[Editor’s Note: This article mentions suicide, mental health, and sexual violence. Questions and answers were edited for clarity and space]
When someone first starts to explore their sexuality or gender identity (let’s affectionately call them baby queers), it can be overwhelming and, frankly, terrifying. A baby queer is faced with a daunting array of terms to consider: bi-romantic demiboys, gray aces, non-binary pansexuals, to name just a few. It can be impossible to know what they all mean and whether you fit any of these labels.
Sadly, language that is designed to liberate can sometimes restrict. There are folks who delay accepting themselves because they don’t feel like they meet all the criteria of a certain definition. This can keep them from joining a welcoming community filled with resources, support, acceptance, and a lot of fun.
But baby queers, do not despair! Mark Stokes (he/him) from the activist Instagram account @Notdefining, is on a mission to dismantle identity gatekeeping and help all those who are questioning where they fit into the great panoply of queer.
Mark’s own struggle to find self-acceptance is what prompted him to create this advocacy and community support account, and it has been going strong since the summer of 2020.
What brought this account to my attention was Mark’s vulnerability and openness about his own journey—an openness about uncertainty I had not often seen in queer spaces.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with him (via Skype, naturally) and learn more about his stellar work.
U: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
MARK: Like many bi people, I actually spent a lot of my life not defining, not being outwardly LGBT. I think we do that because we’re often not sure what we are—we spend a lot of our life thinking, well, maybe I’m this, or maybe I’m that.
Then you have those of us who have an opposite sex relationship—or we are what you could call heteronormative presenting—and so we take longer to find our identity.
So that was really me… I was always kind of in-between.
I didn’t use the word bi or bisexual because when I was growing up, a bisexual was somebody who was kidding themselves and on their way to coming out as gay.
There was hetero and there was this other thing called gay, which kind of encompassed everything that was not heterosexual. I knew that I wasn’t heterosexual from an early age, but I also knew that I wasn’t gay, so there was just no space for me really.
It was incredibly confusing to me. Not only these feelings themselves, but because there was nowhere to go, there was no one to speak to and say, hey, this is really confusing. There were no resources and there were no role models. So unfortunately I spent a huge number of years in my teens and early twenties suffering with depression.
I was suicidal for a long time and I just thought I was broken. I thought I was wrong. I thought there was just never going to be a person for me. And it was a really, really lonely place and I almost didn’t make it.
I said to myself at the time, if I survive this, if I ever work out what I need to do to be fulfilled and happy and live in this world then I want to share it because I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
It makes me so filled with joy that I did manage to do that with a lot of therapy and lots of support and a lot of belief. I’m now happily married to the absolute love of my life, whose name is Vic, and I just want to be that role model for the 17 year old Mark who was without anyone.
Every single thing that I say on my account, I say as if I’m saying to that younger version of me. It is literally just my authentic self speaking to my younger self.
Was there a critical moment that made you finally say, “I need to go on the internet and talk about this publicly?”
It’s something that I had always thought I’d wanted to do. I didn’t know whether I was going to write a book or something else, but I knew that I wanted to do it.
There were a few things that made me get to his point…
Basically, I had kind of come out, as it were. I was out in a bi kind of way—out to anyone who asks, but no one actually asks and you’re married to a woman. So I was nominally out, but there was still a lot inside that I didn’t express.
Then I was the victim of a sexual assault. Many bi people are statistically more vulnerable to sexual violence, and I found myself in that situation. You know, it was really, really scary what happened in my mind after that, because I did what a lot of people do when they are victims of sexual assault—they blame themselves.
As a bi man who has spent his life shamed, made to feel promiscuous, made to feel wrong, made to feel sinful, made to feel guilty about his same sex attraction, this just came on me like a ton of bricks and it really, really screwed me up. Thankfully at the time I had the love of my life…she pulled me out.
But it really, really scared me and made me realise, oh my gosh, I’m not okay with that side of myself. Look at what can happen when we are closed and when we repress and when we have that self-hate and that inner kind of guilt.
So I needed to do something about this.
I tried to find other bi people—I was 30 years old and I’d never met another bi person! So I started speaking to a wonderful friend of mine and she suggested that I actually look through my work. They ended up having a fantastic LGBT association.
I emailed them and I said, “Do you have any bi people I could speak to?” They said, “Well actually, no. But Bi Visibility Week is soon, would you be willing to do a blog and a talk?”
And I was no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!
I’m not that guy. I’m not an activist. I was literally just looking to dip my toe in the water and meet another bi person. But the head of our group of organisations got in contact with me and said something to me that will stay with me forever…
She said, “You are what our community needs to hear. You think that there’s this whole group of other people somehow advocating for bi rights and bi visibility—but there’s not. You think that we’ve all got the answers, that we all know the terminology, that you have to be this expert—you don’t. Your experience, your life and everything that you’ve been through, everything that you are; just speak it authentically, just be yourself. That’s enough, especially for our community.”
That really impacted me. I did the talk and I did the blog and it absolutely blew up at work. People were crying in the presentation and connected with my vulnerability and told me that they had never heard someone talk about it in this way. I thought to myself, wow, maybe this is what I have to give.
Then in spring of last year I saw the Black Lives Matter movement kicking off in a huge way. I saw these speakers who were speaking from their heart about oppression, inequality, discrimination, and personal repression. How the casual remarks and the impenetrable sticky layer of marginalisation gets into the fibre of our society. I also saw the LGBT community standing in solidarity with BLM and it was amazing.
I was so inspired and it made me feel like I have to share my experiences, so why don’t I make some posts and make some videos and see what happens.
And people just responded and responded and responded.
It’s fantastic that you now have this platform that is expanding and connecting with people. While building this community, what have been some of the obstacles you’ve faced in making a space for people who don’t use labels?
The first challenge is that, sadly, any account that deals with LGBT+ issues is automatically barraged by queer-phobic trolls. I’ve had to learn to deal with that. But the second challenge, I think, is maintaining authenticity within a space where it’s so easy to become a soundbite or a cliché.
Also, you’re speaking for people, but [in reality] you can only speak for your own self. I thought it was going to be tricky because I define myself as male and use he/him pronouns. How are women or feminine presenting people going to engage? Is it going to be biased towards men?
So I have to remind people that I’m speaking from my own experiences, but that this account is inclusive to all genders and orientations.
That’s interesting, because your inclusivity is a strength and a key point of your platform. The account is called @Notdefining and you have the strong support of those who do not want to label.
With language constantly evolving and people embracing hyper-specific ways of describing themselves, why have you chosen to focus on not labelling? It feels like it’s the opposite of where activism has been going language-wise…
I think because the way we are going is towards not defining. There was a fantastic study done by YouGov in 2015, where they used the Kinsey scale to log people’s sexual orientation along the spectrum and it showed was that 1 in 4 of people in the UK, on average, have some form of non-exclusively heterosexual orientation. Then when it went down to 18 to 25 year olds that figure was actually 1 in 2.
As the generations got younger and younger, more and more people were generally admitting that they had the capacity to conceive of something more than just specific heterosexuality and specific homosexuality. That’s really interesting then when you compare it to how many people actually define as gay or lesbian or define as bisexual or pansexual. It’s a very small number of people.
I think that the young people now are much more comfortable being like, yeah, I’m whatever. That’s really how I’ve always felt.
I use the term bi, if it’s helpful, but I will also use the term fluid or I will often say not defining.
I have a lot of people come to me who are going out with their minds with confusion asking me, “What am I? Can you help me work out?” I love labels. I think they’re very helpful to describe our lived experience, but we can get so pent up with labels that we actually lose the reality, which is that we’re all just human beings.
I think society tells us that we have to have a label to be valid. This idea that we have a label that we stick to our entire lives and that is our identity and that it’s somehow scientific. Whereas a lot of us are fluid or have complex or changing orientation, and that’s totally ok.
I wish that we could move to a world in which we don’t have to come out and that we don’t have to be questioned on, are we really bisexual, or are we really this or that. That’s where labels get kind of too far.
Finding your authentic self in a world that constantly tries to place you into restrictive boxes can be a frightening and sometimes painful journey.
Thankfully there are folks like Mark who are breaking down these barriers by showing us that there’s strength in vulnerability—and that we can find joy in the very act of not defining.
Interviewed by Gabriel Novo