I’ve seen him out here a few times now.

He wears a rainbow bandanna as a mask. He could be proud, or he could just like rainbows. I don’t know. I have cousins who wear tight pink shirts and princess backpacks who say “no homo” almost as much as they say “know what I mean.”

I think the fact that I’m gay, and that I’ve always been gay, made my cousins all the more defensive. There was no coming out moment for me. I was that queer toddler who people knew was different before I was old enough to know I was. The way my dad put it, I just never learned how to be a boy.

I love my father. We’re tight. He has never denied me a moment of my life. But those words stung.

The strange part was I never played with makeup or dolls or even got into musicals. There was just something about the way I was, my very essence, that apparently never smelled of masculinity.

My cousins and I have never been nearly as close. They stand up for me, their baby cousin, don’t get me wrong. But after the fight is over, they don’t know what to say or do around me. No homo and all. They’re all about bros before hos. They can’t wrap their minds around bros before bros. Never mind that it’s the same thing. Bros can be some real hos sometimes.

But this guy, though, I don’t know him. There’s no backstory for me to flesh out. I’ve never seen him in school before. Only here, at this protest, day after day.

To be honest, we haven’t even been protesting for a minute now. This place, this giant statue that we all want taken down, has become a pilgrimage spot.

To think, under the shadow of some old racist, people centuries later would gather in love and communion with one another. Even white folks out here this time. The other day, I saw one dude talk to a cop like he was family, then walk over to the statue and hold up the biggest sign. When white people decide to do a thing, they really do a thing.

This guy with the rainbow, I haven’t seen him get all that close to the statue. He doesn’t bring a sign. Like me, he’s here, another body on the streets needed to turn a trickle of dissent into a flood.

I want to say hi, but how? This has never been an easy question, for anyone, let alone gay men afraid of coming on to the wrong dude. But now, with masks on and standing six feet apart, how does one even?

But I’ve given this some thought. A few days ago, I ordered a shirt online, rainbow, like his bandanna. On the front, in huge white letters, are the words “Black & Gay.”

It’s bolder than anything I’ve ever worn before. I’m not closeted, but that doesn’t mean I’m out either. Classmates and teachers could simply figure out my sexuality as quickly as my family members did. I haven’t had the need to tell them.

But this feels like the space. Here, to go big is, ironically, to fit in. Someone with a hairy masculine body walks around in a slender dress and heels as they pass out water bottles to church ladies wearing the largest, brightest hats they could find (I hope, at least – please don’t tell me they left their bigger ones at home).

I find him and I hover nearby, close enough to almost feel like a creeper, but not so close that he might fear me getting him sick. Outside, really, six feet apart is not all that far apart. I stand there, looking around, hovering, hoping I don’t look awkward.

“I see you,” he says in my direction. When I turn to look, I don’t yet register that he’s talking to me. But then he says, “Nice shirt.”

I look down, then back up, as though I hadn’t spent hours thinking about the words on my shirt before and after placing the order.

“I’m glad,” he says, hesitates, then adds, “I’ve been noticing you out here for a while.”

My heart visibly bounces against my skin, but I play it cool. “Yeah, I’ve been out here. We can’t let up.”

“Nah, we can’t. So I guess that means I’ll be seeing you again?”

“Yeah, I’ll be here. I’ll even wear the shirt again if it helps you find me.”

He laughs. I love his laugh already.

“I have a better idea,” he says. “How about you give me your number? Maybe even your name?”

“Maybe,” I say, leaving him hanging for a moment, but not two, because that’s too risky. But when I open my mouth again, the crowd gets louder. The police have shown up, decked out in full riot gear. Giant shields. Weapons by their sides. Full battle armor. As though we haven’t been out here for weeks already, as though we haven’t already shown that we aren’t hear to break windows and start fires.

The crowd around us gets anxious, then angry. People start chanting louder. They flow by us, toward the cops. But we stand still.

I look at his eyes and see that he’s looking at mine.

“It’s Chris,” I say.

“Demarius,” he says back.

“Demarius,” I smile. Then I pull out my phone.

As we exchange numbers, the chants intensify. It becomes hard to hear each other. But we get each others’ numbers and exchange a text message to confirm.

There we stand, deeply immersed in the start of something beautiful, something unknowable and intimidating.

And then the tear gas hits.