Depending on which website you ask, the photo above, taken May, 1986 in Aberdeen, WA, is either a mugshot from when Kurt Cobain was arrested for trespassing or from when Kurt Cobain was arrested for vandalizing a wall with the phrase “God is gay.” Or maybe it was “Homo sex rules.” Or, if police records are to be believed, “Ain’t got no whatchamacallit.” Internet confusion abounds over which incident the shot is connected with and what he actually spray painted when he did spray paint something, but what’s clear is that Cobain was arrested twice in a short period of time, and when asked years later about his vandalism charge, he wanted people to believe he wrote something provocative that referenced homosexuality. The specifics become less significant when you consider that the phrase “God is gay” reached more eyeballs by way of interviews than it ever would have on that wall in Aberdeen, and even more ears as the final lyrics of the 10th track of one of the best selling records of all time.
Cobain’s vandalism may involve elements of myth, but his distaste for homophobia was well documented. Two examples stand out — a journal entry that was revealed to read “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes” — and the liner notes of 1992’s Incesticide, which made the following appeal:
At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of 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.
I find myself thinking about this part of Cobain’s legacy every once in a while, and it strikes me as incredibly powerful. People like to say — rightly on some levels, I think — that we remember Kurt Cobain in rosier terms because of his suicide, and that the uglier parts of his life get swept under the rug by a combination of selective nostalgia and hero worship. But in my mind, this is an area of unequivocal beauty. As confused and ironic as it may have been at times, Cobain’s cross-dressing, spray-painting, liner-noting, bassist-kissing advocacy for the acceptance of homosexuality demonstrated real compassion and courage, and each time it comes to mind, I’m filled with a strange sense of pride. The guy I trusted my early adolescence with — whose songs helped me learn how to play guitar and whose hair and clothes I emulated — turns out to have been even worthier of emulation than I realized, if just in this one specific, yet incredibly meaningful, way.
By chance, one of these prideful moments took place while I was getting ready for work yesterday — the same day the Supreme Court was set to hear oral arguments for the first of two landmark cases involving gay marriage. I can’t remember what got me thinking about Cobain and his convictions, but I realized yesterday morning that, aside from developing a woefully half-baked theory involving David Geffen, the openly gay record executive who won the Nevermind bidding war, I’d never taken the time to learn why he felt so strongly about homophobia.
The true source runs much deeper and earlier — in a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain describes having gay friends in high school, being labeled as gay by bullies, and being beaten up for his associations “quite a few times.” Though he says he found a certain freedom in — and even welcomed — this perception, the physical violence he encountered during this time left an indelible mark, and it’s no wonder his acts of advocacy later in life — the liner notes, the vandalism — were so keenly focused on homophobia itself. This is an important distinction, and I believe it informs the Supreme Court cases that are being argued this week.
Kurt Cobain saw hatred and oppression up close, and he wanted to distance himself so far from the group in power that he claimed to be part of the oppressed minority. But that type of compassion is rare, extreme even. For millions of Americans, it’s all too easy to sit on the sidelines and dispassionately watch gay men and women struggle for their rights. Many times, the right to marry becomes an issue worth thinking about only when people find out a close friend or loved one is gay. That’s why it simply doesn’t make sense to have this struggle play out 50 times in 50 states, each referendum or piece of legislation with its own politics and complications, each initiative relying on a minority’s ability to motivate a content majority. It’s not a fair fight. I’m proud to be a lifelong Virginian, but I have no faith in this state’s willingness to give my good friends the right to marry they deserve, and that pisses me off to no end. I urge the Supreme Court to rule on these cases, and to do so in a way that puts an end to the ridiculous notion that gay people living in Virginia shouldn’t be able to marry but gay people living in Hawaii should. That’s fucked up, and you 9 people can fix it.
If you do, maybe Kurt Cobain will stop spray painting “Homo sex rules” on everyone’s pickup trucks in heaven. (Or maybe not — his sense of humor can be pretty unpredictable.)