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Target Pride backlash exposes 'rainbow capitalism' problem, designer says

By Helen Reid

LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. retailer Target's decision to remove some LGBTQ-themed merchandise after customer backlash in its stores highlights the problem with companies' "rainbow capitalism," said Erik Carnell, a transgender designer whose products were pulled from its stores.

Target has sold LGBTQ-related goods tied to Pride month for years. But last week the big-box chain removed Carnell's products, citing an increase in confrontations between customers and employees and incidents of Pride merchandise being thrown on the floor.

Some conservative news outlets and Republican politicians labelled Carnell and his designs - which are printed on pins, stickers and T-shirts - "Satanic" and falsely claimed his products in Target were marketed to children.

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Criticism for carrying Pride-related products has since begun to dog department store chain Kohl's Corp as well.

Companies like Target that launch products and campaigns for Pride Month seek to profit from LGBTQ people but fail to stand by them when challenges arise, London-based Carnell said in an interview.

"It's a very dangerous precedent to set, that if people just get riled up enough about the products that you're selling, you can completely distance yourself from the LGBT community, when and if it's convenient," said Carnell, a transgender gay man who launched his brand Abprallen in 2017.

"If you're going to take a stance and say that you care about the LGBT community, you need to stand by that regardless."

Target's decision to remove some Pride products came weeks after brewer Anheuser-Busch's partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney triggered transphobic comments on social media and a boycott by some drinkers.

Kohl's is also taking heat from some conservative commentators criticising it for selling bibs and bodysuits for babies that feature the Pride flag and slogans supporting the LGBTQ community. A spokesperson for the company did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

Target's collection for Pride Month, which is celebrated every year in June, includes more than 2,000 products, including Carnell's Abprallen brand. His brand's products are the only ones so far that have been removed both in-store and online, he said.

Carnell says he has received hate messages and death threats over the past week, adding that he has had no contact from Target.

Target on Tuesday said it did not have any new comment on the matter.

In a statement to Reuters last week, the company said that due to "volatile circumstances" in its stores, it was removing items at the center of the "most significant confrontational behavior."

In a May 24 memo to Target employees, which was obtained by Business Insider, Target CEO Brian Cornell said "one of the hardest parts" of its move to pull the merchandise was figuring out how that would impact the "wellbeing and psychological safety" of the LGBTQ community.

"We stand with you now and will continue to do so - not just during Pride Month, but each and every day," he said.

The designer Carnell said Etsy, an online marketplace where Abprallen has a store, got in touch to check on him, and that Threadless, which prints his designs, offered him its premium services for free.

The backlash targeted Abprallen products that were not sold at Target, such as a design featuring the slogan "Satan Respects Pronouns" and a horned ram representing Baphomet - a half-human, half-animal deity that is both male and female.

Commentators falsely claimed that this design was being sold at Target.

(Reporting by Helen Reid in London, Additional reporting by Siddharth Cavale and Kate Masters in New York; Editing by Matt Scuffham and Deepa Babington)