September 24, 1991, marked the day when the music world changed. The rumblings of this event started four years earlier in Aberdeen, Washington. Gen Xers witnessed a phenomenon grow and become the mindset of that generation.
I fully remember this day. It was eight months before I would graduate high school. I had only started driving about a month prior and loved the freedom it gave me. My musical tastes in high school were broad, to say the least. It would shift when I heard the angry guitars and yelping cracked voice of a new singer, Kurt Cobain. It was music that seemed to speak to my very rebellious soul.
At that time I was struggling with my feelings of being gay and keeping them hidden. I would pop in this cassette into my 73 Dodge Dart and blast it on the way to or from work and feel oddly liberated. “I found it hard, so hard to find. Oh well, whatever, never mind.” Would echo in my mind and give me my angst to rise in apathy against the rules I felt held me down. But I never thought how Kurt Cobain would influence the world or how Kurt Cobain would influence LGBTQ rights.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
“You know, I felt so different and so crazy that people just left me alone. I always felt that they would vote me ‘Most likely to kill everyone at a high school dance.’” – Kurt Cobain in high school.
Cobain was born February 20th, 1967 to parents Wendy Elizabeth and Donald Leland Cobain. He had been surrounded by music most of his childhood. Aunts and uncles who played various instruments and were in bands to a grandmother that was a professional artist, Cobain’s artistic side was encouraged.
At nine, Cobain’s parents would divorce and it would leave a lasting effect on him. His mother noted that his personality changed drastically to withdrawn and defiant. Cobain would later say in an interview that he felt ashamed of his parent’s divorce. His parents remarried and Cobain seemed to spiral out more. He would later spend a portion of his life with a born-again Christian family, where he became a devout Christian. While he renounced Christianity, religion would be a large part of his life.
His views on prejudice would start in high school. He befriended a fellow student who was gay and endured bullying from peers who assumed, he too, was gay. Cobain never minded the rumors, as most people tended to leave him alone.
In a later interview with The Advocate, Cobain would say he could picture himself as bisexual and that he often felt “gay in spirit.” He would also remark that he spray-painted “God is gay” on pickup trucks in his hometown. Police records show that Cobain was arrested for spray painting graffiti on vehicles that read, “ain’t got no whatchamacallit.”
During his life, his sister ended up coming out to him. He unequivocally supported her and appreciated her coming out to him. His only worry was for the discrimination she would have to endure, especially from their homophobic mother.
Early Musical beginnings
Cobain learned to play guitar in high school after receiving a used one from his Uncle. He was offered a bike, but Cobain declined. It was here that Cobain met Roger “Buzz” Osborn, singer and guitarist of the Melvins. Buzz would introduce Cobain to punk and hardcore. In his journals, we wrote extensively about how this music impacted him.
Cobain created the band Fecal Matter in 1985 and would be one of the many bands that would arise from him and his circle of friends associated with the Melvins. Initially, the band could consist of Cobain singing and playing guitar, Dale Crover (the Melvins) playing bass, and Greg Hokanson on drums, They rehearsed for a year before breaking up.
Cobain would later meet Kris Novoselic, who also loved punk, and tried to convince him to start a band by using a demo recording he made with Fecal Matter. Finally, Novoselic would agree and the beginnings of Nirvana happened. Chad Channing would be the drummer for their first album Bleach. Cobain would fire him due to stylistic differences. Nirvana would then bring on Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters, to help record Nevermind. It would be this album that shaped the rock scene for a decade to follow and began what would be called Grunge.
The 90s and LGBTQ
The 90s rough for the LGBTQ community, Many of our rights were set back further than they had been, prior. The AIDS epidemic was still hitting us very hard and treatment was often worse for those taking it. In February 1990, the US Court of Appeals passed a law that would allow the federal government to deny security clearance to anyone they perceived as a homosexual. But there were some wins for us as well. December 10th, 1990 Colorado Governor Roy Romer issues an executive order prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in the public sector.
In 1992, Oregon voted on an infamous amendment, Measure 9, which allows for the preventing of funding of anything that promoted, encouraged, or facilitated homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, or masochism. It was put into place with the mindset that the government should teach children that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.
If you looked to television for any LGBTQ acceptance, it wouldn’t happen until Will and Grace aired in 1998. We were still battled with the misconception stereotypes that our heterosexual counterparts had. It was accepted to equate us with child molesters and sexual deviants. The line of people who would stand beside us in our fight was small. But it often came in unexpected places.
Kurt Cobain on gay rights sexism, and racism
In 1993, Cobain did an interview with The Advocate where he recounted that he had spray-painted “God is gay” in several vehicles in his hometown. That line would later end up in his song Stay Away.
Cobain was outspoken on gay rights, homophobia, and sexism. He said he often wished he’d been gay to annoy homophobes and was often known for wearing dresses to protest against sexism.
“Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want… I’m a heterosexual… big deal. But if I was a homosexual, it wouldn’t matter either.”
Cobain would speak out against the apathetic nature of the Gen Xers. He was surprised they were so “spineless, lethargic, and guilty” of not standing up against racism, sexism, and all the various other “isms” out there. He spoke about how counterculture would spew its disgust with all of these things while never doing anything to change it.
You have to remember all of this was taking place during the 1990s, the era with the AIDS epidemic, and before LGBTQ people were allowed to serve in the military, openly, or get married. Cobain was a spokesperson before many rockers had even thought about coming out. In 1992, Cobain traveled to Oregon to perform at the benefit show The 1992 Oregon Ballot Measure 9, a show to support LGBTQ rights. At this benefit, Nirvana was quoted as saying, “Measure 9 goes against American traditions of mutual respect and freedom, and Nirvana wants to do their part to end bigotry and narrow-mindedness everywhere.” He would, later, grant the Advocate the only interview that would promote his album Insecticide. The liner for that album would carry the following quote.
“If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
Pushing the envelope was never an issue for Cobain, In 1992, during the end credits of a “Saturday Night Live” episode, he made out with bandmate Kris Novoselic. His views on masculinity stemmed from his own frustrations of dealing with the hyper-masculinity he grew up around. He often felt that he was more similar to his female friends than male. His mother had refused to let him hang out with his friend, simply because he was gay. Cobain had a hard time calling his mother homophobic but felt it necessary as a means to recognize bigotry, even in his own family.
Cobain fully felt that music was changing to see more acceptance of female groups. He refused to tour with bands that were not in support of feminist beliefs. He took any chance he had to sing or talk about the double standards of our society towards women. He fully felt that it would be better served to teach men not to rape women than simply teaching women how to cope and try to defend themselves. He felt that we should go to the source of the problem, men who rape.
His long-standing feud with Gun ‘n’ Roses frontman, Axel Rose, came from Rose’s apparent racist, misogynistic, and homophobic opinions. Cobain would take any chance he could to point out that not all “Gods of Rock” are homophobic idiots.
Cobain’s stance on LGBTQ equality would start to shape the minds of his fans and from there it would go on to influence the music scene as a whole. In an age where there is still such a stigma around bisexuals, we need more people with the tenacity that Cobain offered in his support of LGBTQ rights.
In Memory Of
It is sometimes hard to understand the effect music can have on a person or a generation. Nirvana was one of the shaping influences of most Gen Xers, most didn’t know the extent of the influence Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, personally, would have on the world. We often only notice the impact they have after they have left us with only their music and words.
Kurt was a man out of time or ahead of his time, depending on how you look at it. He spoke his mind about atrocities he saw in our world when few others were ready to even step out of their shadows. He left a lasting impression on a generation and the music that followed. A man gone too soon to realize his potential.