When Erik Carnell was contacted by a Target distributor to create tote bags and clothing for the retail giant’s Pride Month lineup, he was ecstatic. It was the biggest opportunity he had received since he took a leap of faith in 2017 and left his management job at Starbucks to launch Abprallen — an art and apparel brand for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I sell wholesale to shops and stuff but this would have been the largest scale project I’ve worked on,” said Carnell, a 29-year-old trans designer in London. “It was really exciting that they reached out to me — I felt like I’d been sort of like noticed and recognized.”
But his big moment ignited a firestorm.
Shortly after Target began its rollout of more than 2,000 products for its annual Pride collection this month, anti-LGBTQ activists started attacking the store in social media posts and right-wing videos — a common occurrence whenever a major corporation shows support for the community.
Activists soon discovered Carnell’s independent web store, where he has sold, among other items, pins and medallions that used satanic and occult imagery to make points about transphobia. A lavender, goat-headed medallion that reads “Satan respects pronouns” is among his most popular designs. A pin depicting a guillotine with the label “Homophobe Headrest” might be the edgiest.
Within days, tabloids and conservative news outlets were painting Target as a promoter of violence, drugs and the devil. “Target customers shocked after company features pride items by Satanist partner,” read a typical Fox News headline.
The chain never actually sold any of Carnell’s Satan-ish merchandise, but it soon pulled his other items from its shelves, including a fanny pack with swirling planets that reads, “We belong everywhere,” and a tote bag with a UFO that proclaims “Too queer for here.”
“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,” the company said in a statement this week, citing threats the company had received against its staff. The store also confirmed that it moved its Pride displays from the front of the stores to the back at some locations in the South where confrontations among shoppers had erupted.
Besides Carnell’s items, Target’s web store has also stopped selling swimsuits designed for transgender people, after conservatives falsely claimed they were being marketed to children.
The move has caused an outcry from LGBTQ+ advocates, who accuse Target of caving to a cancellation campaign by anti-trans extremists — much as Budweiser’s chief executive was accused of doing last month, when he vaguely apologized for a can of beer commemorating trans actress Dylan Mulvaney.
Carnell has found the entire situation distressing.
“For starters, I don’t believe in Satan,” he said. “If I believed in Satan, I’d have to believe in the Bible — and I consider myself an atheist.”
He is hardly the first person to embrace satanic imagery to make a political point. The U.S.-based Satanic Temple — largely a collection of atheists and humanists — towed an eight-foot sculpture of the horned deity Baphomet to the Arkansas Capitol building several years ago, to call attention to conservative attacks on the separation of church and state.
Carnell said he used satanic imagery in some of his art to subvert a homophobic narrative that queer people are sinful, evil or otherwise ungodly. “It’s no different to people reclaiming slurs and trying to remove the power from it to try and use it to benefit them.”
Meanwhile, activists appear to have scored yet another victory over a corporation that dared to embrace the LGBTQ community.
The attacks on Carnell are part of an onslaught against public displays of queer culture — most notably the campaign against Budweiser over its partnership with Mulvaney, and a seemingly organized campaign to ban books with LGBTQ+ content from school libraries. This month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a slate of bills that target drag shows, pronouns, bathroom use and gender-affirming care for minors.
Target’s response fueled long-standing suspicions in the LGBTQ community that corporate commitments to Pride are rooted in capitalism, rather than real advocacy and support — particularly because the chain pulled Carnell’s merchandise days after its CEO, Brian Cornell, touted efforts to boost diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
“If your advocacy consists merely of rainbows that disappear at the first gust of fascist wind, it amounts to net harm,” Erin Reed, an activist and content creator, tweeted Wednesday.
In retrospect, Carnell thinks what happened to him was inevitable.
“I think that the issue is there’s always going to be a scapegoat. There’s always going to be a figurehead,” he said. “And I have fallen into that trap because a couple of right-wing people have, in bad faith, taken artwork that I have created from my own site, nothing to do with Target, and have spun a narrative to fit what they and their followers will be able to enjoy getting riled up about.”
Carnell said he created Abprallen for queer people like his younger self, at a time when he felt LGBTQ+ merchandise was restricted to “lackluster” iterations of Pride rainbows on T-shirts. “I’m speaking of a closeted kid who needs to see that there is positivity and hope and humor and love and enjoyment and pride awaiting him in the future,” he said. “That it’s not all bleak and it’s not all death statistics and it’s not all hate crimes and it’s not all negative press. And that there’s a wonderful community waiting for him.”
He said he has “lost count” of the death threats he’s received since the Target furor kicked off, but, “I don’t take them seriously. I know that it’s just people hiding behind a screen.”
And not all the attention has been bad. “I’m completely inundated with orders and every single time I get to a chunk of them, I’ve got another chunk more coming,” Carnell said, after temporarily closing his web store this week, citing a surge in demand.
What does bother him, however, is the silence from Target, which did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. Carnell said the retailer never contacted him to explain its decision to remove his items.
“At the beginning, I was a bit more lenient in understanding that their priorities were in keeping their staff safe,” he said. “And whilst I agree that it’s still the priority, it’s been a number of days now, and I would appreciate just a generic email clarifying that they’ve taken my things down and why.”
“The fact that I haven’t even had so much as a ‘hello’ I think is just a terrible business practice.”
This article has been updated with more information about items Target removed from its Pride collection.