Last Sunday morning, Americans woke up to news of a shooting at a nightclub — 49 people dead, most of them gay men. Hours after the news broke, the gunman’s father suggested to the news media that the sight of two men kissing may have prompted his son to kill.
Jon Collins, a TV producer in Los Angeles, was one of the many gay men who heard this theory and decided to respond with an act of defiance: a kiss.
He posted a picture of one he shared with his husband during their wedding reception, and captioned it with the hashtag #TwoMenKissing. His message became one of more than 14,000 tweets shared with that hashtag since the shooting, according to Dataminr, a monitoring service.
“I wanted to defy that homophobic thinking,” Mr. Collins, 44, wrote in an email. “It’s natural, it’s normal, it’s just love.”
It’s just love. And yet, in the days after the shooting, #TwoMenKissing became a reminder that the kiss — a small, universal symbol of love — has become more. A strike against homophobia. A show of solidarity among L.G.B.T. people. An uprising of peaceful resistance to violence.
For decades, the same-sex kiss has been used as a tool by artists, actors and entertainers to subvert gender and sexual norms. But never before has it been so powerfully seized as a weapon of mass reflection.
Social media is just the latest platform for the political kiss. The #TwoMenKissing hashtag and its compatriots, #TwoWomenKissing and #GaysBreaktheInternet, have deep roots that predate internet activism.
Many say credit for the hashtag goes to K. M. Soehnlein, a San Francisco-based author and activist. In the 1980s, he helped organize “kiss-ins” to protest homophobia and H.I.V./AIDS discrimination in the 1980s.
Mr. Soehnlein, 50, saw the kiss-in protests, he said this week, as “a kind of activism that was in people’s faces, but it wasn’t yelling.”
The online kisses shared after Orlando have made it easier for people in the gay community to reach one another across geography. There “are lot more of us who are willing to put a face to the movement,” said Mr. Soehnlein, a founder of the activist group Queer Nation. He joined the organic campaign, sharing a photo of himself kissing his husband.
Gran Fury, an art collective that placed subversive art in public spaces as a protest against homophobia, designed a poster in the spring of 1988 to spread word of the original kiss-ins. Emblazoned with the words “Read My Lips” and a photograph of two sailors kissing, the poster was distributed around New York.
Avram Finkelstein, 64, an artist and former member of Gran Fury, said the words written on the back of that poster, a long declaration titled “Why We Kiss,” was something of a harbinger of this week’s hashtag activism. “Gay men and lesbians exist. We exist in all cultures. We always have, we always will,” the poster’s text reads, in part.
The photos shared on social media are just a way to keep reinforcing that idea. Mr. Finkelstein said: “People are using their bodies to register their presence in the world. It’s like going on the record with the one thing you’re born with and die with: your body.”
But Mr. Collins, the television producer who has been with his husband for 22 years, said that social media support can’t completely eradicate the real-life worry of physical danger for those who express public affection.
“One stray kiss or a moment of my husband and I holding hands runs the risk of someone saying something awful,” he said, “or being attacked.”
Mr. Soehnlein said that the responses to his social-media posts were overwhelmingly positive, though he noted that the negative comments were vehement. On Instagram one stranger commented beneath a kissing photo, “They should have killed all of you.” Mr. Soehnlein said he deleted the comment.
Other online critics said that children should be shielded from such images, he said, which didn’t surprise him.
Homophobic bigotry, Mr. Soehnlein said, is “always about protecting the children. My 12-year-old goddaughter was incredibly proud to show her friends when one of the images popped up in her Snapchat feed.”