Being an ally is hard, and that’s when it matters most

Peter Matheson Gay

Written by Peter Matheson Gay

Peter Matheson Gay is M Booth Health’s Chief Impact Officer and has made it his life’s mission to tackle inequality, drive inclusivity and help organizations change the world.

A few weeks ago, a close friend shared an Instagram story from a small queer-owned and operated business called Ash + Chess that specializes in stationery and gifts. The company just had its Pride t-shirts pulled from Target stores across the country. In the post, Ash + Chess wrote: “We are saddened to say that the majority of our collection has been removed from Target stores due to threats from domestic terrorists. Emotionally, we don’t currently have the bandwidth to comment further on this.”

The move by Target to remove some of its Pride collection was a result of a few right-wing influencers filming themselves tearing down in-store Pride displays, LGBTQ+ Target employees reporting more aggressive behavior from a handful of shoppers and even bomb threats at certain locations. These are illegal, irrational, and dangerous acts – a powerfully bigoted response to a Pride collection that includes a “Live Laugh Lesbian” t-shirt. 

Visibility, acceptance and feeling loved play a big role in our mental health. And mental health in the LGBTQ+ community is a big issue. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that: “[LGBTQ+] youth are resilient and can thrive when they are supported and affirmed, but that pervasive discrimination, rejection, and bullying of LGBTQI+ youth has led to a nationwide mental health crisis.” Further, according to the American Psychiatric Association, LGBTQ+ people are 2.5 times more likely to experience mental health issues like depression and anxiety. And the advocacy group The Trevor Project report that LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers, and more than half of transgender and non-binary youth have seriously considered suicide. 

 How crushing for this small business. A partnership with Target is an incredible opportunity for exposure, sales and, perhaps more importantly for a company like Ash + Chess, getting heartfelt messages like “Trans People Belong Here” and “Queer Liberation is for Everyone” out into the world. 

There are Target locations everywhere, including in places where people who may really need those affirmations can see them. It may seem small to some, but seeing a Pride display is an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people to know they’re not alone — and can mean the difference between life and death. 

Of course, this mental health crisis won’t be solved by selling or wearing a few t-shirts. But it makes a huge difference when a company like Target, which shapes our culture in profound ways, stands with the LGBTQ+ community – especially when the going gets tough.

And what does Target get out of a Pride partnership with a company like Ash + Chess? They get to publicly reaffirm their values to the world – to underscore who they are and what they stand for. Target clearly states: “Our DE&I strategy focuses on four areas: creating an inclusive guest experience, having an inclusive work environment, ensuring we have a diverse workforce and leveraging our influence to drive positive impact on society.” 

Target also gets to attract new employees and reaffirm that their corporate culture believes in and cares for the same things they do. Who doesn’t want to feel good where they work?

It’s also good for business. How good is it for business, you ask? Well, a UK-based investment company estimates there are over 17 million LGBTQ+ consumers with the spending power of $1 trillion. That’s a lot of t-shirts.

So where does this situation leave Target? Well, they’ve responded to illegal activities that have threatened their business and employees, and have pulled back in-store Pride activities. As of the publishing of this article, Ash + Chess merchandise is still available on the Target website. But in media coverage and in conversations like the 2K+ comments to Ash + Chess’ post, the sentiment is that Target has backpedaled in their support of the LGBTQ+ community. It feels a little harder to stand behind that “drive positive impact on society” value they tout so loudly. When things got tough, Target got going. 

This isn’t entirely fair (or true). Target was still a Platinum Sponsor of New York Pride – a designation that comes with a $175k donation to the LGBTQ+ organization. 

But is the damage already done? Consumers don’t love fence sitters, or worse, backpeddlers. In a society where LGBTQ+ people are under attack around every corner, the community needs every ally it can lean on. Seriously, it’s bleak out there. At least 17 states have enacted anti-trans bills around healthcare for transgender children, drag performers have been banned, and hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people are up in alarming numbers. Perhaps most terrifying, trans women of color continue to be the target of intense violence, with an alarming number of deaths in 2022 that shows no signs of slowing down in 2023. 

Just a year ago, there was an overwhelming amount of criticism of corporate involvement in Pride about authenticity. It no longer became enough to just slap a rainbow on a product or corporate logo to win favor or make money off of the LGBTQ+ community without a meaningful contribution to the larger movement. For Target, it will require a deeper understanding of what being an ally for the community truly looks like, and concrete action to back it up.  

Today, I’m reminded about an old queer adage that appears on shirts (maybe one was even sold at Target): “The First Pride was a Riot.” It was Black drag queens and trans women throwing bricks at overzealous and overreaching NYPD officers during the Stonewall riots that started the modern-day gay rights movement.  

The truth is, we may be back to Stonewall times soon enough. And the community needs real allies. Companies and corporate citizens to stand up beside and with the LGBTQ+ communityand supporting the community through organizations like The Trevor Project, which aims to help LGBTQ+ youth (especially in preventing suicide), Lambda Legal or Human Rights Campaign – whose are working tirelessly to overturn harmful, anti-LGBTQ+ laws in multiple states  

With many of the June parades and activities coming to a close, my advice to any organization is this: It’s still time to get involved in Pride. In fact, get involved in LGBTQ+ issues and rights all year round. The mental health – and even the lives – of our LGBTQ+ youth depend on it. Plus, you’ll be on the right side of history. 

To the executives and decision-makers at Target, I’d remind them to remember why you’re here in the first place—your values. Your organization believes a straightforward principle: that equality is a right, not a privilege. 

And fighting for what you believe in is always worth it.

Happy Pride everyone.