States. Dozens of laws hostile to trans people have been passed in Republican-led states.

The harassment against inclusivity and equality as social principles is part of a broader crusade against investing based on ESG criteria — a crusade that has significant support from the Republican Party. These organized campaigns were started by Republican-led states, such as Texas and Florida, but have since reached the Congress as part of a cultural war that is polarizing the country. Republicans view ESG criteria as being an imposition by progressives. This past March, President Joe Biden — for the first time — used his veto power to block anti-ESG investing legislation.

More than a dozen red states are promoting anti-ESG laws, which will prevent public funds from being managed according to these criteria and bids from being awarded to companies that apply them. Texas, for example, intends to defend its powerful fossil fuels sector with this legislation.

“ESG and sustainability have been the subject of increased regulatory focus across jurisdictions,” BlackRock warns in its latest annual report. “Some U.S. states and/or state officials have adopted or proposed legislation or otherwise have taken official positions restricting or prohibiting state government entities from doing certain business with entities identified by the state as ‘boycotting’ or ‘discriminating’ against particular industries or considering ESG factors in their investment processes and proxy voting. Other states and localities may adopt similar legislation or other ESG-related laws and positions.”

From initially being something that companies boasted about, principles such as equality, sustainability, diversity and inclusion have now become risk factors. The Cava restaurant chain — which is in the process of finalizing its IPO — warns in its report to the SEC that “these initiatives and goals are subject to risks and uncertainties, many of which may not be foreseeable or may be outside of our control. We may be criticized for the scope or nature of such aspirational initiatives or goals, for any revisions to such initiatives or goals, or for failing, or being perceived to have failed, to achieve such initiatives or goals.”

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