Kurt Cobain Pushed the Boundaries of Gender and Made Room for Us All
Nirvana took every step to sand the edges of rock’s obsessive relationship with toxic masculinity.
Nevermindmainstay of radio stations that play golden oldies; a stark reminder that everything turns old with time.
Nevermind In Utero
fudge packin/crack smoking/satan worshiping/mother fucker on the back. While it’s easy to turn a cynical eye to the branding exercise of it all, it’s the fudge packin’ that always stood out to me. Not many men that screamed their anguish into microphones were bragging about queer sex.
The journals have been a source of tension over the years, with some people arguing that we shouldn’t have access to the private musings of a dead man. But the journals do offer an alluring opportunity to better understand Cobain. Beyond the doodles and scribbles penciled into drugstore notebooks, there were glimpses of an alternate-history Nirvana. Cobain had initially envisioned Nevermind as an album split in two, with a “girl side” and a “boy side.” Songs like “Polly” (boy) and “Lithium” (girl) would have found their place on either side of the binary. Alternate lyrics for In Utero’s “All Apologies” once begged, simply, “let me have some breasts.”
I felt a kinship with this man struggling to find himself. I also knew myself to be out of step with the expectations placed on me. On “Serve the Servants” from In Utero, Cobain sings, “as my bones grew they did hurt, they hurt really bad.”I understood him to be giving voice to the pain of a puberty you might not want to participate in. I didn’t know or understand dysphoria, but I knew how it felt to not be able to find a way to comfortably dress or appear as society would imagine a man should.
I will remember where I was when Cobain died as I remember the day I worried I too would die, that my desires for myself would be my undoing.
As I grew older and more obsessed with Cobain, I eagerly bought up every magazine that featured him on the cover. Every time, I hoped that this issue was the one in which they asked about his discomfort with himself. I bought biographies and read them cover to cover in bed at night, not able to sleep until I had gotten to the final pages, hoping that maybe this once, the answers would reveal themselves. That I would understand myself, and my pain and discomfort with myself, through a man that I had watched struggle publicly with what I thought was the same internal strife.
For a few years in the early 2000s I even bought into the conspiracy theory that Cobain had been murdered, a wild theory that has spawned two documentaries: 1998’s Kurt And Courtney and 2015’s Soaked In Bleach. There was some comfort in this misdirection. If in fact he hadn’t taken his life by his own hand, perhaps the demons that plagued him didn’t win after all.
Nirvana is a mark I have carried with me through my entire adult life. I have bought albums as they were re-released, remastered again, and re-released a third time. I have read Cobain conspiracies on the internet and engaged in conversation with trans girls on the internet as some try to claim Cobain as our own.
More powerful, to me, than Cobain being a Tall Girl is the idea that someone so visible, so loud, and so angry was pushing for the very things we pushed for ourselves. I don’t know if Cobain was trans; that’s not my place to speculate. But regardless of his desires, we find ourselves in his intentions. The boundaries he pushed made space for so many angry people of a certain age, eager as we were to not be men ourselves. The fire burning in our hearts not for others but for the expectations placed upon us.
I will remember where I was when Cobain died that day as I remember the day I worried that I too would die, that my desires for myself would be my undoing. Where Cobain didn’t make it many of us are lucky to now find ourselves.