Legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain may be best known for his power-chord driven, chart-topping songs boasting catchy hooks, along with his fair good looks and “don’t give a fuck” fashion sense—all of which made him the undisputed king of the ‘90s grunge rock scene. Cobain’s anguished yelp, accessible guitar riffs and clever lyrics in classics such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” immediately resonated with millions of Gen X-ers, and he became the poster boy for a disaffected generation. An “everyman” of rock from beyond-humble beginnings, Cobain’s ability to connect to his peers and the masses through music catapulted him and his band to rapid mega-stardom. Consequently, Cobain, a shy, already-troubled man, found himself grappling with a cornucopia of issues exacerbated by the trappings of fame—including depression, drug addiction and serious stomach ailments—and his eventual death by a combination of a shotgun wound to the head coupled with massive quantities of heroin in his system (his fate was officially ruled a suicide, but many conspiracy theories continue to thrive surrounding those circumstances) left his legion of loyal fans devastated.
These are the facts to which even the most casual Nirvana fans are privy. What’s less often realized is Cobain’s passionate, outspoken and ongoing support of the LGBTQ community in an era that largely threw the then-controversial issue of “gay rights” by the wayside, particularly in the wake of panic surrounding the AIDS epidemic. Such a public figure taking an unabashed stand to support LGBTQ people was rare, even revolutionary, in Cobain’s heyday, and his positions on LGBTQ equality helped change hearts and minds not only among his fan base, but in the music scene as a whole. Cobain also proudly identified as a feminist and had a long track record of friendships with and support of strong women.
Cobain himself loosely identified as bisexual. Notoriously rejecting interviews with larger, more financially established media outlets in favor of speaking with community publications and ‘zines, Kurt interviewed with The Advocate in 1993, stating that he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could be bisexual,” and that, “If [he] wouldn’t have found Courtney [Love, his controversial wife], [he] probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” Though we now frown upon referring to sexual orientation as a “lifestyle,” Cobain’s sentiment still retains measurable power. It’s especially poignant today, as the bisexual community remains stigmatized, and people who identify as bisexual often face scrutiny and judgment not only from the straight population, but from some in the queer community. Cobain never shied away from this label, though. He purposely took time with The Advocate to connect with an LGBTQ audience and illustrate that not all “gods” of rock music were homophobic. (He had a long-standing feud with Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, whom Cobain found racist, misogynistic and homophobic).
In one of his journals, Cobain wrote, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.” In his youth, he spray-painted “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in his downtrodden hometown of Aberdeen, Wash. When Cobain’s sister Kim came out to him as a lesbian, he unequivocally supported her, though he worried she may face discrimination. His mother, on the other hand, held “homophobic” views with which Cobain took serious issue. Cobain always struggled with conforming to traditional concepts of masculinity, something for which his mother and abusive stepfather consistently mocked him. Speaking of his mother and teenage years in Aberdeen, Cobain said, “I even thought that I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problem … I had a gay friend. And then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore, because, um, well, she’s homophobic.”
Cobain found out that at concerts, some of his fans spread anti-gay messages in tune to his music. Disgusted, on Nirvana’s next release, “Incesticide,” Cobain demanded that he write a message back to those “fans” in the liner notes, stating, “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.” He wrote similar sentiments in the liner notes for Nirvana’s last studio release, “In Utero”: “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”
Cobain and the other members of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl [of The Foo Fighters] made a statement coming out against proposed 1992 Oregon legislation that would have stripped non-discrimination protections from the LGBTQ community. “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,” Nirvana collectively said. The band played a benefit concert to formally oppose the law, which ultimately failed to pass.
Cobain also shouted from the rooftops his feminist views and his respect for women of all stripes, in all fields. His song, “Polly,” made waves due to its tackling of male-dominated culture, male aggression and a POV rape scenario. On rape culture, Cobain asserted, “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” This guy was no victim blamer.
Cobain and Nirvana made it a point to tour with and befriend feminist bands such as Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth. In a 1993 Spin magazine interview, he waxed philosophical on changing dynamics in the ‘90s rock scene and how he backed the decade’s influx of female-fronted bands, saying, “Rock ‘n’ roll has been exhausted. But that was always male rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a lot of girl groups, just now, within the last few years. The Breeders and the Riot Grrrls all have a hand in it. People are finally accepting women in those kinds of roles.”
In an interview with PBS, Cobain pointed out how society treats women unfairly, again referring to his childhood experiences: “Because I couldn’t find any friends—male friends that I felt compatible with—I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.” And in the fast Nirvana track “Territorial Pissings,” Kurt convincingly growled, “Never met a wise man / If so it’s a woman.”
Indeed, Kurt Cobain deserves his status as a grunge legend and truly iconic figure in American rock music. However, he clearly wanted to be known for more than that: A man who sought to use his success as a platform to advocate for and help advance marginalized people and communities. And it’s for that that we remember and celebrate him.
Read these select excerpts from Cobain’s Advocate interview:
“I used to pretend I was gay just to fuck with people. I’ve had the reputation of being a homosexual ever since I was 14,” Cobain said. “It was really cool, because I found a couple of gay friends in Aberdeen—which is almost impossible. How I could ever come across a gay person in Aberdeen is amazing! But I had some really good friends that way. I got beat up a lot, of course, because of my association with them.”
“People just thought I was weird at first, just some fucked-up kid. But once I got the gay tag, it gave me the freedom to be able to be a freak and let people know that they should just stay away from me. Instead of having to explain to someone that they should just stay the fuck away from me—I’m gay, so I can’t even be touched. It made for quite a few scary experiences in alleys walking home from school, though…
“See I’ve always wanted male friends that I could be real intimate with and talk about important things with and be as affectionate with that person as I would be with a girl. Throughout my life, I’ve always been really close with girls and made friends with girls. And I’ve always been a really sickly, feminine person anyhow, so I thought I was gay for a while because I didn’t find any of the girls in my high school attractive at all. They had really awful haircuts and fucked-up attitudes.”
“So I thought I would try to be gay for a while, but I’m just more sexually attracted to women. But I’m really glad that I found a few gay friends, because it totally saved me from becoming a monk or something.”
“I mean, I’m definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual. But I’m married, and I’m more attracted to Courtney [Love] than I ever have been toward a person, so there’s no point in trying to sow my oats at this point. [Laughs] If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual life-style.”