Comment: Anti-trans boycott of Target misses its target

Those upset by the presence of LGBTQ+ communities seek comfort in denying their existence.

By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post

A couple days ago I logged onto Target’s website to examine, with my own eyes, two of the items currently causing right wing apoplexy and a massive store boycott, whereupon I learned the items — tuck-friendly bathing suits “for toddlers” — weren’t even real.

Or, at least, they weren’t what angry online influencers, such as Matt Walsh had claimed. The bathing suits themselves were real — color-blocked one-pieces and black high-waisted bottoms with sports-bra tops — but the swimwear came in adult sizes only, according to a Target spokesperson quoted in the Associated Press. (“Tuck-friendly” refers to a fabric construction that makes it easier for people with penises to wear form-fitting swimwear without revealing their genitals. The phrase might signal to a transgender woman that the garment would be welcoming to her body but anyone, including a cisgender woman, could wear it.)

Far from being “obscene” or “sexualizing” or “grooming” — as the swimsuits were also described by the alarmists — these suits were downright modest. Swimsuits are not “obscene” or “sexualizing” merely by being swimsuits. They’re just practical articles for swimming in water. As for being revealing, rest assured you already see more explicit bulges on the men’s Olympic diving team than you’d ever see via these Target suits. The fresh-faced models who wore them on the website looked like they were getting ready to deliver potato salad to a pool party; it’s Target, for Chrissake.

And yet, they earned the retailer a specific kind of threat. One tweet said it succinctly: “We’re going to Bud Light you.”

In case you missed the last outrage cycle, “We’re going to Bud Light you” refers to what happened to Anheuser Busch after the company ran a promotional campaign on Instagram featuring a transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Dressed like Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Mulvaney popped a Bud Light in celebration of “Day 365 of womanhood,” and this act was enough to make Kid Rock go outside, line up three cases of the beer on a card table, and shoot them with a semiautomatic weapon. “F••• Bud Light,” he proclaimed in the video he posted online. Sales declined for six weeks straight.

For Americans for whom being a conscientious consumer means throwing a tantrum whenever a mainstream brand markets its wares to LGBTQ+ people, the new target is Target. A spokesperson for the company said the backlash had intensified to the point that it threatened workers’ safety: “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.” Those items appeared to include Pride-related paraphernalia from a particular designer whose other clothes — not clothes sold at Target — featured images like pentagrams and horned skulls.

If you’re a corporate executive right now, one pretty interested in avoiding declining sales, you might be looking for what lessons to take from these case studies: Avoid pentagrams? Avoid “sexualizing children?”

And then you might realize that Target and Anheuser Busch had already avoided those things. Even if you believe that pride-related apparel has no place in a child-friendly department store, you could hardly make the same argument for Bud Light (if your beer is marketed as child-friendly, you’ve got bigger issues than declining sales). Dylan Mulvaney was an adult enjoying an adult beverage, telling her followers — rather banally — to find something in their lives to celebrate, while wearing a more demure outfit than people tend to wear while drinking Bud Light.

So, if you’re that corporate executive, you might be coming to the realization that to protect your profits from backlash, the only thing you could have avoided would have been acknowledging transgender people at all.

You would have needed to avoid acknowledging that they might want to go to the beach and need appropriate attire to do so; you would have needed to avoid acknowledging that they drink beer. Simply put, you would have needed to avoid acknowledging that they exist. (Indeed, one Target T-shirt that provoked a lot of ire said, simply, “Trans people will always exist.”)

These boycotts are often presented as concerned citizens trying to prevent young children from being scarred, marred or pushed into a gender identity they are too young to understand. And yet it so often amounts to bewildered citizens who would prefer not to encounter products, people or concepts that they are too wigged-out to understand.

Last week Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was asked, in an interview, to explain conservative crusades to preserve “traditional masculinity.”

“Fears about masculinity are a way into the fear of displacement. Masculinity establishes a default place, and that place is being shifted and threatened by modernity,” Buttigieg said, with his trademark thoughtfulness. “The politicization of masculinity is code for ‘Nothing in your life has to change.’ The problem is, of course, lots of things have to change. Either because there was something wrong with the old way; or because, even as the old way seemed perfectly fine, it’s not an option.”

Buttigieg’s remarks on masculinity specifically are equally apt for conversations about traditional gender roles and identities. It’s not an option for things not to change. It’s not an option for transgender people to not exist. Trans people are not a corporate suggestion. Target didn’t invent the market it is trying to serve. It’s responding to demand. Target designed and sold those bathing suits — a small handful of bathing suits, out of the literally hundreds available on the site — because transgender people were already shopping for bathing suits. Have always needed bathing suits. Will always need bathing suits.

If boycotters protest loud enough, and withhold enough money, they might be able to get a bathing suit removed from a website. They might be able to get a store removed from a mall. But eliminating a product doesn’t result in eliminating the need for a product, and it certainly doesn’t erase the people who would buy it. People who now, incidentally, include me, a cis woman who thought that color-blocked one-piece was cute and cheap, and needed something to wear to Ocean City in June.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.” Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHesse.

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