What Do I Look Like? Gender Rule Breaking, Identity, and Appearance

A fellow queer Quaker, John Calvi, has provided much comfort through the years to folks who have experienced trauma. His gentleness, humor, grace, and deep insights have benefited me directly. I often think of an afternoon I spent with John in Vermont when he wore a big floppy hat and slung a large bag over his shoulder as he sashayed into a busy restaurant where he was greeted and adored by the staff. Then over our meal we spoke as colleagues talking about life on the road, the importance of self-care, and discernment for next steps.

The other day he wrote a piece that he shared with other Queer Quakers from the FLGBTQC (Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Concerns.) His reflection on how his own body and gender are perceived by others struck a cord for lots of folks, both trans* and non-trans*.  John agreed to allow me to republish it to share with you.


What Do I Look Like?

by John Calvi

A while ago I was sitting in a waiting room when a small boy about 4 or 5 came in. He looked at me briefly, came over to me, and asked – Are you a boy or a girl?

Having people wonder at my gender or mistaking me for a female has happened many times in my life. I’ve never found it offensive – except once when my ass was pinched by some drunk in a straight bar. I usually find it humorous and have made a habit of waiting for the individual to observe me better and assign me correctly in their own thought process. Sometimes they apologize as if they had thought something less of me.

When this child asked the question, I stifled a laugh and just smiled. After a few moments gazing at me he said – You’re a boy, very pleased with himself to sort out such a mystery.

This brings two thoughts to mind. On the one hand we live in a tight binary culture that clings to walls and boundaries like castaways that fear drowning in seas of multiple choices. And society teaches us to seek and become one or the other in ourselves and others.

I also think it is true that walking down the street and seeing someone down the way and looking to see if they are male or female is a response that happens in a very old part of the brain assessing how much danger is at hand. Males are and have been more dangerous forever.

But the other thing that comes to mind are all the good people who are squeezed and suffer because they didn’t follow rules. In my household growing up working class Italian
immigrant, I was not allowed to learn cooking or to cook myself. This was because women had too little power and were not going to share it or lose it to a man. Now that is a tight and nasty little knot of rules.

So many people bump into or run head long into so much more intense rule breaking. From clothes to who we love to how we name our lives, there is no end of trouble to get into.

And so I am thinking this night and holding close the many I’ve known who’ve been wounded by the rules and the rule keepers. Whether it was leaving the church or wearing make-up or other deeper changes in identity, many received refugee status and were set adrift – family-less, community-less, and abused for mere ideas.

Blessings on all of us who built new homes and found places to be. And blessings on all those who never made it to shore, still feel adrift, and have not found a replacement embrace. Our loving is made more important each day by the inhospitality of the world- too true, too true.

John Calvi

John Calvi



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