(NEW YORK) — Kennedy Davenport, a drag queen, rejoiced when she learned last year that she would be featured on apparel in the forthcoming Pride collection at Target.
“You never imagine opportunities like this,” Davenport told ABC News, comparing the breakthrough to her previous role competing on the TV show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
For Davenport, elation turned to disappointment last month when Target announced it would remove some Pride products from stores in response to anti-LGBTQ harassment faced by employees, she said. Davenport says she does not know whether products with her image were removed.
“The bigwigs at Target should continue to take a stand with us and not be so quick to fold,” Davenport said, calling on the company to return the full Pride collection to their shelves. “I would love for Target to put on their boxing gloves and fight.”
Davenport is among five artists and organizations tied to this year’s Pride collection at Target who criticized the company’s response to the backlash in interviews with ABC News.
Critics acknowledged the difficult position faced by Target when anti-LGBTQ backlash nationwide boiled over last month into a boycott and reported employee harassment, including bomb threats at stores in Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
However, some critics said, the decision to remove Pride products marked a retreat from the company’s longstanding support of the LGBTQ community that could further embolden extremists and imperil vulnerable people.
“The thing that’s so disappointing is that the leadership that Target has shown over such a long period of time seems to be wavering in a moment when the attacks on our community are increasing,” Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, the executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group GLSEN, which has partnered with the company for more than a decade, told ABC News.
Rob Smith, the founder and CEO of The Phluid Project, an LGBTQ-owned clothing company that has placed products in Target stores for three years, expressed disappointment over the decision to remove some products from the Pride collection nationwide rather than focus on specific stores at heightened risk of threats.
“It’s a big blanket decision that didn’t seem appropriate,” Smith told ABC News, noting that he does not think his products were among those removed. “I would’ve made a different decision if I was in charge.”
An LGBTQ designer who contributed products to this year’s Pride collection at Target — and requested anonymity because they did not want to be publicly identified speaking about the company — said the response to the backlash leaves them “questioning how committed to the LGBTQ community these companies really are and how much we can trust their word.”
Target, which has seen its stock decline about 13% since the boycott began last month, did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
In a statement last month, Target said it removed some products from this year’s Pride collection because the company “experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work.”
“Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride Month and throughout the year,” the company said in the statement.
More than 200 LGBTQ advocacy groups, including GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign, signed a public letter on Monday calling on Target to make all Pride products available for sale online and in-store, reaffirm the company’s commitment to the LGBTQ community and ensure employee safety.
The boycott of Target follows a similar consumer protest against Anheuser-Busch InBev over a Bud Light promotion in April from a trans influencer. Bud Light sales have declined for seven consecutive weeks, and Anheuser-Busch’s stock has plummeted about 20%.
Meanwhile, the boycott of Bud Light gained momentum after the company’s initial response was perceived as conciliatory by some LGBTQ advocates, prompting frustration on the left.
MORE: The boycott against Bud Light is hammering sales. Experts explain why.
“It’s my hope that other corporations see what’s happening to Anheuser-Busch, see what’s happening to Target and choose a different path,” Willingham-Jaggers said.
To be sure, some of the people tied to this year’s Pride collection identified the root cause of the unrest as a rise in right-wing extremism centered on the LGBTQ community, which they said has put companies like Target in a difficult position.
“On the one hand, they risk losing sales from individuals who oppose the LGBTQ+ community,” a second designer who contributed to this year’s Pride collection told ABC News. “While on the other hand, they risk alienating the pro-LGBTQ+ community, which may result in a loss of sales as well.”
As of last month, more than 520 anti-LGBTQ bills had been introduced in state legislatures, including over 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people, the Human Rights Campaign found.
Smith, who said he has been in contact with Target often since the decision to remove some Pride products, said he remains optimistic that the company will respond more forcefully to the backlash.
“Target has continually done a good job and been a good leader,” he said. “They just need a moment to reset and recalibrate.”
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