Hit & Run

Social Cons Boycott Target for Complying with Transgender Law Pushed by Social Cons

The retailer is doing exactly what supporters of N.C.'s HB2 said they should do. Why are folks upset?

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Credit: Kevin Dooley

More than 850,000 people are saying they're going to boycott Target stores for making a formal announcement over something that had probably already been an informal policy for some time now: Transgender customers (and employees) can use the restrooms appropriate for the sex that matches their appearance, not necessarily their birth sex.

Color me deeply, deeply skeptical that more than 850,000 people who have signed an online petition actually have any real intention of boycotting Target. Online petitions are about as credible as online polls. But it both feeds a culture war narrative and gives the conservative American Family Association, which has been struggling for any sort of relevance post-gay marriage, some media publicity. (One of their other campaigns, "One Million Moms," is encouraging people to call TJ Maxx to get them to stop advertising on ABC's Once Upon a Time because there was a lesbian kiss.)

It just feels like a lot of "signaling" from both sides. Target had to make a big deal out of advertising this policy in the wake of the passage of some of this transgender bathroom legislation, and now religious conservatives have to make a big deal out of their opposition to it. There's a lot of heat, but I suspect in a week or so we'll discover little has changed. It is reminiscent of the failed boycott against Chick-fil-A that was launched because of its founder's financial support of Christian conservative organizations that opposed same-sex marriage. Boycotts aren't particularly good tools in the culture war because: one, they prompt the "other side" to rally to the side of those affected by the boycott to give them more business; and, two, they end up telling companies that in order to keep one set of customers, they must reject another set of customers, which puts the companies in an awkward position. If the aforementioned "rally" happens, why would they reject these customers?

In any event, there's a bit of hypocrisy in this boycott, possibly based on the fact that people don't quite understand what North Carolina's transgender law actually does. The law requires that transgender people use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificates—but only in government facilities and schools. The law makes it very clear that private businesses and companies are free to establish whatever policies they choose on how to accommodate transgender customers and workers. And that's exactly what Target has done.

That is to say: Target's announcement is that it is complying with the law that social conservatives pushed through in North Carolina. It is following both the letter and the spirit of the law. This is what supporters of the law asked for. This is how Gov. Pat McCrory defended the law. So it's a bit rich that those who got exactly what they asked for are turning around and boycotting a business that used its right to accommodate customers in a way they didn't like.

To be clear: I'm very much pro-boycott as a tool of cultural influence. I find it much preferable to the alternative of using laws and regulations as a solution (being both libertarian and gay, I've been on the wrong side of those laws and regulations too many times to count). But not only do I think these kinds of boycotts are not effective, these proponents are oblivious to the fact that this is pretty much an outcome of what they said they wanted.