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, 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