weekly feature | Jun 28, 2023 |
State of Pride: Has anti-LGBTQ backlash come for the design industry?

For those who imagined that LGBTQ rights in America were on a slow-but-inevitable march toward progress, 2023 has been yet another reality check. This month’s Pride celebrations have come amid growing national backlash as state legislatures across the country rapidly advance—and in some cases, pass—laws that ban drag performances and gender-affirming health care. Meanwhile, activists are using boycotts to target brands with gender- and queer-inclusive products or marketing. These campaigns appear to be working.

First, there was Bud Light. After the brand partnered with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a social media campaign in March, conservative groups organized a boycott, causing Bud Light’s sales to plummet 23 percent over the following month, dethroning it as the number-one beer in America.

Then in May, Target faced similar outrage over Pride merchandise. The retail chain responded by removing some items from its inventory and downplaying existing displays, citing “employee safety,” which did little to placate either LGBTQ rights groups or conservative activists. Chip and Joanna Gaines briefly became a talking point on Fox News for failing to pull their line of home goods from Target, and the company’s stock dropped 26 percent—it hasn’t recovered since.

Though these protests largely seek to highlight a galvanizing issue on the right—the fight over the rights of trans youth—the conversation inevitably spills over into broader LGBTQ issues. For the most part, the pushback has so far targeted national consumer brands. But then, in mid-June, fabric maker Thibaut uploaded a Pride post to its Instagram account and was swarmed by comments, many of them anonymous, telling the brand “stick to decorating” and “we just want the product, not the political message behind it.”

Has the backlash come for the design industry?

In some ways, the statement is so obvious that it often goes unsaid: The design industry has long been powered by the creativity and enterprise of the LGBTQ community. Elsie de Wolfe—arguably the first modern interior designer—had a longtime female partner. Many of the powerhouse designers of the 20th century were gay men, a fact that became painfully clear as the AIDS crisis devastated a generation. Design has historically been a hotbed of LGBTQ talent.

Interviews with LGBTQ-identifying designers across the country suggest that the national backlash has done nothing to change that, and that the flare-up on Thibaut’s account was likely more of a drive-by trolling than a wave of trans- or homophobia arising in the design centers of America. However, the conversations also indicated that the notion that the industry is LGBTQ-friendly has always been more complicated than it may seem.

While the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationally may have felt long overdue in liberal enclaves, it did not change the country’s culture overnight. As many Americans celebrated the new landscape, others bristled as the former status quo was upended. For queer people in the design industry and elsewhere, their newly legal status didn’t necessarily translate to universal openness and equality—especially outside of large cities or blue states. There is a “bubble.”

For Nashville-based designer Teri Moore, being out has made work more precarious. She recently transitioned her services from full-service projects to e-design after a few bad experiences with clients. One, she says, was particularly difficult to work with; after the relationship ended, Moore saw one of the clients’ videos pop up on TikTok, accusing “queer people of being groomers,” she says. “Turns out this whole time she’s been spewing hatred online about my community.”

Being outspoken about LGBTQ issues has also complicated Moore’s connection to the local design community, to say nothing of her sense of belonging in a state that has—according to the Human Rights Campaign—passed 15 anti-LGBTQ laws since 2015. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two years in my state,” she says. “Generally, the world at large is easier for people who are not marginalized.”

Many designers contacted by Business of Home, including those who live and work outside of the so-called “bubble,” have had more positive experiences, describing the industry as fairly welcoming wherever they go. However, while instances of stark hatred may be rare, a quieter undercurrent of tension is not uncommon.

“When you step outside of New York or Miami, it’s a different world,” says New York– and Florida-based designer Mikel Welch. “You have to question: The same people who can afford our services, do they really support us? To use the example of my grandmother, I love her to death. Does she support my lifestyle? No. But she supports me. [Clients] can be the same way: They love you as a person, and they’ve separated their political and religious beliefs from that. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s a plus, but it does happen.”

While the rise of social media has undeniably given designers a powerful marketing tool, it’s also become another surface area for harassment. There is no “safe space” on Instagram. Queer designers who post about Pride or their romantic life often experience a disturbing stream of homophobic abuse in their DMs.

“I can’t tell you how often I get called ‘a groomer,’” says New York–based designer Scot Meacham Wood, echoing a common experience. “Behind an anonymous account, people get very nasty very quickly.”

Homophobic comments tend to escalate in proportion to how frequently designers post around LGBTQ issues, or even just reference their partners. Moore loses followers every time she posts about her wife on social media. A recent partnership with a major national home brand led to a rush of hateful comments so extreme that she had a friend take over her account for 48 hours.

Chicago designer Sarah Goesling says that her career in the design industry has not been without its difficulties. Notably, at past jobs, managers would tacitly ask her not to “broadcast” her orientation and suggest she dress “more feminine” to appointments with clients—part of the reason she launched her own firm in 2019.

But online, Goesling says, the experience is openly hostile. Last year, after posting Pride-related content, she says she received “30 to 40 horrible responses” that led her to pull back from social media out of fear that someone would show up at her business. But since then, she’s picked it back up again. A post advocating for LGBTQ suicide-prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project this month led to the loss of 100 followers overnight—a fact that she took a screenshot of and shared with the followers that remained.

“[My wife and I] are much more protected than so many other people are [in the queer community], and we’re really fortunate to have a community around us and family and friends who really support us,” says Goesling. “At the end of the day, I feel like it’s our duty as queer people who have ‘made it work’ to help stand up and support the rest of the community.”

The most obvious transgressions typically occur when designers either venture beyond the cloistered world of the design business, or when the outside world comes to them. However, some point to a complexity at the heart of the industry itself. While designers tend to be geographically concentrated around wealth—and therefore, often large, liberal-leaning cities—much of the furniture manufacturing business is concentrated in North Carolina, a state that often elects conservative politicians.

That disconnect reared its head in 2016, when North Carolina’s state legislature passed HB2, a bill that barred transgender people from using public bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity. The so-called “bathroom bill” led to a nationwide outcry. Citing the bill, PayPal axed a planned Charlotte expansion. Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts in the state.

Within the design industry, many condemned the bill, and brands like Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams and Ferrell Mittman issued public statements decrying its passage. However, behind the scenes, there was some division. New York–based designer Patrick J. Hamilton recalls attempting to organize the design industry around more pointed political action and receiving considerable pushback. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a no-brainer, the industry will definitely rally around this,’” he recalls. “We’re all so frustrated by national news, this onslaught of attacks on civil rights, gay rights—I thought, ‘Finally, we have a state that is doing something [where] we as an industry have incredible financial clout.’ … [But] it didn’t quite go the way I wanted.”

When he attempted to organize a petition that would urge industry brands to more forcefully voice their opposition and discuss next steps, Hamilton received personal support but a lack of public commitment. “People were saying they had hesitations about coming forward because it might jeopardize their relationship with brands they were working with, or brands they had licensing deals with,” he says. “[My thinking was:] Why are we working for people who are not going to support our very basic human rights? If seeing I disagree with anti-trans laws is going to hurt a licensing deal, do I really want that deal?”

HB2 was repealed in 2020. But, as Hamilton points out, other states have since advanced laws that target LGBTQ rights—places where the design industry continues to do considerable business. “Dallas market is huge—I know and love people in Texas, but why are we doing business with people we’re afraid of, where we’re wondering, ‘Can I bring my husband?’”

And even now, Hamilton adds, there can be a quiet stigma around being out in certain industry contexts. “It can be a little bit like, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ outside of the coastal bubble,” he says. “It shows its face in discussions around licensing. When the designer meets the manufacturer, it’s, ‘Eh, maybe I don’t need to talk about this.’”

Brands play a complicated role in the conversation. Oddly, though the industry has many LGBTQ-identifying designers—read: customers—trade companies are not always as enthusiastically vocal during Pride month as consumer brands.

Though this is far from a perfect measure of support for LGBTQ issues, an informal review of 30 major industry brands’ Instagram feeds showed that Thibaut was one of only four companies that dedicated a grid post to Pride this month. (Thibaut declined to issue a statement for this article.) A strange irony: You can see more celebration of Pride in M&M’s social media marketing than that of many trade companies.

It’s not easy to explain precisely why that’s the case—whether it’s due to corporate caution or something else entirely. Alan Gilmer of Edward Fields Carpet Makers—his company hosts an annual Pride party—surmises that it’s possible the industry simply takes LGBTQ support for granted.

“This might sound controversial, but there’s an assumption that because we are in the interiors industry, that it really is very LGBTQIA+ focused and an ally, and maybe there’s the feeling that there’s not a need to be so visible in celebrating Pride,” he says. “People might make assumptions that brands in our business already are, but you really do need to show up. I would like to see more companies do what we’ve done here, because it does make an impact and it does make a difference in how people feel.”

The industry does have a very visible example of a brand that has long enthusiastically and publicly embraced Pride. Early in the company’s history, Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams, themselves both romantic and work partners (they’re now separated), included same-sex couples in the marketing for their eponymous brand.

Interestingly, the reception was far less controversial than one might imagine. “In general, we’ve had such a great reaction to all of the things that we’ve done that were inclusivity oriented,” Gold tells BOH. “And to the whole ethos of the company and the staff in the stores.” He says he routinely urges other industry brands to not only voice support for Pride in advertising and merch, but to donate to causes or otherwise become more deeply involved. There’s strength, he says, in numbers.

Los Angeles designer David Samuel Ko agrees. “Not many design brands of the old guard posted about Pride on social media—many think their support is implicit—but if they took a stand as well, maybe [Thibaut] wouldn’t receive so much backlash,” he says. “It needs to be a group effort. … Taking a stand in this conversation is really important.”

In other words, headline-grabbing national pressure campaigns and the incident on Thibaut’s Instagram post are a reminder that progress is incremental, not inevitable—it is possible to slide backward as well as stride forward. “When big political changes happen, we get this illusion that everything’s different, but it’s not,” says Welch. “We’re slowly changing. But it’s going to take some time.

Homepage image: ©REDPIXEL/Adobe Stock

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