Target, gay rights supporters at odds over how to settle dispute

John Duran likes shopping at Target, but he hasn't walked through its doors since last summer.

As a gay public official, Duran believes he must support a boycott against the retailer by gay rights activists.

"I am one of those people now that no longer shops at Target," said Duran, West Hollywood's mayor pro tem. "I just can't in good conscience be seen there."

Real estate agent Tom Kraynak also stayed away from the retail chain — for a while. But he was among several gay shoppers at the West Hollywood Target recently who said it was time to move on.

"We boycotted for a while," said Kraynak, 47. "But that only lasted for so long because we had to go to Target. Gotta shop."

Months after Target Corp. angered gay rights supporters with a controversial political donation, both sides say they want to move past the issue. They just can't seem to agree on the terms.

For Target, the dispute has derailed its long-held reputation as a gay friendly company, one that supports gay causes and features same-sex couples in its advertising.

Its actions — including a lawsuit last month against a gay marriage group that had been soliciting outside a San Diego area store — have led opponents to form anti-Target groups on Facebook and to pressure gay rights organizations to reject donations from the company. Last month pop star Lady Gaga, an outspoken gay rights supporter, dropped an exclusive album deal with the retailer in a show of support.

"Target's biggest asset and vulnerability is they market so transparently to our community," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. "If that retailer does not fulfill on what we believe to be their brand promise, there are consequences."

Hoping to prevent the feud from escalating, Target has lately gone on an offensive — including meeting with gay rights groups and announcing to The Times its support for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-stalled bill that would ban discrimination against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

And last week, Target released a two-minute video promoting the company's diversity that it posted on Facebook and its website.

"We're left, right and everything in between," a narrator intones over images of Target employees, including a gay couple. "Whether we're gay, straight or identify ourselves any other way, we love whoever it is we love."

Target officials said

they haven't ascertained whether the boycott has affected sales. They said the chain's mea culpa was about righting a serious misconception — not about money.

"Target is not anti-gay," said Michael Francis, Target's executive vice president and chief marketing officer. "It's important to set the record straight and provide some context."

"We're all disappointed and saddened by this set of events," Francis said in an interview. "It doesn't align with the beliefs of our broader team; it doesn't align with our stated corporate goals."

The dispute began last summer, when Minneapolis-based Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a political group that was backing a conservative Minnesota gubernatorial candidate opposed to gay marriage.

Target said the donation was made because of MN Forward's pro-business stance and not because of the group's support of Republican Tom Emmer.

Still, the company issued a public apology and vowed to rethink how it makes such contributions.

But those actions — and a subsequent pledge by Target to increase its donations to gay rights organizations to more than $500,000 this year, a 20% increase from its 2010 total — haven't appeased many gay rights supporters.

"Target's present commitment to gay equality doesn't measure up," Sainz said. "The re-integration of Target into the gay world has to be in a deep and meaningful way."

Activists say Target can settle the matter through several steps, including bolstering its donations to a wider range of gay causes and taking a public stance in favor of gay marriage or against the Defense of Marriage Act.

They are also bitter about a company lawsuit against Canvass for a Cause, a nonprofit that had been soliciting petitions advocating gay marriage outside a San Diego County Target store.

Francis said that Target had "no agenda" against the group or the petition but that it prohibits all customer solicitations.

Since 2004, Target says it has brought legal action against 17 groups, including church and community organizations.

Tres Watson of Canvass for a Cause argued that the company was selectively

enforcing that ban, saying he had seen Salvation Army volunteers set up donation buckets during the holi-

days.

Target says it does not allow the Salvation Army to solicit on its property.

The discord worsened after Target filed court papers in which a company security official discussed the "controversial pro-gay marriage messaging" of Canvass for a Cause and the perception among customers that "Target promotes the same view."

"Target pulled the Band-Aid off the wound all over again," said Watson, the group's executive director.

"If the true reason why you want to kick us off your property is because you don't allow any signature gatherers, then why do you even have to reference that issue?"

On Thursday, a San Diego judge denied Target's request to ban the solicitors from its property, saying the company didn't show that Canvass for a Cause volunteers had been harassing customers. The ruling said the group could continue to canvass but had to stay 30 feet away from store entrances.

Experts in corporate crisis management and brand marketing said it's in Target's best interest to settle the matter quickly.

The public's opinion of a brand is often based on headlines rather than the nuances of a situation, noted Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications.

"It's right at the tipping point," he said. "What Target does next is what matters."

But while backing gay marriage would appease some customers, it could also turn off those who don't support same-sex unions

or who believe companies should steer clear of social issues, said Brian Sozzi, a

retail analyst at Wall Street Strategies.

"I don't know if it's their place," he said. "At the end of the day, they sell goods."

Gay activists also have an incentive: As boycotts drag on, they tend to lose steam.

Back at the West Hollywood Target, partners Jim Sullivan and Charles Borja said they long ago accepted Target's apology.

"They're going to alienate consumers if they take a hard-line stance one way or the other," said Sullivan, 30. "I think it's enough that they've tried to right the wrongs."

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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