“I think people are born bisexual, and it’s just that our parents and society kind of veer us off into this feeling of ‘Oh, I can’t’. They say it’s taboo. It’s ingrained in our heads that it’s bad, when it’s not bad at all. It’s a very beautiful thing.” In 1995, Green Day’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong came out as bisexual in the height of the band’s popularity. In the process, he made an excellent commentary on the division between the generations of intolerant adults wanting to keep the status quo and children ready to move forward towards equality.
The sexual politics of the 1990s were very troubled. Many LGBT+ people were still working towards prioritizing finding a cure for AIDS, which, even after a spike in reported cases, was still ignored by many American politicians. Michael Stipe of R.E.M made newspaper headlines by simply wearing a hat that read “White House Stop AIDS” at a 1992 performance in the peak of R.E.M’s popularity.
Much of the American populous was ready to move towards equality for the queer community, removing all laws that may hinder the day to day life of any LGBT+ person, but politicians and homophobes stood in the way of a lot of progress.
In October 1998, openly gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was “beaten into a coma and tied to a fence”, and was only discovered after 18 hours. He died several days later, never awakening from his coma induced by trauma. This shocked the United States, but didn’t come as a surprise to many queer people facing homophobia on a day to day basis.
In 1996, American politician Newt Gingrich introduced the Defense of Marriage Act, colloquially referred to as DOMA. DOMA would ban same-sex marriage, and was rushed through American legislature and passed in September 1996. Many of the politicians behind the Defense of Marriage Act were ironically revealed to be having affairs at the time of the bill’s passing.
Though the 1990s were not as open and accepting as the changing times in the 1980s, there were still plenty of queer musicians at the time. According to Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain “made out with every guy in Seattle”. Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney is in her own words“openly gay”. Ricky Martin of Livin’ La Vida Loca fame. Lance Bass of the popular boy band N’Sync. Michael Stipe of R.E.M. All gay, though, neither Martin, Bass, Brownstein, nor Stipe came out until after the height of their popularity.
This fact may have said something about the shifting political climate throughout the 20th century. Though the 70s and 80s seemed to be looking towards a more open future, the anti-Gay politics and mindset returned throughout the 1990s, highlighted by DOMA and the murder of Matthew Shepard.
As I began planning this series of retrospectives, I thought about the 1990s in terms of music and the LGBT community. As I contemplated what to put in this article, I would be absolutely remiss as a musician and actor if I did not mention 1994’s Rent. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohéme, Rent tells the story of struggling artists in New York’s East Village and their fight with the AIDS virus.
A very true to life representation of the issues faced by those with HIV/AIDS, Rent’s popularity opened the eyes of many to the reasons why the fight to cure AIDS was so important to so many people. Rent went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the Tony for Best Musical in 1996. The importance of Rent lies in its representation of life with the AIDS virus, and its popularity amongst a general audience only helped to shift public opinion of the importance of the disease.
In every fight for equality, there are steps forward and steps back. The 1970s and 1980s can be seen as steps forward, and in many ways, the 1990s can be seen as steps back. The freedom of expression of the 1980s slowly disappeared as the 90s went on, and more intolerance began to sprout up as the LGBT+ community continued to fight for political equality. Though things would once again change in the new millennium, the queer community still had a long way to go to find itself where it is today.