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Eight Years After Sophie Lancaster's Death, Have We Really Learned Anything About Tolerance?

Goth may be cool now, but people can still be dicks to those who look "different."
24 august 2015, 8:39pm

Photo by Robert Maltby

Eight years ago this month, a 20-year-old woman named Sophie Lancaster was savagely beaten to death in a park in Northwest England by a group of young men she'd never met before. Her crime? Trying to shield her longtime boyfriend, Robert Maltby, from their heavy blows, and dressing in a way that the attackers apparently deemed unacceptable.

Sophie identified as a goth; photos of her show a rosy face studded with lip piercings and framed by black-and-red synthetic dreads. Her killers referred to her and her partner as "moshers," which came to light during the trial when it was stated that said attackers told their friends afterwards that "there's two moshers nearly dead up Bacup park. You wanna see them, they're a right mess." The majority of her killers are serving life sentences in prison, but Sophie is still gone, and for one of the oldest and stupidest reasons that a person can find their life stolen from them: She didn't look like them. As the tagline on the Sophie Lancaster Foundation website says, she was quite simply and senselessly "kicked to death for being different."

To look at photos of Sophie now is to see the face of any teenager who lives within fifteen miles of a Cyberdog and feels alienated by the kids at school who live for PE. She's not kitted out in taffeta and lace like a Victorian ghost, or clad in complicated neon cybergoth tubes. She doesn't look shocking, or really, all that atypical, at least in a time when you'd be hard-pressed to walk down the street in any given city without seeing at least one person sporting tattoos or turquoise hair. Sophie looked like a normal girl who liked to wear black clothes and play around with her hair—how many people can you think of right now who fit that description? When she and her boyfriend were attacked, he was wearing a green hoodie and blue jeans; in an interview Maltby gave to Vice after the attack, he chalked it up to a group of violent youths seeing them and looking for a reason, any reason, to smash them up—it was just convenient for them to shout out, "Let's get the moshers!" as a validification of their murderous actions. Maltby sustained lasting brain damage from the attack; thirteen days after her body was found in the park, Sophie was taken off life support.

There was a huge amount of support for Sophie in the media as well as in the goth and alternative communities especially—Bloodstock, a massive UK metal fest that named a stage in her honor. Her mother, Sylvia, started the Sophie Lancaster Foundation to honor her memory as well as work towards the stated goals of providing educational group-works that will challenge the prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures, and campaigning to have the UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from alternative subcultures. So far, they've been successful; a few years after Sophie's murder, Greater Manchester has begun recording offenses committed against goths and other alternative groups as hate crimes, grouping them under the same umbrella as crimes associated with race, disability, and sexual orientation. Sylvia Lancaster continues to fight for nationwide recognition of her cause, hoping to help members of alternative subcultures gain "equal status" with other minorities. It must be noted that the social struggles faced by those who choose to dress in any kind of alternative or "weird" fashion pale considerably against those faced by people of colour and in the LGBT community, but when society reaches a point when an unarmed young woman has her head bashed in by a mob of strangers who targeted her based on her mode of dress, the words "hate crime" do feel rather appropriate.

Image via Etsy

Now, in 2015, 8 years after Sophie's battered body was laid to rest, goth is cool. Look at the runways, look at the boutiques, look at H&M, look at Instagram—hell, look at Pitchfork—to see just how much this formerly maligned, batty subculture has blossomed into a hip, au courant identity. Etsy witches with artisanal moonstone jewelry and Stevie Nicks capes are everywhere; tiny animal skulls swing from earlobes emerging from beneath perfectly-styled undercuts from Brooklyn to Tokyo, Morissey and Robert Smith are worshipped like gods, and fucking everyone and their sister's got at least one pair of spooky Black Milk leggings to pair with their black-and-silver leather booties. Looking witchy and goth has never been more socially acceptable, and most of its new acolytes flit in and out of the fashion at will, ignoring its subcultural history and stories like Sophie's in favor of structured black harnesses and raven's claw necklaces.

Of course, no matter how cool or socially acceptable goth (and goth-lite) fashion becomes, there are still going to be people who think it's awful, or lame, or ugly, and that the people who enjoy it are one or all of those three things. Just today, on the 8th anniversary of Sophie's death, one of the organizers of a Manchester-based metal gig promotion company faced a massive outcry when he and a few others made some especially disgusting, heartless remarks about Sophie that I'll refrain from printing here out of respect for the dead (you can see the conversation in all its hateful glory here). He's since apologized, as one would hope, but it was disheartening to see someone still jumping to bully Sophie even now, when she's just a memory. If even the weirdos can't stick together, what hope is there for any of us?

Learn more about The Sophie Lancaster Foundation here.