Defend Truth


Woolworths Pride and why the US war on LGBTQ rights should matter to all of us


The language of the attacks on Woolworths because of its ‘Be an Ally’ campaign seems to have been taken directly from the well-worn homophobic and transphobic playbook of the American right.

The Woolworths campaign to celebrate Pride Month should not have been remarkable. It is, after all, simply a large corporate that determined that its profit-making agenda aligned, in this case, with advancing the visibility of an often-maligned group.

Accusations of pinkwashing aside – in which corporates use a commitment to LGBTQ rights to distract from possible ethical lapses and gaps in their labour practices – the Woolworths Pride campaign is encouraging.

The broader response to the campaign, however, has been noteworthy. Calls to boycott Woolworths flooded social media. Twitter was littered with exhortations to “protect the children” and “end grooming”. The accusation of being “woke” was thrown at Woolworths with abandon.  

The war on LGBTQ rights

After first seeing the rather bland, rainbow-hued call to “Be an Ally” in the campaign’s early days, we were not expecting much of a response. But perhaps we should have.

The language of the attacks on Woolworths seems to have been taken directly from the well-worn playbook of the American right. There has, in recent years, been a rising tide of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric and legislation in the US.

The right wing has been emboldened to legislate bigotry, and to use its media platforms to export these ideas around the world. The state of Florida enacted its infamous Don’t Say Gay law, which prohibits discussions of sexuality and gender identity at all levels in schools.

Tennessee, Georgia, Arizona, Alabama, Idaho and more than 10 other states have enacted laws that prohibit gender-affirming care to transgender minors. Tennessee and Idaho have banned drag performances in public places (with draft bills progressing in several other states), while draft bills in Arizona and a number of other states would criminalise (and even declare as sex offenders) any drag artist who performs in front of children or adolescents.

On a federal level, one of the lesser-known aspects of the Supreme Court’s decision to eviscerate abortion rights was one of the justices opening the door on possibly undoing marriage equality. Astoundingly, more than a third of the members of the legislative House of Representatives voted against the Respect for Marriage Act in 2022, a law which codified same-sex and interracial marriage.    

An insidious influence

The US has a disproportionate impact globally, with the cultural politics of that country influencing people around the world. The US is, for many, a moral placeholder that has the power to legitimise what can be said.

What has happened in the US has emboldened some South Africans to express their prejudice more freely, because they seem to believe that their bigotry implicitly has the protection of powerful people in the US (such as Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson).

The US has exported its hate-filled homophobia and transphobia to South African shores, and it is this that has recently been redirected towards Woolworths.

This bigotry often moves under the guise of rejecting “political correctness”. The US war on LGBTQ rights affects what many South Africans choose to say and how they choose to say it.

It is for this reason that the social media backlash against Woolworths has been cast in the language of being “woke”. This term has become the touchstone for the cultural wars in the US, where anything that challenges cisgender, heterosexual, white male dominance is dismissed as being “woke”.

The US has exported its hate-filled homophobia and transphobia to South African shores, and it is this that has recently been redirected towards Woolworths.

There is also a long history in the US of using the supposedly vulnerable child as a scapegoat for homophobic hatemongering. Some of the tweets and memes that parroted these American talking points are as absurd as they are dangerous:

  • “Wokeworths CEO says if you want to brainwash children on a national scale to groom them you must first brainwash yourself”;
  • “You support LGBTQ and Father’s Day? How ironic”;
  • “One reason to boycott: There are only 2 genders”; and
  • “Woolworths changes Youth Month to Pride Month: Woolworths is going woke by buying into the LGGBT [sic] agenda ignorer [sic] to appease the public in the name of inclusivity”.

In their attacks on Woolworths, some tweets appropriated the self-righteousness of US campaigns that boycotted American retailers:

  • “Target has lost $9 billion since we all called for a boycott against them for pushing LGBTQ+ clothing and products on children”;
  • “Woolworths soon to follow Target Coke Budweiser and others. Share price going to drop like a brick. Sales going to take a hammering. Woolworths & other corporations never learn from others”; and
  • “@Woolworths SA why don’t you have a private party for the people you are so proud of? Just remember what happened to bud beer and Dischem where unacceptable behaviour was punished by normal people. Now block me as you do to people who do not share your woke ideas.”

Maybe this is the point. In times where these tweeps feel threatened by the loss of their status as custodians of who is “normal” and who is worthy of inclusion, they draw strength from a growing chorus of seemingly legitimate US voices who advance hate with impunity.

Of course, the US right has grown the popularity of this kind of hatred as electorally relevant because they convince the public that more people feel that way than is actually the case.

Homegrown homophobias

We are not suggesting that there are not homegrown homophobes who encourage these bigots. Who could forget Al Jama-ah’s recent insistence that queer people should be excluded from public debate because of our apparent inability to be loving parents and our responsibility for society’s high levels of rape, murder and a generally apocalyptic Sodom and Gomorrah?

The Christian organisation Family Action South Africa seems to share these sentiments and has argued that “June has been hijacked by those advocating lifestyles opposed to traditional marriage, and ‘pride’ in such lifestyles is trumpeted all over”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Queer folk, we are the ones we have been waiting for, the hour to save ourselves has come

They write further that “Woolworths has decided to climb on this band wagon and join the shrill voices of prominent woke corporates, pandering to the ‘LGBT’ lifestyle”.

Even here, the sentiments of a fundamentalist Christian nationalism ring out in ways that have uncomfortable echoes with legislators and Fox News hosts in the US. 

While South Africans should be wary of these partisan battlelines, we should also remember that South Africa is very different from the US. We should be vigilant about allowing such culture wars to start clouding our politics.

The South African Constitution, unlike its American counterpart, explicitly protects the rights of the LGBTQ community. Unlike the US, for the most part, LGBTQ issues have not been weaponised, nor have they held any serious sway in our politics.

We need to fight not only against bigotry, but also against those who invoke US culture wars to create the impression that these views are actively held by a larger part of the population in South Africa than they actually are. DM

Andy Carolin is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book Post-Apartheid Same-Sex Sexualities: Restless Identities in Literary and Visual Culture (Routledge 2021).

Dr Reinhardt Fourie is a senior lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature at the University of South Africa.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Safiyah Cox says:

    Although not an academic, I am a proud South African and have my own opinions as many do. To say we all regurgitate US narrative is unfounded. It is my belief that everyone should be given respect regardless of status, appearance, sexuality or intellect.
    The issue here is the indoctrination of children into the agenda of a minority of maligned individuals. And here we can talk of US influence with regard to the new school curriculum! And you all know what I mean.
    Businesses will always try to influence every sector of the market, that’s what it’s all about, making money. However in doing so one would think they would give it more than One thought. After all we all have a choice.
    This is an extremely sensitive subject, undermining freedoms, privacy and the right to rear children without interference, the most precious commodity.
    Why don’t we have a Morality Class at school. That would put a spanner in their works!

  • quinton says:

    A very one-sided viewpoint, especially when branding conservatives as right wing homophobic and transphobic. It is simple, I am a person who believes that there is only two genders (male & female). I fully respect anyone who identifies as something else, but please don’t drum it down my throat and dedicate an entire month to all this and in turn try and force school children to be indoctrinated into this. Just let everyone get on with their lives… period!

  • Bick Nee says:

    The fact that our constitution protects the rights of the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is precluded from calling out Woolworths for shoving Pride down their throats. Why is it that whenever straight people don’t want gay propaganda foisted upon them words like “hate-filled”, “homophobia”, “transphobia”, “bigoted” and “prejudice” get trotted out with abandon? No one is scared of you and no one hates you. Get on with your life and enjoy your constitutionally protected freedoms without demanding that everyone else participate in or applaud your chosen lifestyle.

    • Steven D says:

      It’s frightening that those who align with the LGBTQ community appear to have taken the stance that nobody should or even can be neutral in the debate over LGBTQ issues; it’s either “you’re with us” or “you’re against us”. According to them, there cannot be any middle ground for people who do not support either side.

    • Enver Klein says:

      There are three main groups of phobias which include:
      1. Specific (simple) phobias, which are the most common and focus on specific objects,
      2. Social phobia, which causes extreme anxiety in social or public situations, and,
      3. Agoraphobia, which is the fear of being alone in public places from which there is no easy escape.
      Even before the constitution was drafted to protect the rights of all South Africans, there was never a phobia or fear. Why use the words Homophobia and Transphobia? People who identify with this lifestyle have been living in our communities since way before I was born, and I’ve never had a phobia for them; if I did speak out against the lifestyle, why would you assume that I fear it?

    • Paddy Ross says:

      Excellent comment.

  • cunninghamcvb says:

    The tone of this article displays many of the characteristics of the target of its attack – which appears to be any individual or entity which fails to wholly endorse the left wing values of the authors. “Shrill” and “bigoted” labels seem to apply here. One senses the pressure to limit freedom of expression to left wing ideas, and to imply that there is no case for protecting children from left wing agendas.

  • Your facts and stories are so far from the truth. What far-left US magazine are you getting your reports from?
    Terrible reporting/story. It is shocking that you would spew such rubbish and lies as facts.

    • Steve Stevens says:

      Fact: Ron de Santis in Florida has passed the ‘don’t say gay law’. Fact: a number of states in the US have banned library books with LGBTQ subject matter. Fact: even the Bible was banned for a few days because it contains some provocative language! Fact: two US states are attempting to ban drag shows. You’ll find all this info and more in any of the mainstream US media. Alternatively, Google Kristalnacht…the similarities are quite uncanny.

  • nikimoore007 says:

    While there is nothing wrong with protecting the rights of minorities, I suspect the main objection to the LGBTQ+ campaign is its cancel culture.
    There is a trend – anyone who does not enthusiastically support another’s right to ‘identify’ as a man, woman, child, chicken or cat, and who does not immediately reconfigure their own lives in order to accommodate this ‘identification’ needs to be hunted down and persecuted. It’s a potential minefield.
    So the ‘right-wing playbook’ is really a backlash against a backlash. Hopefully it will all calm down and sense will prevail.
    Most people are completely puzzled by the strident LGBTQ+ campaign – the most common attitude is: I will leave them alone as long as they leave me alone.

    • Vas K says:

      I started writing my comment and then I saw yours. Couldn’t have formulate it better. Thank you for the sensible and level-headed contribution. Unlike the nearly fanatical article. Perhaps the following quote is quite appropriate: “We have reached the stage when the wise people are being silenced so that the stupid people don’t get offended.”

    • Steve Stevens says:

      ‘Reconfigure their lives’??? ‘Hunted down and persecuted’??? ‘Chicken or cat’???

      Jeez Niki, don’t be such a drama queen. The Woolies campaign could hardly be termed ‘strident’. I’m not aware of any reports of marauding transgender hordes protesting, rioting and burning tyres on every street corner and generally ‘not leaving people alone’.

      • Adam B says:

        Steve, I think Niki is referring to the LGBTQ+ campaign in general, rather than the Woolies campaign, and that her point is about the cancel culture often associated with that campaign. I think in that context, her statements are closer to fact than hyperbole.

        Referring to someone who appears to be a man as “she” instead of “he” could be considered a reconfiguring of my life.
        Those who take a stand against the LGBTQ+ push are undeniably persecuted.
        As for chicken or cat, google “children identifying as cats”

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    In the words of David Bowie – who famously began his address to the 17th Annual Grammy Awards at the Uris Theater in New York on 1st March 1975 (1975!) with, “Ladies, Gentlemen … AND OTHERS” – I can only say, “This is not America”.

  • chrisschonenberger says:

    Why can’t we let each other live? Pride month means that every human being should have the right to live in peace,without fear. It is really the celebration of the diversity of the human race. When it comes to sexuality science understands much more now than in previous centuries. It is a spectrum of many hues of grey, not black and white. The beauty of our times is that we can explore and live wherever we fall on that spectrum. Why are so many people scared of diversity? Everything in nature is about diversity – the incredible variety of everything that exists! We celebrate it when we look at nature. Why are so many people afraid of it when it comes to humans? Just because you are not like somebody else doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to be. Live and let live! That’s what Pride Month is about – celebrating the incredible beauty of the human race!

    • Adam B says:

      Great question – why can’t we let each other live? Why can’t Woolies just let us live? Why do they have to jump on the bandwagon?

      Your question of why can’t we let each other live should surely cut both ways. The LGBTQ+ lobby is certainly not letting others continue to live unaffected. And freedom of speech being what is (a freedom for both sides of an argument) one should engage with the argument rather than mudslinging. Your attempt to stifle discussion by suggesting that those who oppose the lobby are “scared of diversity” or “afraid of it” (aka transphobic or homophobic) is not helpful. Can you not include those with views different from your own in your “celebration of the diversity of the human race”? As you read this, I feel sure you would answer in the affirmative. At least, that is my hope.

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