The Not-Boy

Creative Nonfiction
Kolton Knapp

Photo Credit: Angela C./Flickr (CC-by-sa)

A regular boyhood is defined by cuts and scrapes and bruises. The sound of my boyhood was my mother’s anxious screams—my father’s hand clasping my shoulder and saying “you’ll be a man someday.” I remember my father’s hands: coaxing, soothing. They guided me vaguely—shadows of instructions that gave me small parcels of help. For the most part, boyhood was about being left in the woods to discover what being a man truly means.

While my boyhood had its fair share of leaping and bleeding, I didn’t bruise the way most boys did. They bruised in black and blue, and I, in rouge and pink. My bruises grew on my skin like wildflowers, but the bruises of other boys were placed on them like war medals.


The trampoline in the backyard of my childhood home sat in the shade of a tree. I loved climbing above the leaves, using my body weight to sway the branches. I’d watch as the leaves danced and crinkled with the movements of the wind. I’d hoist myself backward violently, bringing the bending branches to a horizontal position before throwing myself from the tree. I’d catapult in the wind, falling abruptly on the stretchy surface of the trampoline.

In other words, I was a ‘typical boy’ in that respect: a curious child with an eye for danger. I loved scavenging the woods, and late nights by a campfire with the smoke burning my eyes.

There were other things I enjoyed, however, that were unexpected.

For my fifth birthday, I was given a Spider-Man wallet. I remember the confusion I felt when I opened the gift. I was familiar with the character—how could I not be?

What confused me, was the fact that it was given to me.

“You like Spider-Man, right?” my grandmother asked eagerly. Without waiting for an answer, she turned away and began another conversation. Of course I liked Spider-Man, she had assumed. All little boys love superheroes.

I hated the picture. It was clunky with different shades of blacks and reds—my two least favorite colors. Spider-Man extended his arm, a string of web flying towards me from behind the two-dimensional fabric. The web looked sticky, with silver goo dripping from its thick strands. It seemingly yearned to break the fabric open and latch onto me.

I let the wallet slip from my palm to my fingertips and imagined it was something else.

I could see the vivid purples and pinks. The wallet was bigger than palm sized—it was a purse. Like the one Daphne wore in the Scooby-Doo movie.

So I stole my mother’s scarlet Halloween wig and put on a pair of rain boots. I walked around the house clutching the wallet as though it were a purse. Flipping my red hair about, I would utter Daphne’s catchphrases. “Creepers,” I’d gasp, feigning exasperation. I’d pretend to be a damsel in distress—the pretty girl everyone wanted to save. I was the face without a blemish, the dress without the body.

My impersonation of Daphne confused everyone. I should do boyish things—like wrestling (which I did) or disobeying the rules (which I also did often). My mother frequently found me in places I shouldn’t be—the sewers, the roof, or hiding in the tops of trees.

But I wasn’t regular. I played with dolls. I liked Disney princess movies. When my father forced me to join baseball I would sit in the outfield picking the heads off dandelions. The ball would roll past me, and I’d be busy sewing together a daisy chain.

The other boys hated me for this. In school they told me I was gay—I never corrected them; I had no idea what it meant. They told me I was a sissy who liked dresses and dolls.


I wanted to play with the boys, but something separated us. The web that stretched out from the wallet seemed to stretch between me and my peers. I couldn’t cut through it—the other boys held the knives. I would sit on the other side of it, shaking it with balled up fists, begging them to let me in. I realized they never would and began spending my recesses walking around the playground—singing to myself.

I knew the boys hated me. They hated me for being ‘gay’—whatever that meant. They hated the daisy chains I made, jewelry from the outfield.

And then, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

I’m not a boy. Not to them. To them, I was no better than a little girl.

So, I befriended the girls.

But there was still something holding me back from them. I could come for the birthday party, but I had to leave when the sleepover began. The girls I was friends with developed deeper relationships with each other—and without me. When night fell they would spill secrets they’d never tell in the daylight. Secrets my ears wanted to hear, but never would.

The fathers of my friends refused to smile at me. They would lay a heavy hand on my shoulder, hands that felt nothing like my father’s, and their eyes would fill with the rage of a storm. The hands of these men were firm, as though they were holding me back from something.

“Now, you may think I don’t know what you’re up to, son.” Their father’s voices were all deep, dragging across the floorboards the way horror villains drag their axes. “But I know what you want. I know what all of the boys want.”

It took me longer than it should have to realize what these strange old men were saying to me.

What do I want? I’d wonder as I braided my girlfriends’ hair.


I realized what they meant when the other boys went through puberty. I’d listen to them with disgust as they talked about a girl’s breasts or the shape of her curves.

“It’s all I notice,” my male cousin told me when we were about twelve.

I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

I saw none of what the other boys saw—just the bright red lipstick, their diamond-like faces. I could see the pretty dress, but I was blind to the body beneath it. My silence in these conversations damned me. It reinforced what I had been trying to run from my entire life.

I am not a boy.

I don’t belong in the boys’ club. I don’t have the same ‘wants’ that the fathers of my friends believed I should have.

When I was thirteen, I told a youth pastor my favorite color was pink and he ‘took’ my figurative man-card from me.

So now I don’t even have that, either.


I was a foreign species. Everyone saw it. Even the girls could see I was different. I remember hearing my friend scream at her brother: “No boys are allowed in my room!” I was sitting on her bedroom floor, cross-legged. It was a birthday party, and there must have been at least ten other people in the room. I was the only boy.

My presence was noted by a girl I didn’t know. “Why is he here, then?” She gestured at me. My friend laughed at her like she had just said the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “That’s just Kolton, he’s not a boy. No offense, Kolton.”

And I said it didn’t bother me. I laughed because it didn’t bother me. Her words felt like a form of endearment, as though she could see the web spreading out before me that kept me from being a boy.

There was something that settled over me after that, and the feeling lingered like a bad aftertaste.

It did bother me. I hated myself for it, but her words crawled under my skin—embedding themselves into me. I wanted to embrace what she said like the intimate words I believed them to be, but something stopped me. There was a part of me that wished the words weren’t true.

I wanted to be a boy.

And I knew I couldn’t be a girl.

So, if I couldn’t be a girl, and I couldn’t be a boy—what was I?


I was a child made of glass, transparent. Everyone could see what was inside me, before I could see it myself. My femininity couldn’t hide behind my skin, it glimmered in the sunlight. I might as well have it etched into my forehead: ‘Not-a-boy.’

I thought I could hide the things that made people see me this way. I could walk differently. I could speak in a deep, monotone voice. I could restrict my hands, which move like the wind when I talk. No matter what I’ve done, everyone seems to know the truth.

When I turned sixteen and got a job, people seemed to identify me with my feminine behaviors. I was called a faggot long before I came out as a homosexual man. Angry slurs were uttered in whispers by pissed off servers at the restaurant I worked at. Sissy was often used by managers.

“All the girls are jealous of you,” a man who washed the dishes said to me once.

“Why?” I asked, confused.

One of my friends, who served alongside me, laughed at his comment. “We were just talking about the way you walk—we wish we walked like you.”

“You don’t walk,” another server corrected. “You strut everywhere you go.”

I was completely flattered—I felt my cheeks flush. Part of me swelled with pride, beaming at the compliment. But the pride faded quickly. The flush in my cheeks turned into burning shame. Just like when my friend had called me a “not-boy,” I wanted to feel only elation.

Yet, it was a feminine trait of mine. It was the girls who were jealous of my walk. The boys held no envy for me—the child trapped in the spider’s web. I’ve tried to strangle my femininity for years, but it has proven to be unstoppable. The sway in my step, the voice like wind chimes, the bruises made of wildflowers—no matter what I try to smother these traits with, they survive. In fact, I can never seem to get these parts of me to leave.


“You’ve got something on your eyes,” my father said to me sarcastically the other day.

“It’s called eyeliner,” my stepmother—a goddess—corrected him. “And he looks amazing.”

I smiled at her compliment, but my father’s passive voice lingered in the back of my mind. He had never been the aggressive type—always saying vague statements that could be misunderstood or misconstrued. Sitting at his dining room table, it reminded me of another time, years ago.

I was eleven when I wore a dress for the first time. I had snuck into one of my older sisters’ room and rummaged through her closet. I found what I was looking for—her golden sparkly Easter dress with a tulle skirt. I rushed into the bathroom with excitement churning in my stomach. I slipped the dress on over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t me that stared back. A beautiful princess stood in my place.

I smiled at myself before taking a deep breath. Keeping the dress around my shoulders, I stepped out of the bathroom. I walked into the dining room where all eight of my siblings and both of my parents were eating lunch.

My mother and sisters burst into laughter immediately. I laughed too, spinning in my gold sparkly dress. I felt gorgeous. I never wanted to take it off—and I didn’t care if they were laughing at me or with me.

But then my father’s deep voice broke through the noise. “Go take the dress off,” he said blandly. He wasn’t angry; his voice never rose. I looked into his eyes and all my emotions shifted. His blue eyes froze over like a crystallized swamp. He wasn’t mad; that wasn’t the feeling that pierced my soul. He was disgusted.

I turned quickly and ran up the stairs. I slammed the bathroom door shut. Turning to the mirror, I no longer felt pretty. I watched tears well up in my eyes as I realized the princess had vanished. A little boy stood in front of me, wearing a dress that hung limply from his body—a dress he could never hope to fit into.

And then I felt disgusted with myself, too.

When will you learn? My father’s eyes seemed to shout at me—almost begging me. When will you learn to be a man?


Only one person knew how confused I was—how lost and lonely I grew up. She was the only one who knew that I had no idea what being a man was. She knew because she felt the same way.

My sister, Keisia, was my solace. As children we’d climb beneath blankets like they were a cave. The darkness would hover around us as we whispered.

“I hate being a girl,” she told me. “I hate going to tea parties with mom, and I hate playing with dolls.”

I told her she was ridiculous. She was the one with the perfect childhood and I was the one who was forced into a mold I knew I would never fit into.

She disagreed. “I want to go hiking with you and dad,” she whined. “I want to be a boy, like you.”

I shook my head. “I want to be a girl. I don’t like how the other boys make fun of me.”

My sister put her arms around me. “They only make fun of you because you’re smarter than them. They wish they could be like you.”

I didn’t believe her then, and I don’t believe her now.

We continued holding each other, even without the blankets to hide us. She was forced to be the perfect little girl, and I, the perfect little boy.

Yet every Christmas, when I got the Nerf guns and she received the Bratz dolls, we would trade them in secret. We knew we saw each other for who we were.

She was a little girl. I was a little boy.

She liked getting dirty. She wanted to go hiking, to play in the forest. She wanted to get bucked off of horses while riding them too fast.

I wanted to play dress up or read a good book.

Everyone hated that we wanted these things—they hated that I’d put wildflowers behind my ears. They couldn’t see her, placing the petals in delicate rows along my blonde hair. They couldn’t see me, running along muddy creaks with my sister who should’ve been inside sipping tea. I realized then that we both stood behind the same web, trapped from being who we felt we were—ostracized from the other kids.

We grew up with the childhoods the other wanted, just centimeters apart.

Yet, we stood on opposite sides of the world.


The pain and confusion I felt as a child has subsided. The pressure to conform to the standards of masculinity, however, has not.

Around a year ago, I started seeing a therapist. I knew I had wounds that needed healing, but I was certain I could not cure them myself. Her voice is soothing, like a salve on the fear of vulnerability that nearly crippled me the first few meetings. Eventually, I began to truly speak—not just about traumas, but emotions that I was confused by, worries that lurked in the corner of my mind. I told her I didn’t know who I was. I knew I could never find him—because, maybe I didn’t want to find him.

My therapist told me in order to truly know myself, I must find a way to look in the mirror and see who I am. Then, I must accept what I see.

She asked me, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you what your personality is like?”

I knew the answer immediately. I’m feminine.

It was the only definition I could think of at the time, as I was completely lost to myself in the fray of life.

My tongue held me back. I’m not feminine, I had always told myself. I had known from my time as a femme boy that being girly meant I was weak. The internalized misogyny that hovered over me wouldn’t let me admit the truth to my reflection. Even though that reflection only seemed to show me dainty trinkets and glass skin. I can be feminine at times but that’s not who I am, I would insist to myself.

In that moment, with the excuses running through my head, I realized something I should have learned a long time ago. If I deny myself who I am, I will never learn who this creature is that I am forced to spend the entirety of my life with.

I denied myself—because I was still disgusted with myself.

Flashes of who I am in other’s eyes flickered before me like an old fashioned film reel. I saw me the way the other boys saw me, a weak and shriveled flower. I saw me the way grown-up macho men saw me. I could only see the things I was not—masculine—and so I hated myself for who I was.

I didn’t blame the boys for holding me at arm’s length. If I was in their place, I would segregate myself as well—as if femininity in a man was a disease.

My therapist’s office was dimly lit. There was a faint scent of lavender and mangoes that coupled with her soothing voice made me feel like I could speak.

So I told her everything. Spider-Man with his web, shooting towards me, reaching for me—though I never asked for it. The boys and their knives, and the web that held me back. I told her about my father telling me that I’ll be a man someday. I told her I had no idea what that meant.

I told her about the fathers of my friends, with their angry hands and rough voices.

“Those boys aren’t here anymore,” my therapist said. “Their knives are dulled, the web needs only to be swatted away.”

But it could never work that way. The web seemed to stretch over the entire earth—and if I dare even touch it my flesh would get stuck. It would wrap around me and feed off of me until all my femininity was gone. But I knew what she meant.


Every day, my femininity sparkles on the surface of my skin. I’ve spent my entire life trying to hide it behind baggy clothes or crumpled in the palms of my hands, tucked deep in my pants pockets. I’ve grown tired of hiding it. It’s become too exhausting. Forcing myself to see my own face when I look in the mirror has all but cured me of my want to be masculine.

I wear eyeliner on my eyes, a choker clasped tightly to my neck, and a crop top that vanishes around my abdomen. I’ll go out in the city—to the bars, to the lake, or to parties—and I get the same reaction every time I step out in the light of day. Old white men will gawk at me shamelessly. People whisper as I pass by, as if they’ve never seen a man with a sense of fashion. They tuck their faces behind their hands—afraid I’ll read their lips—as if I care enough about what they have to say.

With all the eyes on me, I throw my shoulders back. I strut like I own the sidewalk, the city. In the clubs, I dance with reckless abandon. I tell myself to ignore the stares. My body naturally moves in a feminine way, even when it’s the music that moves through me.

There’s always at least one comment. Without fail, someone’s tongue lashes out at me like that web from Spider-Man’s outstretched arm.

“What is that?” A man will cringe in disgust, pointing at me obnoxiously.

“I love your confidence.” A talkative girl will offer this as a compliment, but I know that it’s not. You’re not supposed to wear that, she says with her eyes. Yet here you are, bare skin under a belly shirt.

“Are you asking for a hate crime?” a friend will ask me, concern sewn delicately into their voice.

Pretending to be masculine was exhausting, but this… this is exhausting.

I go home every night and I wash off the eye liner. I hold back tears, symptoms of hurt that I despise to feel. Something heavy congeals in my chest, turning my strut into a slouch. What was I thinking? I ask my reflection.

I feel the web as it closes in around me. It ties me up, longing to suck the rouge itself out of my cheeks.

I’m never doing that again. I will never go out wearing something like that again. I vow to myself to burn all my clothes.

I curl up in bed and force myself not to cry. These words mean nothing to me—but if that’s true, why is the eyeliner washed away?

These nights, once I’m safely inside, I think of all the femme boys who are forced to pay a steep price for their femininity. Boys get beat up; they get murdered—crimes inspired by the same anger I see in the eyes of men who look at me and decide immediately that they hate me for what I am wearing.

In the morning, I’ll have to try again to be less feminine, I think to myself. It’s a dangerous world to be a not-boy in. It’s for the best—for my own safety.

But in the morning, I wake up, and with shaky hands, I’m lining the edges of my eyes again.

Nobody knows if I’m worth the potential price. Perhaps one day I’ll live to regret letting my femininity be so obvious.

But until then, I will let myself live.


I have found myself turning away from the web. I’ve stopped seeing myself in the eyes of others, at least in this one respect. Spider-Man’s web still reaches for me, but it will never have me.

I am feminine. I like dainty things—like quiet conversations on busy streets and lemon in my iced tea on warm afternoons. I like my hair long, soft, and wavy. I blare Britney Spears from my car’s stereo. I crop way too many of my T-shirts and wear them any chance I get.

I dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I go to parties in her white dress. I wear my rouge on my face along with red lipstick and a fake beauty mark placed directly above the corner of my lips. I go into public as her and nobody sees me. They see her—the image of femininity.

It’s what I want them to see. I want them to see the not-boy: free of the webs and expectations I can’t hope to learn to live up to.

And I tell myself that I can shatter the mold of what a man is capable of being.

So, I wear my high-pitched voice like a necklace. I strut with a sway set low in my hips.

I wear makeup. I’ll wear a dress.

Because, damn it, my ass looks good in a dress.

pencilKolton Knapp was raised in Des Moines, Iowa in a family of 11. Currently enrolled at Drake University, he intends to graduate in the Spring of 2022 and pursue a career in writing. Email: koltonknapp202[at]

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