Goal once distinguished himself as being boldly supportive of LGBTQ+ community.

Now that status is tarnished after it removed some LGBTQ+-themed products and moved Pride month are appearing in the back of stores in some southern locations in response to online complaints and in-store confrontations that say threatened employee well-being.

Target is facing a second backlash from customers upset by the discount retailer’s response to aggressive, anti-LGBTQ+ activism, which has also swept through Republican state legislatures. Civil rights groups blasted the company on Wednesday for pandering to anti-LGBTQ+ customers tipping over screens and expressing outrage over gender-fluid swimsuits.

“Target should put the products back on the shelves and ensure theirs Pride shows are visible on the floors, not shoved into the infamous closet,” Human Rights President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “That’s what the bullies want.”

The story continues below the ad

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 diverse customer groups at a time of extreme cultural divides, particularly around transgender rights.

Click to play the video:

Why LGBTQ2 advocates advise against travel to certain states in the US

Bud Light is still dealing with the fallout from when it was shipped transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney a beer can with his face on it, which Mulvaney then showed in an Instagram post, sparking backlash. Bud Light’s parent company is tripling its US marketing spend this summer as it tries to recover lost sales.

In Florida, Disney has been engaged in a legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis then expressed opposition to the state’s classroom boundaries for discussing gender identity and sexual orientation.

Allen Adamson, co-founder and managing partner of marketing firm Metaforce, said Target should have thought through the potential for backlash and taken steps to avoid it, such as varying the products it sells by region.

The story continues below the ad

“The country is much less homogenous than it has ever been,” he said. “For any brand, it’s not ‘one size fits all’ anymore.”

Shares of Target, which is based in Minneapolis, fell nearly 3% on Wednesday.

According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 21% of Generation Z identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, compared to 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.

Click to play video: 'Brandon School Board Votes Down LGBTQ2 Book Ban'

Brandon school board votes down LGBTQ2 book ban

“Backing off is the worst thing they could have done,” said Jake Bjorseth, who runs trndsttrs, an agency that helps brands understand and reach Gen Z customers. “To not 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 problem, then they’ve lost their footing,” Adamson added. “If you can change a big brand just by knocking over a screen, then they’re on the defensive, and you never win on the defensive.”

The story continues below the ad

Target has long been seen as a trailblazer among retailers in how it embraced LGBTQ+ rights and customers. It was among the first to showcase themed products in honor of Pride month, which takes place in June, and it has been at the forefront of developing relationships with LGBTQ+ suppliers.

It has also received backlash. In 2016, as a national debate exploded over transgender rights, the company declared that “inclusivity is a core belief at Target” and said it supported transgender people and customers using whichever restroom or fitting room “conforms with their gender identity.”

But even after being threatened with boycotts by some customers, Target announced months later that more stores would provide a bathroom with a toilet with a lockable door.

As recently as last year, law enforcement was 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.

Click to play the video:

Safety concerns for Nova Scotia’s LGBTQ+ community amid reports of hate incidents

But the company operates in an even more politicized environment now.

The story continues below the ad

There are close to 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have made it to state legislatures since the beginning of this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. At least 17 states have passed laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors, although judges have temporarily blocked their enforcement in some states.

Target declined Wednesday to say which items it pulled from its stores. But “tuck-friendly” women’s swimsuits, which allow trans women who haven’t had gender-affirming surgeries to hide 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 LGBTQ+ clothing and accessories with occult and satanic themes, 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” swimsuits for children.

“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, noting that it “stands with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year.”

It was actually business as usual at many finish locations on Wednesday.

Click to play the video:

NHL Pride Night: Focus should be on overall progress, not individual players, LGBTQ+ advocates say

At the Target in Topeka, Kansas, the Pride display was out front, visible as shoppers passed a corral of shopping carts just after the entrance. It included Pride-themed clothing for children, as well as T-shirts and women’s swimsuits for adults.

The story continues below the ad

“I like that our local stores here have that front and center, when you walk in,” said Shay Hibler, a Topeka self-employed small business owner who shopped with her 13-year-old daughter and supports LGBTQ+ rights.

Megan Rusch, a Kansas City-area resident studying criminal justice at Washburn University in Topeka, shopped at the same store and said while other places may worry about their image, “This is a pretty diverse area.”

She said she thinks it’s good for stores to have the Pride displays so that LGBTQ+ customers feel included.

Her shopping companion, Blake Ferguson, a Colorado resident studying accounting and finance at the University of Ottawa, added simply, “Love is love.”

Durbin contributed from Detroit. AP writer John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.