When President Donald Trump was asked Tuesday to condemn white nationalists at the first presidential debate but instead told the far-right group the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," Igor Volsky thought he'd misheard him.
"When I saw it on Twitter I thought, 'There's no way.' And then when it was confirmed just minutes later, I, frankly, was horrified," said Volsky, 34, of Washington, D.C., who runs a gun control organization called Guns Down America.
Proud Boys, founded in 2016, calls itself a "white chauvinist" organization, but it is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The group was in the news after Trump declined to condemn it during the debate, with many people taking the "stand back and stand by" comment as an endorsement. Trump later denounced the group in a Fox News interview.
But on Sunday, Volsky, who is gay, joined a flood of Twitter users who began co-opting the "#ProudBoys" hashtag to show off images of LGBTQ pride, pushing posts made by neo-Nazis and white supremacists out of the feed.
Volsky first became aware of the movement when his partner, Pete, pointed out the hashtag to him on Twitter.
"I thought, 'Oh, that's incredible.' And I went on the hashtag on Twitter and just looked through what people were posting, and it really struck me as an opportunity to reclaim the hate and division and the bigotry that the Proud Boys and other hate groups display and to follow in the tradition of the LGBTQ movement ... of really kind of coming out and communicating a sense of inclusion, of joy, of visibility," Volsky said.
It's unclear where the takeover idea came from, but it may have started with a tweet from actor George Takei.
On Thursday, two days after the presidential debate, Takei tweeted: "I wonder if the BTS and TikTok kids can help LGBTs with this. What if gay guys took pictures of themselves making out with each other or doing very gay things, then tagged themselves with #ProudBoys. I bet it would mess them up real bad. #ReclaimingMyShine."
The tweet gained more than 54,000 likes and was shared roughly 13,000 times.
Two days later, on Saturday, Takei tweeted: "Look up what's trending now on #ProudBoys. You're welcome, Internet."
Takei's call invoked the work of teenagers and K-pop stans (fans of South Korean pop music), who took over white supremacist hashtags this year to push hateful tweets out of the hashtag's feed.
In June, K-pop fans took over the hashtag #whitelivesmatter, posting videos or images of their favorite stars, to drown out white supremacist messages with nonsensical or anti-racist posts.
Christopher Ubiadas, 34, of California, who is gay, rejoined Twitter on Sunday night and just happened to see the hashtag takeover trending when he decided to join in. He posted a photo of himself with his fiancé during a golden sunset and included the "#ProudBoys" hashtag.
"I did that at, like, 1 a.m., and I woke up to, like, a whole bunch of notifications," Ubiadas said. "It was totally positive. I have yet to receive a negative comment."
It wasn't just individuals showing off their love. The official Twitter account of the Canadian Armed Forces in the United States shared an image of a serviceman kissing his partner, captioned with emojis of the Canada flag and the rainbow pride flag and the hashtag #ProudBoys.
"If you wear our uniform, know what it means. If you're thinking about wearing our uniform, know what it means," the organization said in a follow-up tweet. "Love is love."
An internal Canadian military report in November 2018 said 53 members were found to have made discriminatory statements or were linked to hate groups, including the Proud Boys and the anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin.
To users like Volsky, seeing the internet take on bigotry was a profound moment online.
"What's gratifying about it is how this resonated with Americans all across the country — gay, straight, allied, what have you — that it really found such a powerful audience," he said.
During a highly divisive time, the moment was a rare spark of joy in what could otherwise be considered a bleak time, Volsky said.
"During a period of such division — and during a period of general depression we all feel in 2020 — having the opportunity to rally around something so positive ... I think that makes almost everybody feel good," he said.