By: Simon Price of The Guardian
From emo kids to metallers, young people should be free to express themselves without fear of assault. I should know – I call myself a recovering goth, but I still get abuse on the streets of Brighton
Sophie Lancaster was murdered in 2007. Greater Manchester police has begun recording offences against members of alternative subcultures as hate crimes. Photograph: Lancashire Police/PA
When is a goth not a goth? The politics of nomenclatures and epithets, when it comes to youth culture, are fraught: people who have consciously separated themselves from the mainstream are understandably wary of accepting any label, especially one given to them by the media. "How do you spot a goth?" the old joke used to run. "They'll swear they're not a goth," was the punchline. The logic of the witches' ducking stool applied: you were damned if you did, damned if you didn't (and probably a fan of the Damned, either way).
These days, if anyone asks, I tend to say I'm a "recovering goth". My own gothic period was 1986-1993, and I seldom participate in the subculture itself any more, but certain habits still linger: I'm reluctant to leave the house without full makeup and carefully spiked hair, I have a tendency to dress entirely in black, and retain an undying fondness for the gloomy alternative rock of the 80s.
Siouxsie and the Banshees: goth's post-punk beginnings. Photograph: Stevenson/Rex Features
The goth scene emerged from the arty end of the post-punk fallout, when a gaggle of stray Blitz kids decamped to the Batcave Club and began listening to, and subsequently making, dark, doomy music whose primary obsessions were sex, death, decadence, horror and the mysteries of the occult. Early bands described as "goth" – though hardly ever by themselves – included Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, the Birthday Party, the Cure, Killing Joke, the Cult and the Sisters of Mercy.
Goth, with its twin capitals of Soho-Camden and Leeds-Bradford, became one of Britain's biggest youth tribes, and the goth look – big, backcombed black hair, ghostly white skin, scarlet lipstick, heavy eyeliner, lace, buckles and PVC – became an easy cultural identifier. By the early 90s, however, it had run out of steam, overshadowed by new crazes such as acid house, Madchester, grunge and Britpop. In the UK, the scene went underground, but was kept alive – or undead – by enclaves in Europe (where it turned electronic) and America (where it went metallic).
Marilyn Manson: goth revival. Photograph: Ferdy Damman/EPA
A full-scale revival occurred at the turn of the millennium, arguably powered by two forces: the global success of Marilyn Manson, and the existence of the internet. This time around, the dandyish look of the 80s had lost favour, and for male goths, long hair and trenchcoats had replaced mega-quiffs and frilly shirts, making them almost indistinguishable from (traditionally more masculine) metallers.
Meanwhile, a relatively new scene – emo – had arrived. Originally a minor subdivision of American hardcore punk, emo became a worldwide phenomenon, as bands including My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco and Paramore welded pained teenage angst to urgent pop-punk melodies. Older goths tend to view shopping-mall emo kids, with their smudged eyeliner and dyed hair, as merely "baby goths".
Paramore: 'Teenage angst with urgent pop-punk melodies.'
And, while there are dozens of even smaller subgenres, from cybergoth to screamo to steampunk, there's no doubt that the distinctions between the four main tribes identified by Greater Manchester police – goths, punks, emos, metallers – are now extremely blurred to the untrained eye, with significant crossover between them.
We should be grateful for the enlightened approach of Greater Manchester police in recognising attacks on members of these subcultures as hate crimes. The authorities cannot always be counted on to be so kind. In the late 80s, at the height of my goth phase, I spent a year in Paris, where the mayor Jacques Chirac had ordered a crackdown on punks, goths and other undesirables as we were allegedly scaring off the tourists. (It didn't occur to him that we were the tourists.)
I was regularly subjected to public humiliation by Parisian gendarmes who forced me to empty my shoulderbag on to the pavement of Place Saint-Michel, on the assumption that anyone who looked like me had to be hiding something (whether drugs or weapons). On one occasion, four flics leapt from a patrol car, threw me against the wall and interrogated me at gunpoint. My crime? Painting my nails as I walked down the street. On other occasions, I've been ejected from tourist attractions including Westminster Abbey, Les Invalides and the Pantheon because of my appearance.
If British police are beginning to view goths and other outsider cults as victims rather than perpetrators, that can only be a positive step. Thankfully, incidents as horrific as the murder of Sophie Lancaster are extremely rare, in this country at least (though the attacks on Mexico's emo kids in 2008 made worldwide headlines). However, low-level smalltown violence and aggression against members of the alternative subculture from "townies", "casuals" or "normals" (let's steer clear of the politically charged c-word) is common, and invariably goes unreported.
I'm frequently subjected to abuse – mostly verbal, but sometimes with an edge of physical menace – for looking like a "freak", even in a town as bohemian and liberal as Brighton. Only the other day I was confronted by a tracksuited man armed with a Staffordshire bull terrier, hell-bent on having a fight because he took exception to my appearance. I'm also frequently the target of homophobic insults, regardless of my actual sexuality.
Of course, tribe-on-tribe violence is nothing new: punks were targeted by teddy boys in the 70s (with Johnny Rotten famously receiving a brutal beating), and I grew up witnessing pitched battles between mods and skinheads at the seaside resort of Barry Island (themselves a re-enactment of the mods v rockers wars of the 1960s).
Goths, however, have tended to steer clear of trouble. Despite their often extreme appearance and their liking for gore and violent imagery, goths are usually quiet, peaceful types and, aside from a couple of Whitby weekenders a year, seldom gather in large enough numbers to defend themselves. An easy target.
Greater Manchester police's new policy recognises the specific crime of assaulting someone not for something that they've done, but for something that they are. Whatever you choose to call it.