I can’t recall my childhood without thinking of Boy Meets World. I felt like I grew up with Cory, Shawn, and Topanga, and while all my girl friends wanted to be Topanga or Angela, I desperately wanted to be Shawn. I kept this information to myself, somehow knowing without explicitly knowing that there was something taboo about a girl wanting to be a boy. With his pouty lips, sensitive heart, and swoon-worthy hair, what wasn’t to love about Shawn Hunter? You could say I had an approximation of a crush on him—most days I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be him or be with him, although if I could manage to shed the layers of societal influence that told me I was supposed to like boys, I knew the true answer. I can clearly recall one episode in which Shawn stands in the middle of the school hallway and does his infamous hair flip, which makes girls come running. “I got a 30-foot range,” he brags. I, too, wanted that power.
Growing up, my neighbor, Kristine, had short, spiky hair. She wore baggy jeans and t-shirts and backwards hats. I didn’t really like her—she was mean to me and my friends—but occasionally we invited her to play football or baseball because she was big and tough. One day, we were playing touch football when Kristine, having gotten angry about a play, tackled our neighbor, Donald, a skinny, pretty boy who I was convinced I would one day marry. After we yelled at her for tackling in a no-tackle game, we took a break and drank Gatorade and ate cheese crackers under the sun. I think we were all hoping Kristine would go home, but she didn’t. She sidled up next to me and said, “I wish my name was Justin.” “Okay,” I said. I’d never heard of anyone changing their name before. I’m not sure I’d even known it was possible. Having always hated my name, I was intrigued. Marisa seemed too girly for me. I wanted a rough-and-tumble name, like Hunter, I wouldn’t have minded Hunter. A name that suited me.
On the surface, Shawn is a player or a heartbreaker—that’s the idea we’re fed for many seasons. He gets a reputation for being a great kisser, the type of guy who won’t commit, but in reality, he is sensitive and romantic and dreamily vulnerable. When he begins a relationship with a classmate, Angela, I fell for the idea of becoming Shawn in a whole new way. Not only did I want to attract girls, but eventually, I wanted to find one that I loved fiercely, one who would love me back. As a 10-year-old, this felt insurmountable.
I went home after the football game and thought about Kristine and what she’d meant when she said she wanted to change her name. Did she want to be a girl named Justin or did she want to be a boy? Was she unhappy as a girl? Had she shared her desire with anyone else? She’d been so forthcoming, proud, even. If she felt ashamed, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know how she could be so confident. I was scared of my desires, let alone how others would react if they ever learned of them.
As a young child, I role-played with myself in the basement. I pretended I was Shawn. Of course, my hair never did flip like his. The closest I came to mimicking his hair was in seventh grade when I started growing out my bangs, which had hidden my forehead acne. Once they were long enough, I’d part them down the middle so that they’d curl around my face like his. I’d stand in front of the mirror and pout my lips and run my hair through my bangs. I’d pose how the heartthrobs on my bedroom wall posed—one hand behind my head, the other lifting up my shirt to show off my stomach.
Thirteen-year-old me really, really wanted abs, along with that V hip cut the girls were always fawning over. Thirty-year-old me still does.
I wondered if everyone else felt as confused as I did by what they saw in the mirror every day.
Because my bedroom wall was covered in posters of ’90s heartthrobs, my parents probably assumed I was straight. And I’m certain it never occurred to them that I was anything other than a girl. People like my parents don’t think that way. They think in what they can see, in what information is available to them. What I never told them was that the Shawns and the Leos and the Brads and the Ryans and the Pauls and the JTTs of the world did nothing but provide me with a blueprint for how I wanted to be: beautiful, charming, and masculine, but not too masculine. Masculine in a soft, delicate way.
Of course, none of this—my sexuality or gender identity—was in the forefront of my mind at the time. It was more like an itch that I could never scratch. I knew something was there, but I didn’t understand its origin, what its presence meant for me and my life. I knew that Kristine’s very existence disturbed me but not for the usual bigoted reasons, no, these reasons were of the creepy-crawly type.
Kristine never mentioned her desire to change her name ever again, yet every time I saw her, I had only one thought: “Justin.” I was terrified of my obsession with this single detail. I was convinced everyone could sense my covert desires—so much so that I often shared other people’s secrets in order to divert attention away from mine. I remember telling my mom about how Kristine wanted to change her name. I’d thought it would shock her, but she hardly reacted. She said something along the lines of, “She’s a bit different, huh?” then changed the subject. Different than who? I wanted to ask.
Throughout middle school and high school, I’d log on to AIM and wait for girls I had crushes on to come online, although I didn’t think of them as crushes but rather, close friends—not best friends, I had those, and I didn’t think about kissing them or touching them in the dark, but close friends I’d made more recently, ones I’d sought out for one reason or another. I had a lot of buddy alerts set up. [Redacted] has just signed on, AIM would alert me, with the sound of a door opening. I’d spend all night talking to these girls, not understanding why my pulse quickened whenever they complimented me.
The older I got, the more ashamed I felt of desires I was convinced no one else shared. I didn’t understand how I would ever become like Shawn Hunter. The closest I could get was to try to make boys like Shawn Hunter like me, as if by becoming the object of their affection I could then transform into them. I didn’t like the boys, but I did like how powerful I felt when I gave them head and then ignored them. “You’re not like other girls,” they all said.
“Because I’m not a girl at all,” I would have said, if I’d had access to that part of myself.
One night, I slept over at the house of one of my “close friends.” She didn’t tell me she intended for us to sneak out and go to a bonfire, so I wore my usual: basketball shorts and a t-shirt, my hair rolled into a bun. It was how I felt more comfortable, yet I knew guys didn’t find this style particularly attractive. When I arrived, we drank some rum then snuck out to the woods. My friend ditched me for some guy, but luckily, a nice guy sat down next to me and flirted with me all night while I drank. At the end of the night, he asked me on a proper date. Still trying to convince myself that I was straight, I went out with him a few nights later. I made sure to wear my hair down and dress “feminine.” When I showed up to the golf course, he said, “Wow, you look amazing. See, I told the guys you didn’t always look how you did at the bonfire.” He seemed to think this was a compliment.
I’d always thought I identified with Shawn because I was gay—I liked girls, that made sense—but it wasn’t that easy, there was something else lurking beneath the surface. Shawn, in all his bad boy glory, was not that much of a bad boy. He wasn’t macho, he didn’t work out (except for that one episode when Cory convinced him it was “what men do”), he was comfortable showing his love for his best friend. He lived in that liminal space between feminine and masculine, the one I also lived in. Do live in. I didn’t want to be a girl, but I also didn’t want to be a boy. I just wanted to be me. I wanted to like what I like—sports and lions and dachshunds and books and Dr. Pepper and writing poetry and making home movies with my friends.
My best friends and I spent hours and hours filming music videos. I played Justin Timberlake and Eminem. I wore my friends’ brother’s clothes, stuffed my hair into a hat. When the music played and my friends danced around me in tube tops and Soffe shorts, I slouched my pants, held my crotch, walked around the room like I owned the place. And it’s not even that I demanded to play these roles—it was a deeper understanding among all of us that it was the role I filled best. It makes me wonder if my friends saw me better than I thought.
Some of my favorite episodes of Boy Meets World are when Shawn and Angela fall in love. Initially, they date for two weeks, and then Shawn breaks up with her because he has a two-week rule. He’s afraid of commitment. Not long after, he finds a purse containing a book of sonnets, a ticket stub to a Van Damme movie, kiwi lime lip balm, and a classical music CD. He becomes infatuated with “purse girl.” He listens to the CD, reads the book of sonnets, and carries the purse with him everywhere he goes. When Cory tells him he hung up a lost-and-found sign and someone called, Shawn is too scared to meet her. He says, “This feeling is so incredible. I just want to hold onto it for as long as possible.” He describes seeing the pain on his father’s face every time a woman walks out on him. He doesn’t want that to happen to him. If he continues life as it is, he can romanticize purse girl and never have to confront the actual person behind these items. Of course, he finally gets up the courage to meet with purse girl, and she has a boyfriend. Later, Cory and Topanga realize that Angela had been borrowing this girl’s purse, and the contents of the purse actually belonged to Angela—his dream girl turned out to be the girl he’d just dumped. Shawn is, as it turns out, a bit of a lesbian. Once he realizes purse girl is Angela, he’s too nervous to call her. He says he doesn’t know where he’d start. When Cory suggests he starts with, “Hello,” Shawn says, “That’s too risky, Cory, it would probably come out, I want to have your children!”
I know what Shawn means: the first rec league basketball game I showed up to, I laid eyes on my future-wife and knew I was a goner. I was afraid to speak to her for fear of giving myself away. She was sexy in an aloof way. I wanted to make her mine. I also wanted to make ten thousand babies with her.
Years later, my wife asked me, “What do you want Wilder to call you? Should we just be Mom and Mama?” “No,” I said. “I don’t want to be called any version of Mom.” I told her I have been researching nonbinary parenting terms, but I didn’t like any of them. “We can make up our own,” she said. Our Australian friend calls me Marzy, which I love, but children often struggle with their R sounds, so we decided Wilder will call me Mozzy. Mozzy fits. Mozzy feels warm and snuggly, not too masculine and not too feminine.
Today, for the first time, I hold my hand to my wife’s belly and feel Wilder’s soft kick. “Hi, my name is Mozzy,” I whisper. “Nice to meet you.”