NEW YORK -- Target once distinguished itself as being boldly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.
Now that status is tarnished after it removed some LGBTQ+-themed products and relocated Pride Month displays to the back of stores in certain Southern locations in response to online complaints and in-store confrontations that it says threatened employees' well-being.
Target faces a second backlash from customers upset by the discount retailer's reaction to aggressive, anti-LGBTQ+ activism, which has also been sweeping through Republican state legislatures. Civil rights groups chided the company on Wednesday for caving to anti-LGBTQ+ customers who tipped over displays and expressed outrage over gender-fluid bathing suits.
"Target should put the products back on the shelves and ensure their Pride displays are visible on the floors, not pushed into the proverbial closet," Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson said in a statement. "That's what the bullies want."
The uproar over Target's Pride Month marketing -- and its response to critics -- is just the latest example of how companies are struggling to cater to different groups of customers at a time of extreme cultural divides, particularly around transgender rights.
Bud Light is still dealing with the fallout from when it sent transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney a beer can with her face on it, which Mulvaney then displayed in an Instagram post, igniting backlash. Bud Light's parent company is tripling its U.S. marketing spending this summer as it tries to restore lost sales.
In Florida, Disney has been engaged in a legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis since expressing opposition to the state's classroom limits on discussing gender identity and sexual orientation.
Allen Adamson, the co-founder and managing partner of the marketing firm Metaforce, said Target should have thought through the potential for backlash and taken steps to avoid it, like varying the products it sells by region.
"The country is far less homogenous than it ever was," he said. "For any brand, it's not 'one size fits all' anymore."
Shares of Target, which is based in Minneapolis, extended their fall on Thursday, declining 2.6% in morning trading. On Wednesday, the stock closed down 3%.
According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 21% of people in Generation Z identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, compared with 3% of Baby Boomers. Gallup has also found that younger consumers are most likely to want brands to promote diversity and take a stand on social issues.
"Pulling back is the worst thing that they could have done," said Jake Bjorseth, who runs trndsttrs, an agency helping brands understand and reach Gen Z customers. "Not to expect potential backlash is to not understand what (LGBTQ+) members go through on a daily basis."
"Once they fold to the more extreme edges of the issue, then they've lost their footing," Adamson added. "If you can change a big brand just by knocking over a display, then they are on the defense, and you never win on the defense."
Target has long been seen as a trailblazer among retailers in the way it embraced LGBTQ+ rights and customers. It was among the first to showcase themed merchandise to honor Pride Month, which takes place in June, and it has been out front in developing relationships with LGBTQ+ suppliers.
It has also faced backlash. In 2016, when a national debate exploded over transgender rights, the company declared that "inclusivity is a core belief at Target" and said it supported transgender employees and customers using whichever restroom or fitting room "corresponds with their gender identity."
But even after being threatened with boycotts by some customers, Target announced months later that more stores would make available a single-toilet bathroom with a door that could be locked.
As recently as last year, law enforcement agencies were brought in to monitor a social media threat from a young Arizona man who said he was "leading the war" against Target for its Pride Month merchandise, and he encouraged others to take action.
But the company is operating in an even more politicized environment now.
There are close to 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have gone before state legislatures since the start of this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. At least 17 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors, though judges have temporarily blocked their enforcement in some states.
Target declined on Wednesday to say which items it was pulling from its stores. But "tuck friendly" women's swimsuits, which allow trans women who have not had gender-affirming operations to conceal their private parts, were among Target's Pride items that garnered the most attention. Designs by Abprallen, a London-based company that designs and sells occult- and satanic-themed LGBTQ+ clothing and accessories, have also created backlash.
The controversy at Target has been exacerbated by several misleading videos circulating online. In some, people falsely claimed the retailer was selling "tuck-friendly" bathing suits for kids.
"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," Target said in a statement Tuesday.
The company pledged its continued support for the LGBTQ+ community and noted it is "standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year."
Indeed, it was business as usual at many Target locations on Wednesday.
At the Target in Topeka, Kansas, the Pride display remained up front, visible as shoppers passed a corral of shopping carts right after the entrance. It included Pride-themed clothing for kids, as well as T-shirts and women's bathing suits for adults.
"I like that our local stores here have it front and center, when you walk in," said Shay Hibler, a Topeka self-employed small business owner who was shopping with her 13-year-old daughter and supports LGBTQ+ rights.
Megan Rusch, a Kansas City-area resident who is studying criminal justice at Washburn University in Topeka, was shopping at the same store and said while other locations might worry about their image, "This is a pretty diverse area."
She said she believes it's good for the stores to have the Pride displays so that LGBTQ+ customers feel included.
Her shopping companion, Blake Ferguson, a Colorado resident who is studying accounting and finance student at Ottawa University, added simply: "Love is love."
Durbin contributed from Detroit. AP Writer John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas contributed to this report.