Kurt Cobain, was born in 1967, and died 23 years ago today. He flitted between narcissism, empathy, love and pain, trying to enjoy his life and simply be himself, but not feeling it, instead feeling everything else instead. He’d have been 50 now, just a month older than me. 5 years ago, I also attempted suicide, after a lifelong struggle with identity and feeling too much.
Whilst Cobain is in nirvana now, where are we 20+ years on? Still struggling for identity, as individuals, and a generation? Cobain struggled with being seen as the voice of a generation. His band, Nirvana, was labelled “the flagship band” of Generation X, and Cobain himself proclaimed as “the spokesman of a generation”, something that did not sit well with him.
Faking it, Being Someone Else
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are.” – Kurt Cobain
Cobain was trying to work out how to be himself amidst the pressures of fame, parental divorce, love and loss, and mental health conditions including bipolar mood swings between depression and mania, as described by his cousin, a nurse, who noted his childhood diagnosis of ADHD and as an adult Bipolar (unconfirmed?). Several relatives had also committed suicide in the same way.
He struggled to feel what he thought he was meant to feel or enjoy. He couldn’t fake the enjoyment of fame, or life itself.
“I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
“The worst crime is faking it.” – Kurt Cobain
Empathy and Fame
He mentioned empathy four times in his suicide note, and the struggle between feeling too much and yet not feeling anything – or what he thought was the right thing, at all.
“I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus, man, ‘Why don’t you just enjoy it?’ I don’t know!” – Kurt Cobain, suicide note
Nirvana sold over 25 million albums in the US, and over 75 million worldwide, but fame and success do not fill the void. He hated the fame, and was envious of Freddie Mercury and how he seemed to relish it.
“We’re so trendy we can’t even escape ourselves…I really miss being able to blend in with people.” – Kurt Cobain
Reading, Writing & Lyrics
Cobain “occasionally took refuge in the counter-cultural writings of authors such as William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski”. Yet, described himself as having the “tongue of an experienced simpleton”, and hating the Freudian analysis that people subjected his lyrics to. Another reason, to explore him in his own words, not the interpretation of others.
“I’m not well-read, but when I read, I read well.” – Kurt Cobain
“I like to have strong opinions with nothing to back them up with besides my primal sincerity. I like sincerity. I lack sincerity.” – Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was seemingly bisexual, though gave mixed interviews on that side of his personal life, calling himself “gay for a while” yet “more sexually attracted to women”. As a teen he was arrested and fined $180 for graffitiing “Homosex Rules” on a wall. He once said, “I started being really proud of the fact that I was gay even though I wasn’t.” It is not clear if he ever consummated this part of his persona, despite saying:
“If I wouldn’t have found Courtney, I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.” – Kurt Cobain
Whilst Generation Y, born early 80s to 2000, followed Cobain’s Generation X, we are now on the Gen Z cohort, born since the Millennium. A group happy to be neither gay nor straight, to question gender and express it fluidly.
Cobain wrote about women’s rights in his songs, including concerning the rape of a 14yo girl after a concert (not one of his).
“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male – or the American idea of what a male is supposed to be.” – Kurt Cobain
“He was himself”
Canadian musician and writer, Dave Bidini, in an article for the National Post entitled “Kurt Cobain, who died 20 years ago today, wasn’t a hero, martyr or vampire. He was himself” ended with this comment:
“He looked like he didn’t care (because he didn’t) … His arms hang down and he turns sideways from the crowd, as if he’s trying not to be seen, even though 20 million people have their eyes trained on him. In a society where ‘bringing it’ and ‘all or nothing’ and ‘going for it’ are sicknesses pumped by fools who aspire to drive people apart rather than draw them together, Cobain’s sense of oblivion was, in a way, brave and confrontational, and that’s why he cracked even the hardest edifice and ate through misplaced pop culture like a creeping disease. In the end, he made an enormous impression for someone who wasn’t even there.” – Dave Bidini, National Post
Cobain did escape, “Rather be dead than cool”, others need not take that route if they can follow his other wisdom, to be yourself and find someone you can be yourself with and talk to.
Remember him alive though, here’s an awesome unplugged hour-long Kurt Cobain MTV concert in NYC November 1993 just months before his suicide, my favourite line of which was “like this is my third cup of tea already” – how Rock’n’Roll!
I will remember him, as much for the angst music of a tortured soul, as the desire to find and be himself, a journey I am also on, aren’t we all to a degree?
“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” – Kurt Cobain
The night began with poetry and speeches from a dozen poets, the NUS Women’s officer – Hareem Ghani, Helen Burrows of LeewayDomestic Violence and Abuse Services, the Lord Mayor of Norwich – Marion Maxwell, and Blur’s drummer, Dave Rowntree. Organised by UEA student union officers Jo Swo and Abbie Mulcairn, and compered by Maëlle Kaboré the event was attended by around a 100 people. UEA Union has established its own anti-sexual harassment campaign, Never OK.
The march to make the streets of Norwich safe for all sought to raise funds for Leeway, end harassment, slut-shaming and victim-blaming in sexual assault. In addition, it was campaigning to Light Up Norwich – a petition to end the austerity cuts to public lighting and thereby public safety.
Prince of Wales Road, Norfolk’s most dangerous street
Norfolk is one of the safest counties in England, yet also contains one of its most dangerous streets, sometimes ranked as high as 23rd worst (2010) with over 50 violent or anti-social behaviour crimes in a single month (Dec, 2010). On a Friday night, thousands pour into its nightclub district around Riverside and Prince of Wales Road, requiring dozens if not on occasion, hundreds of police officers to be on duty, along with the SOS bus. It also ranked 4th out of 50 cities for harm to self and other after excessive alcohol-related drinking injuries resulting in hospital admissions.
“statistics show that since 2005, when pubs and clubs were allowed to open longer, there has been a 210pc increase in violent crime in Norwich between 3am and 6am and an increase in police hours of 12,000 per year.” – EDP, 2013
It’s a street that has been highlighted and visited by TV’s Jeremy Kyle and then, too, by Police and Crime Commissioner, Lorne Green. Two nights after the march and Police around Prince of Wales Road had a busy night with 21 detentions and arrests.
CK from Norfolk, writing in Vagenda magazine, 2013, described the differences between sexual harassment in Norwich and London, thus:
“…lascivious comments are infrequent, especially if you avoid the many delightful establishments on Norwich’s Prince of Wales Road, known as one of the country’s ‘most dangerous streets’. What I was not prepared for was the sheer volume of street harassment that has become a near daily feature of my glamourous London life…
The tone here is different too. Men call out at all times of the day, not just when they’re drunk on a Friday evening and don’t realise that their ‘inside voice’ has become their ‘outside voice’. And for better or for worse in Norwich, you would often have the opportunity to interact with the gentleman clucking at you…
In Norwich’s Mischief pub, I once hit someone with my handbag after they decided that my arse was the ideal hand-rest, their wrist presumably tired from a strenuous day of wanking. I don’t condone violence, but I was tired and wanted a gin and for fuck’s sake, touching is verboten unless I specifically say otherwise.”
“Fuck Harassment” Public Order Offence
Apparently, “Fuck Harassment” on a handmade sign is a public order offence but “Fuck the Patriarchy” wasn’t. One female student was told by a police officer monitoring the march to put her sigh away or her details would be taken and a possible offence logged. As the sign was anti-harassment, I fail to see how it could be harassing!
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 says than an offence comprises two elements:
A person must(a) use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting; and
The words or behaviour, or writing, sign of other visible representation must be within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
The irony – that saying “FUCK harassment”, is anti-harassment by street harassers seems to have been lost on the police who made sexual assault victims into aggressors by their PC actions.
Poetry on the night
The poems, some old, some new, some about dangerous grannies with Uzis, contained raw, personal and often political (isn’t the personal, political?) stories of assault, violence, homelessness, gender dysphoria, rape and suicide, and not a few mentions of Donald Trump.
I hadn’t written a poem, successfully at least, since I was 15, when I think I got a ‘C’. I’m happier with political speeches, social commentary, or stand-up comedy, so when asked to write a poem, it was quite a challenge. The text of my poem can be read here.
Among the many great performances, perhaps standout were Ella Dorman-Gajic and Elley Tourtoulon, as well as punk poet & activist, Josh Chapman. Other poets and speakers included Charlotte Earney, Sophie Robinson, Jan McLachlan, Eli Lambe, Joe Collier, Nicholl Hardwick, Alison Graham, Alicia Rodriguez.
Although, to be honest, the diversity and equality of quality of the poetry, speaks to the inclusivity of the event, particularly with two trans poets, and considering other Reclaim the Nights have witnessed trans-exclusive behaviours from some radical feminists.
The Reclaim the Night evening in Norwich, like the city itself, was inclusive and friendly, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be made safer and more welcoming to all people, irrespective of gender, sexuality, faith, or attire, whether by day and/or especially at night.
With the furore over trans prisoners such as Tara Hudson, a trans woman, being sent to a male prison and her eventual transfer to a female one, another – Vicky Thompson, who took her own life because she was sent to an overcrowded high-suicide risk men’s prison, and another Joanne Latham, two weeks later, it is time to re-address questions of sex/gender policing and segregation in prison. Hudson was sent to prison for violence against a man but presented and identified as female, Latham for two attempted murders and had clear psychiatric issues, as many, especially in women’s prisons do. I did diversity work in HMPs for 5-6 years and was regularly asked what to do with trans prisoners and whether what they were already doing was okay. One HMP had two trans women on the women’s wing, one pre-op one post-op. So they can be flexible. And the 20-30 in UK HMPs is a massive underestimate. I know of dozens and statistically there are probably hundreds.
Prison is an area of mandatory sex/gender segregation based upon the presumption of two sexes and a majority heterosexual population. Separation based upon sex is presumed to aid management, deny sexual privilege, improve safety and risk of sexual and physical violence. All on the basis that men are more likely to harm, harass, or worse, women more than other men. If that is based on size and strength, or merely sex, we should be housing people according to height, weight, and sexuality as well! Where is the protection for gay, lesbian and bisexual, inmates? Trans prisoners, as some intersex prisoners would also, present a binary dilemma.
Inmate violence in US prisons is actually more common between women than between men, up to three times higher for sexual victimisation. What are the facts and myths of gender-based violence and does prison distort them? For instance men are more likely to attempt suicide outside of prison but inside it is women that are more at risk where a higher proportion have mental health issues and concerns.
Where is a safe place to send trans prisoners? In the US they are 50% likely to be raped in prison. Italy has a dedicated trans jail. HMP estimates around 20-30 trans people are in UK prisons but that is likely an underestimate as I’m aware of 10-15 in my local counties.
It is, however, the argument of Germaine Greer and others that women’s spaces need to be kept safe from “men masquerading as women”. The verbal vitriol is almost violent of her anti-trans rhetoric and is something that has led several universities to no-platform her in the name of creating safe trans-inclusive female spaces for students.
What risks are acceptable in the name of free expression (that may contain verbal violence), gender identity, legal sex definition, and how should we balance them with creating safe spaces in universities, DASV/rape crisis support centres, society at large and during incarceration – for all people?
Trans Detention Experience in the USA
“According to a study by University of California Irvine professor Valerie Jenness, more than half of all transgender inmates experience rape. Prison culture also creates an atmosphere where transgender inmates may submit to sexual assault for protection from physical violence – all under the callous indifference of prison authorities.”– The Guardian
“Transgender prisoners are unfathomably at risk for sexual abuse,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director at Just Detention International, an advocacy group that works to end sexual abuse in detention, told VICE News. “It’s a crisis”
“A recent US study said transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in the general population, with 59 per cent reporting sexual assaults.” – The Independent
“When we are talking about trans people, we are talking about a population who are among the most vulnerable in our prisons,” Rebecca Earlbeck, lawyer representing Sandy Brown.
“Among former state prisoners (US), the rate of inmate-on inmate sexual victimization was at least three times higher for females (13.7%) than males (4.2%)… Following their release from prison, 72% of victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization indicated they felt shame or humiliation, and 56% said they felt guilt.”
Many transgender inmates are placed in “involuntary administrative segregation, which keeps them separated and safe from other inmates.”
“I was forced with no options to be in protective custody, locked down for 23 hours a day,” said Christopher D’Angelo, a transgender male who spent six months in MCSO [Arizona] custody. He likened his detention to solitary confinement. “It just added to my isolation,” D’Angelo said.
Earlier this year, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was looking to relocate around 25 of the nearly 70 transgender women (there are also a half-dozen or so trans men) that it houses on a nightly basis somewhere more permanent and together, incorporating the 2015 revised trans policies that it has been trying to improve since 2009 and 2011. Barely two-thirds of US facilities are even following the 2011 guidelines.
“The transgender detainees will likely be housed in their own area of the women’s facility, but may be allowed to “mingle” with other female detainees, according to ICE officials.”
Whilst the declared trans women detainees may make up just 0.22% of the 34,000 held, they account for 20% of the sexual abuse cases in detention, and that’s the confirmed reported ones – many are not.
“[US] Immigration officials say they have a model facility in Southern California that only houses gay and bisexual men and transgender women. While some 75 transgender detainees are housed across the country every night, the California facility only houses an average of 44 gay, bisexual and transgender individuals at a time.”
A 24-year-old trans woman in Israel is being reasonably housed at the Neveh Tirtzah women’s prison but kept in isolation at night “due to safety concerns.” She was born into an ultra-Orthodox household as male and began transition as a teen but is serving a third prison term for prostitution, theft and assault. She has complained and filed a petition due to her isolation to which the Israeli Prison Service responded:
“In any case in which a prisoner whose identity is not unambiguous, detention is required in isolation and that is out of concern regarding harm to them or prisoners in the vicinity.”
Trans Detention Facilities in Italy
It is thought that Italy has a total of some 60 transgender prisoners but a specialist centre in Tuscany was planned to house about 30 people. The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, said that until now  transgender prisoners have been located in women’s prisons where they are often segregated for their own safety. Guards were to undertake special training in how to treat transgender prisoners before the prison block was to open near Empoli, in Tuscany, in March 2010.
“It’s a great idea. It will not be a ghetto but a way to avoid the experience of isolation in ordinary prisons,”said Regina Satariano, the head of the Italian Movement for Transgender Identity.
“…different scenarios share the same conceptual roots: normative binarism and the resulting impossibility of engaging in a political discussion concerning the condition of transgender inmates. Therefore, the second consideration lying at the heart of our study and defining its theoretical and practical framework consists in the necessity of interpreting the complex relations between law and gender, and prison and gender… The condition of transgender inmates globally is evidence of the failure of essentialist policies, grounded on normative binary categories, and the reduction of the social world to the male/female opposition. Employing theory, i.e. critically rethinking the categories of our social space, seems the most logical solution, but logic is not the strong suite of the law (nor of politics). As a result, while legislators envision solely male and female prisoners (and the corollary male and female issues), many correctional institutions are confronted with troublesome ‘specters’ who fail to conform to the legislator’s rational, biopolitical plan…
…Sollicciano is one of the few Italian prisons in which a
tertium genus of incarceration, not provided for by law, has been informally established. The second consideration is the high percentage of non-EU inmates housed in Section D, and the predominance, within this group, of Latin-American inmates, with a significant majority of Brazilians. The last consideration, which lies at the heart of our study and defines its theoretical and practical framework, is the necessity of interpreting the complex relationship between law and gender, and prison and gender. This ‘critical triangle’ defines the object of our study: the theoretical and practical interrelation of law, gender, and rights.”
Trans Detention Experience in the UK
Government estimates of numbers are vastly under-reported. 20-30 is just the tip of the iceberg when there are around 10 in one county alone, to my knowledge, and often 2 or more in each prison, and there are 136 prisons, 82,000 male inmates and 4,000 female inmates. Based upon typical trans statistics that would indicate a few hundred trans inmates, at least. Self-inflicted deaths in custody this year number 43, at least 2 of which were trans, 5% of the total from a population of perhaps 0.5% of inmates (less than 1 in 2000 according to the Government, 0.05%), so at least 10-100x more likely to take one’s life when imprisoned in facilities not matching their gender identity.
Trans and prison reform activists petitioned the Government for over a decade before the PSI 07/2011 Care and Management of Transsexual Prisoners guidance (March 2011) was brought in. I met with prison officers in the few years leading up to that and found that some were taking common sense into their own hands already and in one instance allowing trans women, both pre and post-op, to be moved to the female estate. That, it is not being followed fully 4 years on is a scandal that has led to several high profile deaths in custody.
“Law enforcement officials have a long history of targeting, punishing and criminalising people who do not conform to gender norms. As feminist criminologists have shown, for example, women who fail to conform to femininity norms are often policed and punished more harshly in the criminal justice system than those who adhere more closely to societal gender expectations (Carlen, 1983, 1985; Heidensohn, 1996). Likewise, traditional norms around masculinity and femininity still operate as key modes of discipline, power and regulation within carceral settings (Sim, 1994; Carrabine and Longhurst, 1998; Crewe, 2006). Although the role of gender norms within the penal system is widely recognised, little attention has been paid to their specific impact on transgender people.”
A transgender prisoner was discovered dead in her cell at an all-male prison, the BBC reports. Joanne Latham, 38, serving life for three attempted murders, was found hanging by a prison officer at HMP Woodhill (category A) in Milton Keynes in the early hours of Friday 27 November. That she was a patient at the secure Rampton Hospital in 2011 and in the prison’s Close Supervision Centre (CSC) evidences her mental health issues. She had apparently only publicly identified as female this year.
Transgender woman Tara Hudson was moved from a men’s to women’s prison after protests. She was imprisoned for assaulting a bar manager. She had been living full-time for 6 years as a woman since the age of 20. She was released this week.
Jackie Brooklyn, Tara’s mother said on her release:
“Hopefully she will heal in time, but it will have a lasting effect. There needs to be a change in the law and the way prisons deal with transgender inmates in general. We had a letter from Tara’s doctor confirming that she has lived her whole adult life as a woman, but it was completely ignored. Relying on what a passport says is a silly way to decide where people belong.”
A petition that called for Tara Hudson to serve her sentence in a women’s prison attracted 159,000 signatures. At the same time another petition by Cardiff University SU Women’s Officer, Rachael Melhuish, wanted to no-platform Germaine Greer from speaking due to her transmisogynistic views.
Greer’s view has been labelled as radical by those feminists who embrace intersectionality, but Hudson’s treatment at the hands of the Prison Service shows the opposite. If anything, Greer’s disdain is indicative of how we view transgender people as a society. By denying Hudson the right to serve her time in a female prison, our legal system is entirely aligned with statements from Greer such as “Just because you lop off your penis… it doesn’t make you a woman.” – Ella Griffiths inThe Independent
Prison reform is what is needed as society moves forward to accepting people outside the binary. HMP/MoJ would have the same problems with non-binary people, some intersex people, as well as trans people at varying points in transition. Italy tried to solve the problem with a specialist trans prison unit. America is considering the same. Rather than 23hrs solitary which is cruel and inhuman, care and planning needs to go into how to house people who do not confirm for their safety. Prisoners still have human rights even if some civil rights are suspended. Trans people also need to be able to have the conversation with some feminists that also argue a pre-op trans may present a risk to a female prison population, or even if no risk, still present an issue. Indeed, the trans person may still be at risk there.