HOUSTON, Texas -- All throughout Pride Month, we've been seeing companies market their merchandise in rainbow-themed branding or feature influential transgender figures, claiming support for the LGBTQ+ communities.
But a number of them have backpedaled after receiving a wave of backlash and criticism, leaving some people questioning whether their support was more performative than genuine.
Lou Weaver is one of them. He remembers how he felt when he first saw clothing lines and products celebrating trans pride at Target a few years ago. He described feeling visible and empowered for being his authentic self.
"I grew up during a time when we couldn't be visible at all. To see a company actually giving us what we needed, something I could be proud to wear and be like, 'Yes, here I am,' it was really exciting. It was a long time coming," Weaver said.
But that excitement dimmed when Target came under fire last month following backlash from customers who confronted employees and tipped over displays. The company said it removed some items after experiencing "threats impacting our team members' sense of safety and well-being while at work."
Weaver said he felt extremely disappointed by Target's response.
"I think they did even more damage because they basically told folks, 'If you complain enough, we'll remove this. We'll listen to you if you complain,'" he expressed. "I get that you have to keep your employees safe. But would you let them do that to any other product? Why don't you station a security guard there? Why don't you show us you care enough about us to protect the symbolism of who we are?"
He went on to say, "I refuse to buy my Pride stuff from them now. I am queer 365 days a year, 24/7. It's saying that they'll have our backs until it gets scary and they no longer cared about whether or not I was a person. They just wanted to know whether or not I'm going to buy this shirt."
Professor Paul Galvani, who teaches marketing at the University of Houston's Bauer School of Business, said corporate LGBTQ+ allyship is nothing new. But what is new is the wave of backlash and boycotts in recent years.
He explained that corporations typically start planning for Pride Month about a year in advance and can't always predict what the response will be to their campaigns.
"Target has been promoting Pride for years and had zero effect. But all of a sudden, it's gained national attention in the last few months. One has to think about what has changed in what we call the 'external environment.' We're still doing the same thing. But something outside has changed, and that change is the culture wars," Galvani said.
Advocates said the past few years have been extremely difficult for the trans community. For the first time in its history, the Human Rights Campaign declared a "national state of emergency" after more than 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were signed into law this year.
Earlier this year, Bud Light's partnership with transgender social media star Dylan Mulvaney was met with transphobic criticism. The beer's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, issued a vague statement that did not indicate support for Mulvaney nor address the hate-filled rhetoric coming from its angry consumers.
When businesses back down when times get tough, Jason Rocha with Woodlands Pride feels they don't truly understand what it means to be an ally.
"They got a few days of backlash and some hateful comments for a few days. That's what it feels like to be in a marginalized group every day," Rocha said. "If you're going to stand with us, you have to stay with us in the trenches. You don't have to double down, but stay consistent."
Although the Woodlands Pride has not had any sponsors back out before their festival in October, they released a statement last month asking potential partners to think about what they're signing up for.
"This is the baseline of support for our community. If you can't do that baseline, we need to have a deeper conversation. We don't want to get dragged into the culture wars. It's not like there is a bait and switch. If you want to save your reputation as a big corporation, maybe reconsider in the first place what you're getting involved with," Rocha said.
Galvani said companies need to understand what it means to stand for a social cause, not just because they risk losing customers from both sides. But because they need to be prepared for what could come next.
"They certainly have to have plans in place. It's much easier to determine those plans ahead of time, by asking such questions as, 'What if we endure a boycott? What if a display of our products is upended? What if an employee is threatened? What would our reaction be?'" he said. "As long as they are transparent and honest about it with these communities, they should weather that storm well."
Rocha emphasized marketing staff at these companies need to bring LGBTQ+ individuals to the table when it comes to these campaigns.
"Put your ears where your money is. Listen to the people that you're joining forces with and have a conversation," he said.
Weaver believes true allyship means showing support for the LGBTQ+ communities year-round, not just during Pride Month. He also challenges companies to evaluate what they're doing internally to support their LGBTQ+ employees.