WASHINGTON — In the midst of a lightning rod controversy over transgender rights that has seen Target Corp. stake out a position in favor of an “inclusivity” policy, the retail industry is still trying to find its footing on the issue.
The issue is squarely in the spotlight and has rapidly expanded to all corners of public discourse, from corporate boardrooms to the presidential campaign trail.
On Tuesday, which was designated “International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia,” President Obama called for upholding the rights of all LGBT individuals.
“There is much work to be done to combat homophobia and transphobia, both at home and abroad,” Obama said. “In too many places, LGBT individuals grow up forced to conceal or deny who they truly are for fear of persecution, discrimination and violence. All nations and all communities can, and must, do better. Fortunately, human rights champions and good citizens around the world continue to strive towards this goal every day by lifting up the simple truth that LGBT rights are human rights. The United States honors their work and will continue to support them in their struggle for human dignity.”
Over the border, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a bill Tuesday aimed at protecting the rights of transgender people.
The heated national debate in the U.S. over transgender rights in public bathrooms and in schools largely stems from a move by some states, North Carolina in particular, to implement controversial legislation that essentially mandates that transgender people use bathrooms that correspond only with the gender on their birth certificate.
Critics claim the law discriminates against gay and transgender people but proponents of the bill argue the law protects girls from potential predators in bathrooms and defends their religious liberty.
U.S. companies have been pulled into the debate and Target has held its ground in support of protecting its employees and customers from discrimination and providing equal treatment.
“In our stores, we demonstrate our commitment to an inclusive experience in many ways,” Target said in a statement in mid-April. “Most relevant for the conversations currently underway, we welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.”
On Tuesday, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. also voiced support for what it dubbed an “inclusive shopping environment.”
“J.C. Penney is focused on creating a positive and inclusive shopping environment for all customers,” a company spokesman said in an e-mailed response to a query. “We monitor our bathrooms and fitting rooms to ensure that they are clean and functional, while respecting the safety and privacy of every individual.”
The retailer, which operates 1,000 store locations in the U.S., stopped short of saying outright that transgender individuals can use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity, but the statement echoed similar language used by Target.
“At Gap Inc., we are open to business for everyone. We believe in equality for all and are committed to creating workplaces that are fully inclusive,” a spokeswoman said in an e-mail to WWD.
“We’re guided by our company’s principle of Zero Means Zero, which means we have zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in our workplaces,” she added. “This includes a practice of allowing employees and customers to select which bathroom they will use that corresponds to their gender identity.”
Other retailers have not weighed in on the issue publicly, despite requests for comment. The retail industry’s two main trade and lobbying groups — the National Retail Federation and Retail Industry Leaders Association — said they have no position on the controversial issue.
“We haven’t weighed in on the issue and have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future,” a RILA spokesman said.
An NRF spokeswoman said: “NRF believes our members are in the best position to decide their own store policies.”
The bold declaration from Target sparked a backlash for the retailer, which is now facing a call by a non-profit religious group, the American Family Association, to boycott all Target stores. The AFA said it has received more than 1 million signatures in an online petition, calling for a boycott of Target.
Target is not backing down. The retailer’s chief executive officer Brian Cornell went on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last Wednesday to defend the company’s policies and vowed not to reverse them, despite the threat of a boycott.
“We took a stance and we’re going to continue to embrace our belief of diversity and inclusion,” Cornell said.