On Names, Pronouns, Radical Wonder & Radical Welcoming

Dear Friends,

I have some news to share, but first a story.

If you are in a hurry and don’t have time for a story, feel free to just read the parts in bold.

Right after all those extra fucked up, heartbreaking, anti-queer laws started to pile up in early spring in North Carolina and elsewhere (which are really only the contemporary manifestation of a long, historic pattern of violence, abuse, oppression, persecution, and erasure of trans and gender-nonconforming people), I found myself at a social justice workshop made up of a straighter, whiter, older crowd than I tend to move in. Fired up by that legislation, on impulse, I crossed out Stephanie and wrote Ryan in bright blue marker on my nametag, and I wrote in my preferred gender neutral pronouns beneath my name. I felt fired up to do anything I could to queer this and every space I am in and to let my very presence be an invitation to expansive conversations about gender complexity. This all felt much scarier and more vulnerable than I anticipated it might. A bunch of my own internalized bigotry came up in me toward myself, even though I don’t think this stuff anymore toward anyone else: Would people distrust me? Would they think I’m confused or mentally ill? Would they find me annoying?

This workshop held a lot of sharing with different partners and then talking to the group about your partner in the third person, so I stood patiently as many different people stumbled over my pronouns. I neither corrected them nor excused them when they were wrong. All those ugly questions kept flaring up for me.


Afterward, several people pulled me aside and thanked me for sparking questions in them about gender, and there was lots of extra opportunity to discuss how a fixed gender binary is deeply linked to patriarchy and the ugliest parts of capitalism. This reminded me of how liberated I felt the first time I encountered someone who many might have presumed was female, but who used the pronouns they/them/theirs. And two people shyly approached me on the side to share that they think their child might be trans, and to ask me if I could point them in the direction of some good resources and support. Those encounters, combined with the initial fire that fueled me to come out so abruptly, led me to realize that it wouldn’t be right to go back from here.

So, although as of last December I had intended to try the new name/pronouns shift in a safe, contained space for a month this summer and then gradually snowball it from there… here I am vulnerably riding the avalanche that I began in early April.

This news is driven by passionate political mandate, sure, but it is equally driven by personal truth:

I am starting to go by the name Ryan, as I’ve wanted to since 2010, and as a couple close friends have been calling me for years. The name Stephanie will always be a part of me, too. Professionally, I’m going to go by Stephanie Ryan Johnstone.

I’ve long desired a name more gender ambiguous than the name I was given at birth. Names are both meaningful and meaningless – sure, I can be whoever I am in my many-splendored gender, as can anyone, regardless of names, but I’ve come around to embracing the calm strength and freedom I feel when I am known as Ryan.

And I am letting you know that my pronouns are they/them/theirs, as I also have preferred for years, but haven’t been very vocal about until now. I am generally comfortable feminine-of-center, and I get it when people who don’t know me round up to “woman” and “she” – binary genders are so very entrenched in our culture. But as long as I’ve been awake to this complexity in me, when someone refers to me as “she” I have felt neutral and/or slightly sad, and when someone refers to me as “they”, I have felt extra seen/loved/acknowledged in my fullness. I love my body just as it is, but I have long been very very uncomfortable with the ways my body is seen and what is often projected onto it.

For the past year and a half, since I left NYC, I have been (temporarily) without a home base. But I am not homeless or home-free, I am home-full. Similarly, I consider myself “gender-full”! For a more common shorthand, the words non-binary, genderqueer, gender expansive, and/or gender-nonconforming also work just fine. I think of gender not just as on a linear spectrum from female to male, but as part of a gorgeous vast 3-D web/galaxy with male and female as points somewhere in the vastness and axes spreading out in every direction from every point within this galaxy! And frankly, most people I know are not exactly gender-conforming – I believe that we all are gender complex in some way, and how cool that we all get to wear ourselves and ask to be addressed in whatever way honors each of us most fully.

This all is, and is not, a big deal. I’m not shifting much in who and how I am in the world, I’m mostly just shifting how I frame myself publicly.

If any or all of this feels confusing or annoying or challenging or surprising to you, that’s ok! My deepest hope, though, is that instead of that creating distance between us, may it bring us closer. I would consider it a great act of love if you turn toward curiosity and ask me anything you want to ask me, in order to understand more deeply, if you wish to.

And I understand that, especially for those of you who have known me for a long time, that this can feel like a wild shift and that sometimes you might slip up, but as long as you’re on board with me here, we’ll move through it together.

(If “they” as a singular pronoun is new and/or weird to you, please see the footnote below*.
And if you’d like some of my favorite resources about gender complexity in light of big picture love+justice, please see the other footnote below**.)

I consider queerness and genderqueerness a gift – an invitation to radical wonder and radical welcoming***, and I hope you and I both feel more and more deeply invited into wonder and welcoming as time goes on, regardless of who you are and how you identify.

And my heart swells when I think of how we are at an unprecedented moment where the intersections between many varieties of systemic oppression – based on race, class, ability, gender, sexuality, etc etc etc – are more visible than ever, even if, of course, we have a long long way to go. Our liberation is inextricably bound up together, and may we find more and more ways to bring the marginalized to the center, in light of that truth!

Whew! Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for listening.

Yours in Radical Wonder and Radical Welcoming,
*We already use they as a singular pronoun without thinking about it, as in:
If you say, “Someone’s coming to pick me up later”
I might say, “Oh cool, what time are they coming?”

And “you” has long worked for both singular and plural.
If I say to Jamie, Jillian, Kay, and Logan: “I am hugely grateful for the feedback you gave me on the first draft of this email!”, it takes context to know whether I’m speaking to one or all of them.

One thing that helps me a lot, when a friend shifts names and/or pronouns, is to actually practice, while alone, telling a story about them in the third person.

Another thing that I’ve found useful when adjusting to a friend’s new name is immediately switching their name in my phone + email, and also talking about the shift with a person who will never meet them or be in contact with them, so I can practice using the new name and pronouns AND address my feelings about it in a way that doesn’t have the potential to harm the person the feelings are about.

**Some of my favorite ways to geek out and learn more about gender complexity in light of big picture love+justice are:
This amazing interview with Janet Mock
The webseries HerStory (the whole season is only an hour long)
And of course My New Gender Workbook, by Kate Bornstein (URL http://genderqueerid.com/post/38401926471/kate-bornsteins-my-new-gender-workbook-a), which is geared at younger folks, but still packed a huge heart-punch for me when I re-read it recently

***radical wonder and radical welcoming” is a phrase I’m borrowing from Kate Bornstein

ICYMI, Here is the Interview in which Stephanie Talks to Playboy.com about Tantric Sex

Tantric Sex Explained

by Jonathan Stewart, originally posted at playboy.com in the summer of 2014

Celebrities like Sting and P. Diddy have spoken publicly about their love of tantric sex and guides to tantra crowd the sexuality sections of bookstores, but what is tantric sex? We asked sex and relationship coach, and tantric sex practitioner, Stephanie Johnstone to explain the ins and outs of tantric sex to us.

Playboy.com: What is tantra and tantric sex?

Johnstone: Tantra is a vast and ancient way of being that originated in India thousands of years ago. Some people who practice tantric sex are more traditionalist and others cherry-pick what works for them. [Tantra] is a way of thinking about sex that is not specifically genital focused. That doesn’t mean there can’t be hardcore fucking in tantra; it just means whatever kind of sex you’re having or whatever way you’re being intimate can be tantric. You start to consider other ways of framing pleasure besides penis-in-vagina intercourse. But when it comes to Tantric Sex 101, there’s two ideas and techniques I’d like to share.

First: really think about breathing. There’s a perception that spiritual sex takes a lot of ritual and hullabaloo—it totally can and that works for some people—but I think a great first step is just to become present and aware of your own breath. People can [start by noticing] where they’re holding their breath and experiencing their breath in their day-to-day life, and that will translate to noticing your breath when you’re being sexual.

Something that is very powerful is breathing in sync with your partner when you’re engaging in sexual intimacy; it can be a deep act of empathy and energy alignment. This breath work with your partner is the deepest kind of listening and is the embodiment of tantric sex.

Playboy.com: How did you come to tantric sex?

Johnstone: My personal journey with my body and sexuality was one from utter shame to utter celebration. I was raised in a wonderfully kind family but one that was a fundamentalist Christian family. So sex, sexuality and the body were considered dirty and off-limits and relegated to specific contexts.

In my early 20s I began to let go of those beliefs; I let go of Jesus and found myself and had a liberating awakening to my own sexuality and I realized I didn’t just live in my head, I lived in my whole body. I became open to things like practicing yoga. I also became open to the fact that sex and sexuality are not things that belong in dark bedrooms behind closed doors, but that we can experience pleasure in sex, as well as a sensual life-giving pleasure in walking down the street, in smelling the roses, in the way that the light falls on a particular place on the beach.

Around this time I came across a book, Urban Tantra by Barbara Carrellas. It draws on the ancient spiritual tantric traditions but also speaks about it in a way that allowed me to see everything as sacred. It elevates the pedestrian. And from there I delved deeper into it and I now work tantra into my work as a sexual educator and dating coach.

Playboy.com: Why should someone study and practice tantric sex?

Johnstone: The juicy answer is that the capacity for sexual pleasure expands when you bring tantric ideas and practices into your lovemaking. Even using a fraction of some of these ideas—and tantra is vast and you can spend a lifetime studying it—is going to see a transformation in your sex life and how you experience pleasure.

In my coaching and on my podcast I’ve encountered women with a similar story to mine—of wanting to unlock and transcend sexual shame—and tantra is a tool for that. There’s also many men who feel frustrated about coming too soon and who wish to last longer or have difficulty getting erect or staying erect, and the techniques of tantra let you check in with your body and think of your whole body as an erogenous zone, and it can assist men with these issues.

America is weird when it comes to sex. We’re so good at sex when it comes to promiscuity that doesn’t have much humanity in it. And paradoxically, we’re also so good at the residual puritanical shame. We’re not great at finding the life in the middle.

Playboy.com: In popular culture when we hear about tantric sex we associate it with being able to have endless orgasms and being able to have sex all day. Is there any truth to this idea?

Johnstone: Yes, it can be that, having sex for hours and hours. But it’s a bit of a misconception thinking that’s all tantra is. Sex advice columnist Dan Savage jokes, “I don’t have time for the tantra people; I don’t have time to have orgasms all day long. I want to read the newspaper and do other things.”

How I think of tantra is it shakes up the idea of what it means to have sex. That doesn’t mean it tries to get rid of fucking, but it means you could be engaging sexually while reading the paper across the table from your partner who is also reading the paper as you’re also being really present with each other. You stay relaxed when you’re excited and stay excited when you’re relaxed so in that way you can apply a little added consciousness when you’re having sex— even when it’s a quickie. I have tantric quickies all the time!

Think about sex like food. It takes more attention and effort and forethought to make a gourmet three-course meal than it does to throw together a sandwich. I love sandwiches, and in my sex life I like sandwiches sometimes and other times I like gourmet meals. Once you start having tantric sex that doesn’t mean you always have to have tantric sex when you fuck.

Playboy.com: What other common misconceptions do you encounter around tantric sex?

Johnstone: That it’s super serious. It certainly can be. But any sex can be tantric sex—consensual power play, the playful, the rough, the silly!—if you are present and conscious with it.

That points to the common misconception about sex, in general, that I would most like to see shaken up: Many people think that being “present” or “conscious” with sex, or communicating about sex, or putting forethought into sex takes the sexiness out of things. But my own and multitudes of others’ experience with the core ideas of tantra (and talking more and better about sex in general) is that it exponentially increases hotness!

Sure, it can be fun to roll around without thinking or talking about it. But there is a pretty low ceiling to how pleasurable that can be. The tools that tantric thinking and practice offer can allow us to get more clear and present with ourselves and with our partners in terms of what we most deeply desire and what follows can be an expansion of pleasure that feels—and may be—limitless!

Stephanie Johnstone is an NYC-based human/activist/artist/sexuality educator with a fierce commitment to celebrating and cultivating interdependence. Her podcast, Sex For Smart People* (*that means you), founded in the belief that authenticity and communication are the sexiest, is available on iTunes and Dogcatcher. She draws heavily on her tantra practice in her work as a wholistic sex and relationships coach, with a focus on sexuality from a place of wholeness and communication for couples. Contact her at stephanie@sexforsmartpeople.com, and on Twitter @SexForSmarts.

Happy Healthy Breakups Are A Thing: Stories From SFSP Listeners

Breakups. The dominant cultural narratives are: someone must have been an asshole; can’t possibly remain friends; the earth, it is scorched.

There’s no shame in having a difficult breakup, and even many ultimately happy breakups are difficult. Breaking up is just very very hard. And there are, of course, cases where there is real hurt and/or abuse wherein it wouldn’t be appropriate to stay friends with your ex.

But if you were dating someone, there (almost certainly) must have been a strong connection to begin with. And breaking up doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We know so many people, including ourselves, who shifted to a different shape of relationship but didn’t need to place blame or cut anyone out of anyone else’s life.

We don’t hear these stories often enough. And we believe that if there were more of these alternate breakup narratives, the culture around breaking up might begin to shift for the better. Authenticity and communication are the sexiest, regardless of what stage of relationship you are in.

So we asked our (super smart and sexy!) listeners to send us stories of happy/healthy breakups, and we are deeply moved by those we received. Here are three of our favorites:

“So in 2012, Rudy and I were 23 and had been together since we were 19. We had lived together, spent holidays with each other’s families, had the Big Fights and worked it out, talked about The Future, agreed about priorities (marriage in a couple of years, kids [2] probably but career and travel first, get a dog but never a cat, everything from engagement rings to preferred milk fat content), the whole long-term couple shebang. We were also really young and navigating a bunch of problems that we had no context for and no way of handling, like the fact that my libido had been decimated by birth control, or his struggle to re-enroll in school after a financial leave. There was a lot going on, but at the base of it, we had grown into different people from the ones who fell in love.

A few months post-breakup, he fell in love with someone else, and I slowly gave up on us getting back together. That hurt too. We found new boundaries, like what I could hear him talk about and what was too much. He respected what I needed, and I respected his relationship, and we stayed close. He told her from the jump that my presence in his life was a nonnegotiable. Just as much as ever, we had each other’s backs. When he had conflicts with our managers at work, I went to bat for him. Eventually, the friendship filled in the hole left from the breakup.

This January, we got dinner at a pizza place in the West Village, and he nervously told me he was proposing the next day. And I was happy for him — happy enough that in two months, I’ll be one of the people standing beside him when he marries that girl. It was awful for a long time, and I don’t think there are many breakups that aren’t, no matter how close you stay or how many compromises you make. It just sucks. That’s what breakups are. But we’re both always glad we didn’t let ourselves confuse the hurt from the breakup with aversion to one another. At this point, we’ve traded so much love and trust that I think of him like my family. Whoever else comes and goes, we have each other.”

“After dating for close to a year, my gut was getting louder and more insistent – the relationship I shared with Alex wasn’t working. The idea of ending it (and especially the idea of potentially hurting Alex) filled me with so much sadness, but I knew that we were no longer being our best selves with one another, and that the truly loving thing to do was to be honest and create space for us to change and grow in new ways. So with a heavy heart, I began the conversation that I’d been rehearsing in my head for weeks: “Alex, I feel like this isn’t working.”

Given the amount of time I’d been preparing for this, you’d think I could have come up with something more eloquent than that, but in truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what my desired outcome was, and as it turned out, opening the door was all that really needed to happen. It quickly became evident that we were on the same page – Alex had also been feeling stuck and unsatisfied in our relationship, but unsure of how to reorient. Soon, we were both crying, talking about all the things we loved and appreciated about one another and affirming the goodness and beauty that had been found and created in our relationship. It was perplexing to us both – we’re both great! And good looking! (And humble!) Why wasn’t it working? But even as we showered each other in praise and affirmation, the clarity of our reality remained – it was time for a new chapter in this sweet partnership that had already offered us both so much goodness and taught us so much.

The negotiation of that shift would take time (now, six months later, we’re still stumbling along the messy but beautiful path toward post-dating friendship) but that night, with tear-streaked cheeks and raw, tender hearts, it was already clear that even as the nature of our relationship changed, our commitment to one another was steadfast. Trusting in that, I knew that we didn’t have to figure it all out right then and there. Glancing up from my snot and tear-soaked hankie, I said, “Do you want to take a break?” Alex smiled and nodded, and soon after we were curled up on the couch together, watching cute kitten videos on YouTube and laughing about how very, very gay we both are.”

“My wife and I got married young. We didn’t particularly want to get married but we did it because she was from another country (or, as she likes to say, because I was). A lot happened in the years we were together. She went from being a femme anthropologist to a butch vegan baker, and I transformed from a nervous Woody Allen type into an avid cyclist. She got sick, she got better, I wrote a dissertation, she grew a mohawk, we built a home and a community, and we loved each other a bunch. But after eight years of being together, we were pointed in different directions, so we parted amicably. The divorce was easy, though we bickered over money. But we got through it, and I’m thrilled that we did. Today we live in different cities but we’re still close friends. She helped me through my last breakup, I flew out to take care of her when she had surgery. The background photo on my phone is a picture of my new love and my ex-wife hanging out, without me, in California. They both knew how important they were to me, so they arranged to meet. Every time I look at that, I smile.

Your loyal listener.

(This story has been edited and approved by the ex, who is also a listener.)”

Have a happy/healthy breakup story of your own? Please send it to us as hello@sexforsmartpeople.com. We’d love to hear from you and keep adding to this collection.

Stephanie Johnstone is an NYC-based human / composer / organizer / theatermaker / muckraker / sexuality educator with a fierce commitment to celebrating and cultivating interdependence.

David McGee writes mostly plays but other things too, sometimes. His writing has been published by n+1 in the book “Trouble is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street” and cited by Against Equality (Queer Challenges to the Politics of Inclusion).