An LGBTQ+ creator received death threats after working with Target

New York

When a Target distributor contacted Erik Carnell last year about potentially placing his brand, Abprallen, in Target stores, he was thrilled.

It was “the biggest opportunity of my career,” Carnell told CNN. “I was ecstatic at the thought of being able to share my stuff with an entirely new market.” London-based Abprallen, described on its Instagram page as “art and accessories for the proud, loud and colorful,” would grow from a small startup into a brand available from a major US retailer.

In the months that followed, Carnell pitched Target and came up with designs that would be suitable for the big box store, he said. Eventually, Target began selling three Abprallen adult items: a sweatshirt, a tote bag, and a messenger bag, each emblazoned with a different phrase.

But then things fell apart. About a week and a half ago, Carnell said, he began receiving hundreds of hate messages, including death treats, some falsely saying the collection was being marketed to children, while some lashed out at Target for its Pride offering.

By Wednesday, Target had pulled Abprallen items from its U.S. stores and online marketplace, Reuters reported.

Seth Wenig/AP

Pride Month merchandise is displayed in the front of a Target store in Hackensack, NJ, Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

“Since the introduction of this year’s collection, we have experienced threats that affect our team members’ sense of safety and well-being at work,” Target said in a statement regarding this year’s Pride collection.

“Given these volatile conditions, we are adjusting our plans, including removing items that were central to the most significant confrontational behavior,” Target said.

Carnell’s immediate response was relief.

“The amount of response I’ve gotten is overwhelming,” he said. “I just hope this is the beginning of the end of the messages and attack I get.”

But for a small brand, losing access to Target’s massive reach is a blow.

“When this is all over, I will be incredibly disappointed that such a huge opportunity has been taken away from me.”

But Carnell understands Target’s decision regarding its line.

“I don’t know what else can be done to protect store employees,” he said. “Their safety should be absolutely the top priority.”

Still, Carnell is disappointed that Target stopped communicating with him about the decision. While he has heard from a distributor he worked with, he has not received any word from headquarters, he said.

Target did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Abprallen was born out of Carnell’s affinity for drawing and a desire to connect with his queer community.

“I made some pins about six years ago and it’s grown since then,” he said. For Carnell, the work is personal.

“I take what I do incredibly seriously,” he said. “I owe it to my younger self, who was so lost and in so much pain… I owe it to him to create things that he can be proud of, things that tell him that who he is is not wrong. That who he is is great,” he said.

When Carnell, who is trans, thinks of his younger self, he recalls a time “when I was a kid and desperately wished I were a boy, and didn’t realize there was a way I could do that.” Carnell knows his experience was not an isolated one. “There are so many people like him,” he said, referring to his younger self.

Thanks to Erik Carnell

Erik Carnell in Abprallen products developed for Target.

With Abprallen, Carnell wanted to create Pride items that were more than “just a rainbow slapped haphazardly on a T-shirt”.

Abprallen sells shirts, elaborate pins and other accessories that combine pastel blues, pinks and purples with skulls, skeletons and UFOs. The images are combined with various phrases, such as “Transphobia sucks” and “Gay icon”. Some are directly talking to specific incidents, such as “Witches and wizards love transgender people,” a response to Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s heavily criticized comments about transgender people.

But one design caused a stir online.

Opposition to Carnell and Abprallen is largely centered around a design that says, “Satan respects pronouns.” Online, an anti-LGBTQ campaign pushed for a boycott of Target, displaying images of the phrase on an Abprallen T-shirt. A video circulated on TikTok asking an employee if she supports “satanic Pride propaganda.” Carnell has been called a Satanist in the right-wing press.

But that particular design was never available at Target.

In early conversations, the retailer told Carnell that the “Satan respects pronouns” design wouldn’t be a good fit, he said. The designs that eventually went on sale are more neutral in tone, featuring the phrases “Heal transphobia, not trans people”, “We belong everywhere” and “Too weird for here”.

Still, Carnell wasn’t surprised when the partnership caused a backlash (although he didn’t expect it to be this bad).

“I am not naive. I definitely knew negativity would come my way,” he said. “I understand that people are incredibly passionate about their hatred of LGBT people. And the current political climate is one that tells those people that they are right to feel that way,” he said.

Thanks to Erik Carnell

Another Abprallen product for Target.

On Twitter, described right-wing commentator Matt Walsh a targeted campaign that goes beyond Abprallen or Carnell. “The goal is to make ‘pride’ toxic to brands,” he said. “If they decide to push this garbage in our face, they should know that they will pay a price. It won’t be worth what they think they gain.”

The virulent language, plus the threats reported by Target, come at a time when trans rights are under attack in the United States. More than 400 anti-LGBTQ bills have been submitted to state legislatures through April 3 this year, including laws restricting access to gender-affirming care for trans youth, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Transgender people are more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than cisgender people, according to a study by the UCLA School of Law.

For direct-to-consumer brands, partnering with a major retailer is often “the holy grail,” says Ian Schatzberg, co-founder of brand agency General Idea, which works with brands large and small. “It’s very expensive to run a DTC business,” he said. “The role the retailer plays in the lives of these brands is really critical to their success.”

In general, “If they lose distribution, they could lose their business,” Schatzberg said, adding that large retailers are “vital” for small online brands.

For LGBTQ+ brands, shelf space is “a source of financial livelihood, but also of pride and visibility,” Schatzberg said. General Idea is an LGBTQ-owned company, he noted. “If you are removed, it will not only affect that business owner, but the community as well.”

Before Target, Carnell, who runs Abprallen alone, sold Abprallen products online, as well as in some markets and to some wholesale customers, he said.

A silver lining to the attention was a spike in support, financial and emotional. The Abprallen site has received so many orders that it has temporarily closed the virtual store to catch up.

“I’ve been inundated with support,” he said, including “so many beautiful, compassionate, loving messages,” he said. “And when I’m in better headspace, I know how much that will positively impact me.”

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