‘Things Got Really Scary Really Fast During Pride Month’

Photo: Getty Images/Getty Images

In May, Target began rolling out its Pride merch: a rainbow-colored assortment of “Queer All Year” calendars; Bye Bye, Binary children’s books; and tuck-friendly swimwear. The big-box retailer has stocked Pride displays for well over a decade, but this time around, conservative media outlets seized on the swimsuit line — designed for trans femme people — and falsely claimed it was meant for children. In a year marked by heightened vitriol against the LGBTQ+ community and right-wing conspiracy theories that its members are “groomers,” violent backlash ensued as some protesters tore down Pride displays, harassed Target employees, and made bomb threats at local stores.

Target attempted to address the backlash by announcing the removal of Pride merchandise “at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior” from its shelves. Not all employees are happy with the decision. “These people feel like if they’re loud enough, angry enough, and violent enough, something will get done,” says one 23-year-old who works at a branch in California, one of three LGBTQ+ employees who spoke to the Cut about the harassment they’ve faced in stores over the past month. “They’re making bomb threats because they’re angry about a couple rainbow shirts in a store.”

“My co-workers were like, ‘You were hate-crimed. Are you okay?’” — John*, 23, California

I’m a gay man working at a Target in a small town in the California Bible Belt. I’m used to getting rude looks and comments. If anyone complains about me, they always say, “That guy back there with eyeliner.” Other than the occasional painted nail, I come across pretty straight until I open my mouth. That’s what does it for the guests. They come up so nice and sweet and then the moment I start to speak — “How can I help you?” — I can see their faces fall and their demeanors instantly change. But these past few months have been particularly bad. It’s almost every other day that I feel uncomfortable when speaking to a customer. Our guest-services desk has the number for media relations written down on a sticky note with a sign that says For callers with complaints about Pride merch.

I was harassed by a guest in late May. It started off as a normal interaction. I was ringing up someone at the desk, and a cishet male co-worker was assisting another guest with questions about a speaker. They were laughing and joking. Then my co-worker asked me if I could help the guest. As soon as I spoke to him, his face fell and his demeanor changed. He asked if the speaker would go on sale anytime soon. I told him they usually do in July, and he replied that the world would end on June 1 because “next month is Pride Month, and you faggots are dragging us to hell with you.” I was shocked. It was the first time someone told me “You’re going to hell because you are a gay person.”

I started backing away to remove myself from the situation, but he kept going: “Next month is the Devil’s month. You’re groomers. You’re dragging us to hell.” I said, “I don’t believe in any of that, but I respect your right to believe that. Have a nice day.” And he said, “Oh, you don’t believe in any of that? You need to because the Devil knows you, and you need to know him. I can see it in your eyes that you only care about your looks, sex, money, and drugs, like all gay people, and the Devil’s going to offer you those things and you’ll dance your way to hell with him.” At this point, I was like, Yeah, okay, sir. I sure am. I’m excited. He kept going until I was called on the walkie to assist someone and stepped away. He screamed after me, “See? You answer the calls of other men!” Because I’d answered the walkie call of another male employee.

My co-workers were like, “You were hate-crimed. Are you okay?” I kept laughing it off. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last time. But it wasn’t until I was fully alone that night, speed-walking to my car after my shift, that I really felt unsafe. It could have gotten violent. That man could’ve had a gun, especially in this climate and in this town. Management tried to be supportive. They said, “This is just our new normal. We need to accept this and stay as safe as we can and keep an eye out.”
These people feel like if they’re loud enough, angry enough, and violent enough about something, something will get done. They’re making bomb threats because they’re angry about a couple rainbow shirts in a store. Our store took down some banners and mannequins and all the children’s clothing from the Pride section. Our staff has been very angry, and almost every worker is wearing Pride stickers on their name tags and vests to show support and silently protest. I understand taking precautions for the safety of the guests and the workers, but Target, which claims to be so progressive, is giving in to the hate. These small-minded individuals have made an example of Target, and Target buckled their knees. If they can make one of the biggest retailers in America do that, they can make anybody do it.

“I look forward to June being over, something I wouldn’t have said last year.” —Ethan*, 25, California

I’m a cis gay man working at a Target in California. My co-workers are either also LGBTQ+ or they’re allies. Our customers didn’t really bring a political vibe into the store until Pride Month started. Some of my co-workers have gotten angry calls. One co-worker experienced a prank that’s been going around, where a guest takes what little Pride merch we have left and has someone ring it up, only to say that they “forgot their wallet” and abandon the merchandise. They pretty much always call us groomers after they do it.

We put our merch up fairly early — a third of the way through May. Our store made a compromise where the merch would still be there but displays wouldn’t be as apparent. I understood it because basically every employee has gotten a negative comment, or worse, from customers about Pride. It’s shocking considering we’re in California. We’re still allowed to wear Pride stuff, like pins and buttons, but I don’t know if I’m brave enough to do so anymore.

One busy afternoon, I was working the register when a man approached me. He looked to be in his 30s and had an athletic build. He looked at me with contempt as I started ringing up his items and pointed at my shirt, which said Pride in rainbow lettering, and said, “I don’t support child groomers.” My heart sank. I’ve never encountered someone who took issue with my identity. I tried to defuse the situation and said, in a polite tone, that gay and trans people don’t want to hurt kids, that they want to be left alone to live and love. He brought up “drag-queen story hour,” a popular talking point for the far right, and continued: “If by ‘love’ each other, you mean getting monkeypox from getting double-teamed at the Grindr orgy, then yeah — that is all they want.” He said it all with such glee. I tried not to burst into tears. We didn’t say another word to each other as I finished ringing him up. It was surreal. I told my manager I needed a break and cried for a good 15 minutes.

No customers saw or heard our interaction. The man didn’t yell or make a scene, and when I told my co-workers what happened, they consoled me. They’ve all gotten their share of backlash. I have anxiety and catastrophize easily, so I imagined the worst: that I was going to get assaulted. I’m still a little on edge and look forward to June being over, something I wouldn’t have said last year.

“I’m not about to lay my life down for $15 an hour because people don’t like rainbows.” —Angel, 24, Florida

I’m nonbinary trans and worked at a Pensacola Target for almost two years. I quit yesterday. Things got really scary really fast during Pride Month.

Our store moved our Pride display to the back, near the fitting rooms, taking down anything with the words gay, queer, and trans and only leaving behind some rainbow shirts, plates, and cups. I wanted to buy a doormat that read Gayest Place in Town, but that — like so much other Pride merchandise — got marked as Do Not Sell, which means it’ll go into the compactor rather than getting marked down or donated. It’s disappointing.

Since Pride began, there’s been lots of right-wing guests coming in to harass our staff. The majority of people who’ve been complaining about the Pride collection at my store have been older white women. There was an instance where a woman came up to me while I was wearing my Pride shirt and my pronouns on my name tag and said, “I’m not sure who I’m supposed to talk to about this, but I assume you’ll pass the message along. I just want to express how disappointed I am in Target for selling transgender clothes.” I was like, “I’m going to cut you off right there. I don’t tolerate that; I don’t want to hear it. I’m trying to be as respectful as possible, but our store director is right around the corner if you want to go talk to him.”

This woman walked up to our store director, snatched him by the shirt collar, and pulled him aside to “talk” to him. A few days later, my supervisors came up and told me, “We have to touch base with you about what you should do if somebody gets physical.” I said, “Are we really talking about this? I’m not about to lay my life down for $15 an hour because people don’t like rainbows.”

Being openly queer and working at the service desk, I was the first person guests see when they walk into the store. If someone were to come inside packing heat — this is Florida, where a lot of people carry — I felt like a sitting duck. I was sick of thinking about that every day. People were creeping close to the service desk, working up the nerve to talk to us and saying the most out-of-pocket shit: “I sure hope Target doesn’t go woke”; walking around the Pride display and being like, “Ugh, disgusting. I can’t believe you’re selling transgender clothes for children. I’m never coming back.” And then they’d be back a week later.

We have codes at Target — Code Yellow is a lost kid; Code Red is fire — and I asked to come up with a code to let management know to come to the desk and help deal with these people. We landed on Code Rainbow, which basically meant “Come ASAP. There’s a bigot at the counter.”

A former co-worker, who is also queer, quit last week too. She told me she didn’t know if she would die or get assaulted coming into work and that she would sit in her car and cry before coming in for the day just knowing she’d have to encounter at least one of these people. I’ve been trying to find another job for a couple of months, mostly because of burnout, but all this harassment pushed me to look harder. I feel so much better since quitting.

*Some names have been changed.

‘Things Got Really Scary Really Fast During Pride Month’