What’s your name?
My full name is Jonathan Sterling Bishop, and I started going by Sterling a few years ago because I was always frustrated about there being too many people named Jon, and it’s way too much name collision. And there was also a lot of symbolic meaning behind trying to be more true to myself.
What are your pronouns?
I just started recently using “they/them/their” as my pronouns. It kind of happened where I would hear masculine pronouns a lot and it just started hitting my ears wrong and didn’t sound right. Occasionally I use female pronouns, but I trend towards more neutral.
Where do you work?
I work at a small software testing company in Cambridge.
Do you have any hobbies or special interests / what do you do for fun?
On the side, I am a fire performer. Sterling Fire Performance is my “doing business” name I guess. I’m not quite organized enough to be a company. But I perform for festivals, private events, and a lot for fun.
On March 17, 2012, I was at my brother’s St. Patrick’s Day party, and I saw his friend spin fire poi. And my mind kind of just broke for a moment, because I didn’t understand why there was a man with flaming balls on chains, and what was he doing? Like, how is this possible? What is that called? I needed to know what that was immediately and do it. And so he told me about an event called Wildfire Spinning Arts Retreat in CT, and I bought a ticket for August, and I instantly started learning poi. The next time I saw him at my brother’s house, he gave me his LED poi, and so I practiced the day that I saw him first and then the next time. And at that second party he said, “All right, well you look like you’re pretty solid with those, you wanna do the fire?” And I was like, “What?” and he said, “Come on, it’ll be fine, we have a safety right here, we’ll get you if anything goes wrong, we have the fuel and the props set up perfectly, everything is fine, we have everything controlled, do you wanna do it?” And I said, “Well, yeah!” That’s four and a half years ago now. I didn’t even get so much as a first degree burn. I have been burned worse from cooking than I ever have from fire spinning. Hot metal is your enemy, but just fire? It’s just fire.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
I largely avoid it as much as possible. If my interaction with someone is going to be very brief, there’s a lot of time that I just completely pass as – I was going to say normal, but I do have a blue mohawk and glittery fingernails, so not quite so much normal – but masculine. So if it’s just a non-issue, I’m just going to not talk about it the same way I don’t just open up everywhere. [If someone genders me as “he”] it’s context-dependent. I’m not out at work. Not that I have a problem with being out at work, but rather that I don’t mention much of my personal life to co-workers. It’s one of those things. Being out as what? Is it being out as polyamorous? Is it being out as genderqueer? Is it being out as pansexual? There’s so many levels, it’s like when I start sharing, I kind of have to keep sharing, because questions just pile up.
Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?
A little bit. There’s a larger group of people that knew me as Jon that I just don’t tend to keep up with too much. I was going by Jon throughout college, and then it started that only my fire spinning friends would call me Sterling, and then all my friends in the city would call me Sterling (because I’m from New Hampshire), and then most people would call me Sterling, but there were still some people, and now it’s pretty much everyone except my family. It doesn’t bother me to be called my name [by them] – it’s so context-dependent that it’s like, well of course they call me that, they also have special nicknames that they still call me. I used to get very annoyed when anyone would call me Johnny except my brother and his friends, because those were the only people who called me that. That was the only context in which that name was given. Hearing it out of context was like, “You’re not a part of that.”
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
Polyamorous, pansexual, genderqueer. But sometimes gender fluid, because it’s weird, and sometimes you wake up and you’re like, I literally can’t wear shorts today because that doesn’t feel right, I want to wear a dress or a skirt because it is the only marker that I can do right now. I mean, I keep my fingernails painted as a kind of sign, and my hair I keep androgynous intentionally. But there’s certain physical markers that kind of hit me wrong on certain days. It’s hard to explain. I don’t quite fully understand it myself. It just feels weird.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
I really like being a part of the Burning Man community, because it was the first time that I went from wondering if these things were acceptable to being encouraged…and it’s even attractive to some people. It was just like a complete mind-blowing experience, that this thing that people have hated me for, some people really like and want to encourage me and help me out. I’ve had so many people say, “Can I help you with your makeup?” “Can I give you this skirt?” Actually this skirt I’m wearing was given to me last Firefly. It’s my favorite skirt now.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
It’s one of those things where the writing was on the walls, but I like to say that I was so in the closet that I was the only one fooled. [laughs] And it has a lot to do with getting picked on. People would call me gay, but I thought they would say that to everyone, and then they’d also say, “Oh, they’re a woman.” But – they would have things that were literally conflicting…You can’t be gay and like men if you’re a woman because that’s not how that one works. But, you know, throughout my early life it was apparent I was different, but everyone would just say that I was weird. So I didn’t really start figuring any of this stuff out until I got to Boston where people I was meeting talked about these things openly and had words for things, and things weren’t just awkward ambiguous feelings. Things were quantifiable; it was not only acceptable, but people would help you through the process.
"Non-binary, while it may be one category, is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and nobody’s wrong."
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
I grew up in a small town of about 8,000 that is home to a gun factory in the middle of the woods in New Hampshire. It is not a great place to be a queer person. Aside from the fact that there weren’t a lot of cute boys who weren’t ready to beat you up if you hit on them or anything, it was very difficult to come out. And even years after, I had this internalized fear that people were going to start being aggressive towards me again if I start opening up like that. But I went hiking a lot and that was fun. And mountain biking. There’s not much else you can do besides swimming and mountain biking.
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
There’s a lot of just confusion. But that’s normal. We’re all kind of confused about it a little bit, or at least I am, I shouldn’t speak for other people. Some people have a much better picture than I do of how things look. I think one big misconception is that if you’re not cisgender, it means that you’re going to start transitioning in any sort of surgery or hormones capacity, and that’s a big question. Just having it as an assumed is kind of just glossing over a really big issue. It’s something I’m wondering. I don’t know if that’s a path I’ll take. You have to kind of just break these things down and think, what of this is important to me? is it important that I be called certain things? Is it important that I’m treated a certain way? Is it important that I look a certain way? Is it important that my body feels and looks a certain way? One day I’m pretty sure of one thing and then the next week I’m like, Okay, well, this is something I definitely want to think about more before taking any decisive actions on. I’m just starting out in this whole process. I just started using different pronouns this month. I was inspired by Pride month to actually ask for what I was wanting.
My immediate circle is very cool, very open-minded. Some people I know go out of their way before making statements, checking in and making sure they use correct pronouns. The two people I live with are my primary partner and my best friend of ten years. I was the goofy scrawny blond-haired boy named Jon when they met me, and so they’ve slowly been adjusting towards everything about me being a different person. But still being the same person, with a lot of details changed. So there’s a lot of times where people still refer to me with masculine pronouns, or my first name, or something like that, and some days when I’m feeling on top of it, but [also] days where things are kind of bothering me. And I don’t want to remind everyone constantly. I actually have a friend who got “they/their/them” on their arm just as a reminder to people.
In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?
So, on the basic level, gender identity is: Okay, am I a man, a woman, or something that doesn’t quite exactly fit either of those? And then sexual orientation is: do I like these kinds of people or these kinds of people? I’m really into philosophy of things, and word choices, so when one starts to change one’s gender identity, and someone continues to date you who had a conflicting orientation, would then their orientation have changed? Or are there exceptions to rules? It’s very fun to think about. Because my primary partner is a self-described heteroflexible cisgender female, and one night when I was rather upset and completely bent out of shape over gender identity things, and I was [thinking], “Is this going to have terrible ramifications in my life? Will she still be with me if I decide I do need to transition?” and she told me, “I will love you no matter what. And if you’re a woman, you’re a woman.” So I don’t think that things are so easily described as straight and gay. I use pansexual or queer. Queer is my favorite because it’s ambiguous, because I don’t know what gender someone might be that I might fall in love with next.
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
Not. Let’s see. Trying to think of a show that didn’t just have someone that was male-to-female trans as a joke. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Oh no, I can. Sense8. [That’s] really good. One of the main characters is male-to-female trans and it’s just kind of part of her character, and they don’t make crude jokes about it, and it’s good.
What improvements would you like to see happen in and outside of your community?
I’m not that affiliated with the Boston queer and trans community. My community is mostly the fire spinners or the burners – meaning Burning Man-affiliated events and groups – so we’re kind of all weird queer artists, so I can’t think of anything on the queer point to talk about for them. They’ve been very, very welcoming and helpful for me. I mean there’s problems in any community, but that’s just because people have problems.
As far as in a little bit of a bigger way, I think some recognition – it’s a multi-step thing. One: trans people exist and accept them. Two: there’s this thing that’s non-binary trans and it doesn’t quite look like the trans you’re used to, and that’s okay too. Three: don’t be an asshole about it.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
Well I already told you about one, the fire spinning thing. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t done that. Fire spinning largely brought me to Boston, largely made me meet the communities and people who I spend almost all of my time with now, and [who] inspired me to be not boring. I was kind of on this very traditional, get-a-job-and-try-to-advance-and-get-recognition-at-work-or-something [path], but there was this whole big “meaning” component missing. It all gets very existential very quickly because it’s like, Yeah yeah yeah, I’m making money so I can support myself so I can make money so I can support myself – what am I doing?
There was a second moment in my fire spinning journey that stands out. I was at this fire spinning festival in the middle of the woods in Ohio that I road-tripped out to with my hippie friend who taught me kung fu, and I really just needed someone to be in the car with me because I couldn’t make a 16-hour drive alone. I needed to go to this thing and I didn’t know why. I was like, I need to go to this, it’s gonna be huge, there’s gonna be people there, it’s gonna be important, I’m gonna learn a lot, and I was watching the performance showcase there, a performance of the best of the best. I was minutes in, and I realized what I was missing. I was learning all these tricks and all these moves, and it was like a guitar player learning how to play very intense solos, but who couldn’t make a song. I realized I needed to perform, and needed to learn performing skills. Because it turns out performing skills are completely independent of fire spinning skills. You can perform without spinning anything, and you can spin without performing at all. Performing is a physical language of communicating to the people watching, and it is the way of demonstrating with the song and your movements a cohesive story or message, or just little moments that are kind of fun. I realized in that moment I needed to become a performer, and that has sent me on all sorts of journeys to different parts of the country, and I have begun performing officially now. It’s been a years-long journey.
Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.
Coming up on two years now, in a couple more months, my mother died. I was very much throwing myself into the tech career at the time. My mother died while I was working, and I was a contractor and I didn’t have any benefits, so I didn’t get time off per se. I brokered a deal with them that I’d work remotely and take some days off, but it was without pay and I could barely afford it, and I just kind of burnt out and shut down. I ended up not getting full-time status on that job.
They were bringing me on a contract and they were going to hire me, it was looking good, and then they didn’t hire me, and I’m pretty sure it was because of the events of the months after this. I was fired in March 2015 – well, not fired, but not hired – and they did one nice thing, they kept paying me through the end of the month. And I left. I went down to Florida, I visited some friends, I hung out on beaches, spun some things to show some friends what I’d been doing lately. I completely changed my attitude and I confronted my feelings about my sexual orientation, and came out as pansexual following that. I started unpacking the gender stuff, but that took a lot longer to figure out what that was. I realized that monogamy wasn’t working for me, and wasn’t going to, because I’m not the type of person that it would [work for], and just all of these thoughts, and [I ended up saying], “No, screw it, I don’t have the money, I don’t know how this is going to work, but we’re doing this, because I can’t handle this anymore.” And so I changed my entire life. I was living in northern MA at the time. I didn’t want to leave the people I was living with, but I needed to move here to Somerville. I moved here in March of this year, so this has been my year’s journey.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
My best friend slash platonic husband, Rob. I’ve known him for a decade now, and every time I’m like – I called it getting weirder – he goes, “Yeah, I’m not surprised.” And I say, “What, you saw this coming?” And he says, “No, I mean, like if you came to me tomorrow and said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna get half my body tattooed,’ I’d be like, eh, you’re that kind of person who would do that, aren’t you?” So, him, and my primary partner Kate, who I’ve known for six years. We met in college and we’ve been dating for almost four [years]. We [all] affectionately refer to ourselves as the Triumvirate, because the three of us depend on each other for so many things, even if it’s a silly small thing like, “I don’t know which scarf I want, help,” or, “I think my life’s falling apart, help me,” or “What should we do tonight?” It’s nice to have this brain trust kind of thing.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
There was a time when I was hooking up with people when single and it was kind of weird, because it never quite went right. I feel like it was because I wasn’t the identity that they thought I was. One former lover described me as a “male lesbian.” People who know me very well say they can feel the ways I’m not quite a cisgender man. It’s like if you were talking to someone and said, “I bet this person is super into football,” and you’re trying to draw [conclusions], and it’s like, “Um, not quite so much.”
I like to [identify myself to others] through humor, because that’s how I process things. Even though I tend to make some very self-deprecating, off-color jokes. There’s this show Community, and there’s this character, a dean of the college, [who] is constantly dressing up and alludes to being very into kinky things and gender-nonconformity, and all these different things. And one of his favorite quotes is, “Now let me get this as straight as I can get things,” and I use that constantly. I just drop these little jokes like, “Hey, are you guys gonna come out tonight? I mean, I did!” [laughs] All these little jokes and hints. At the same time, it does re-inforce the identity because I just make a joke of it, so people who are joining the group tangentially are picking up hints. I would think that the skirts and sparkly nails and makeup and somewhat androgynous hair would be a little bit of a tip, so the jokes just kind of drive the nail in.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
Medical care is falling under my “people I don’t want to explain myself to currently” and I think I should probably change that. I’ve heard very, very good things about people going to Fenway Health. They have at least like, eight gender options. Every time I see “male/female” on a form with “select one,” I’m just like, “Fuck you!” Planned Parenthood was pretty good, but I wasn’t out when I was going there. I think I’m in this group of people who should probably think about getting more regular medical care, but I kind of get by on self-remedies and regular massages, because most of my pain and issues are muscular, because I don’t ever stop moving. I’m going to learn what a nap is one of these days.
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
When I was younger, I used to pretend that I was this awesome ninja with a flaming sword, but now I am an awesome ninja with a flaming sword. [laughs] I’m pretty sure if my 5 or 8-year-old self could see me now, they’d be a little confused but really excited. They’d be like, “Why do you look kind of like a girl – oh my god, flaming sword!”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Start playing music earlier, and actually learn chords, you little punk! Don’t give up on all those things that you gave up on. Now we just have to start learning them late. Which I am, and I’m reclaiming everything I gave up on in my life, but if I could’ve just not lost it that would’ve been better.
You’re not awful, you’re surrounded by assholes.
What are your concerns for the future?
All right, we’re just going to give snippets. So on the political spectrum, my fears are apparent growing xenophobia and racism in the world, and all sorts of phobia of people who aren’t like you. Trump getting elected. And just this weird growing hate. Fears for my future are how long I can keep my sanity within a tech field, because I have this growing desire that I just have to make art all the time. I’m just making money so I can make more art. If I had more money, I’d make more art. I’m a little worried about coming out to my family. I don’t know if I want to. It just feels like a hassle. I don’t talk to them enough that it feels important. One brother’s in California slash traveling, one brother’s in New Hampshire, my dad’s in New Hampshire, and that’s most of the family. I have some cousins and aunts and uncles scattered around. I’ve just been really busy trying to get a performance business off the ground, trying to develop art skills and figure out ways to make art that means more than just being interesting. I feel like I just got here, and I have a right to be selfish because I’ve been waiting two decades to be where I’m at.
What do you look forward to in the future?
Traveling, adventures, learning even more fire props. I pick them up all the time. I really just need to get booked more so I can buy more props. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a profit because I’ll just be spending it on more fun ways to make art. I look forward to getting the chance to perform for my communities. I’ll be performing next week for Firefly, and in August I’ll be performing for Wildfire on the four-year anniversary of my first fire spinning festival. I’ll be taking the stage, and I am one of those people who sits off on their own and practices until they think it’s good enough. I realized I could’ve performed last year, but I’m just going to get out there and kill it this year.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?
I think the most important frustration is the feeling that I have this thing that other people aren’t getting. Whether it’s about who I am or these ideas and thoughts I have. I write a lot too, so the idea that it’s not getting across is the most important frustration, because the things it’s led me to are pretty amazing.
Last year I got flown down to Florida and housed and taken care of to perform and teach at Florida Flow Fest. It was a pretty big stage, and it was a crowd of a few hundred, and I was like, this is pretty cool. It was my second performance ever. I actually wasn’t using fire, but rather used my kung fu art. I guess that was an important success too – I won a kung fu tournament for rope dart, which is one of my fire spinning tools. I took one year of kung fu lessons after being a fire spinner for a couple years, and now I can knock beer bottles off of posts with my rope dart and get accuracy down to – you know those Olympic climbing rings? They’re in Crossfit gyms sometimes? I can shoot my dart through one of those reliably, which is about the size of someone’s face. It’s like this cool thought that if I do get into trouble, I could defend myself with a rope dart. Actually one time I had it in my bag because I was practicing, and these people started following me down this alley, and I had it in my hand, and thankfully I walked fast enough that it was a non-issue – but I was just like, if things go down, I’m just going to yell really loud and try to scare the shit out of them. Because if you just bust out a rope dart and start swinging it, and start yelling, I’m pretty sure that would be a frightening experience for someone.
Rope dart’s really interesting, and I have this affinity for it, partially because rope dart is a little bit lost in the kung fu world even. I took a rope dart to a kung fu tournament and the category was “Open Weapons – Other.” There were not many rope dart practitioners there. More common is chain whip, which is nine metal sections held together with chains. It looks similar, but it’s much shorter than a rope dart. It’s weird even in the fire spinning world, and it’s weird in the kung fu world where it came from. It’s from 900 A.D. China. It’s like this weird misfit weapon/prop. It’s cool.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
Life has no inherent meaning, go do fun shit. I don’t think life has any inherent meaning or purpose, so go have fun and don’t be an asshole.
Are there any other questions you would have liked me to ask, or anything else you would like to talk about?
I don’t know what question would get this, but I think something that gets the idea across that non-binary, while it may be one category, is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and nobody’s wrong. That might be the misconception, is that a lot of the times people even using the same identity words – genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, even trans – just don’t look the same. It might seem counter-intuitive to people, but that’s literally how one changes societal views.