Goth hate: a crime against fashion?

goth imageFashion is many things: the ‘birth-child of art’, a medium of self-expression and identification, and an instrument of provocation. To provoke is a powerful thing. The suffragettes provoked change whilst wearing purple, white and green to symbolise freedom and dignity, purity and hope. The hippie legacy, in all of its bare-breasted and psychedelic glory, provoked greater religious and cultural diversity. And in 2007, Sophie Lancaster’s identification with gothic subculture ‘provoked’ a gang of teenagers to beat her to death.

The murder of Sophie Lancaster led to an online petition to urge the Prime Minister to broaden the definition of ‘hate crime’ to include crimes committed against a person or persons on the basis of their appearance or subcultural interests. Currently, ‘hate crime’ is defined by English law as a criminal offence committed against a person or property that is motivated by hostility towards someone based on their disability, race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. However, in Manchester as of April 2013 the definition of ‘hate crime’ has been expanded to encompass alternative subcultures, namely those who identify as goths, punks, emos and metallers.

Writing for The Telegraph, Jenny McCartney has commented that this move risks penalizing those victims who do not fall squarely into the particular categories. Instead, she argues that we should abolish the existing ‘hate crime’ categories “because whatever motive criminals have when they rob, harass, hurt or murder any of their victims, it certainly isn’t done with love”. It is true that identifying the subculture to which an individual belongs is a similar task to guessing what underwear your tutor is wearing. At times it may be obvious – the ancient history tutor who almost definitely sports pressed white Y-fronts does in fact sport pressed white Y-fronts – but what about the tutor who you want to say invests in good old M&S but who just may have a Victoria’s Secret of her own? There is no mechanical formulation to determine whether an individual is a goth, a punk, an emo or a metaller, and if we cannot say for sure then how can we justify the arbitrary two-tier system of justice that this creates for victims of crime? To adopt such limited categories is contrary to the original thrust of the campaign led by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation: this is not about labels; it is about being different. To be different is to defy this orthodox tendency to pigeon-hole individuals, separating them off and lumping them into categories.

But this is not a case for abandoning the hate crime categories – if anything, it is ammunition for the argument that the categories should be broadened. If we conceive hate crime not in its literal sense as Jenny McCartney does but as an offence in which the criminal’s primary motivation is prejudice as to the identity of the victim, we can perhaps shed fresh light on the debate. This is not just about the lager-swilling, tracksuit-wearing yob in the street. This is about your parents, your grandparents, and your friends – anyone who has ever harboured discriminatory feelings, whether manifested externally or not, towards those who proudly identify with alternative subcultures and express this through their choice of clothing, music and appearance. It is subcultures in their purest form that play a vital role in informing and moulding the fashions that we see paraded on the catwalk. Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen are indebted to gothic subculture, channelling ‘haute goth’ through their collections. As for punk, well, punk didn’t die – it just headed for the catwalk, writes Susan Irvine in Vogue. Subcultures in fashion are part of the fabric of society and the conservative prejudices against these groups are out-dated, the residue of an intolerant and intolerable past.

It remains to be seen whether this initiative to have UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from alternative subcultures, championed by the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, will be woven in to local public policy in other parts of the country and eventually passed as legislation. As for the defined categories adopted by the Greater Manchester police, do we say thus far and no further? Or do we accept that any act of crime for which the criminal’s primary motivation is prejudice as to the identity of the victim calls for our moral compass to bite and push for more stringent sentencing? Either way, Sophie Lancaster’s identification with gothic culture did far more than ’provoke’ a gang of teenagers to beat her to death; she also provoked change.

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