By Jacqueline Grima
In August 2007, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, a bright, book-loving student and her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, were attacked by a gang of teenage youths in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. The primary motive for the attack appeared to be that Sophie and Rob enjoyed dressing alternatively, both dying their hair, wearing piercings and generally associating themselves with ‘gothic’ culture. Their injuries were so severe that paramedics arriving at the scene had difficulty telling the couple apart and, days later, Sophie died in hospital. All of the offenders involved were subsequently tried and jailed for their varying roles in the attack.
This week, Sophie’s mother, Sylvia Lancaster, came to Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) for the final event of the ‘Contesting Youth’ strand of the Humanities in Public festival. Organised by the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, in her moving talk, Sylvia, a youth worker for 30 years, spoke frankly and honestly about the days surrounding her daughter’s death before going on to discuss the charity she subsequently founded to honour Sophie’s name.
The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, S.O.P.H.I.E standing for Stamp Out Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere, works in schools and young offenders’ institutions to teach youngsters that it is never okay to abuse, insult or harass anyone because of the way they dress. It is also their aim to prevent youngsters from stereotyping ‘goths’ and ‘emos’ as drug addicts, troublemakers or even Satanists. Asked about the importance of getting this message across, Sylvia said,
“I think it’s massively important. We go into lots of different schools, both primary and secondary, and it’s shocking to hear the attitudes young people have towards people who choose to dress alternatively. What I say to people is, people choose to dress like that because it’s their right to do so. They have a right to be who they are, they have right to stand up and show that and it’s not okay to abuse them for that in any way, shape or form. It’s morally not right to do that.”
As part of the S.O.P.H.I.E campaign, Sylvia is also aiming for the abuse of what the charity calls ‘alternative subcultures,’ to be recognised as a hate crime. Current legislation regarding hate crime recognises it as having five forms, namely any abuse that is primarily motivated by a person’s race, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation. Sylvia would like this to change, believing that safer communities would be created if the abuse of anyone because of the way they dress or the music they listen to is officially classed as a hate crime. As the presiding judge at the trial of Sophie’s killers, Anthony Russell QC commented that this incident was “a hate crime equal to all others.” Sylvia told Humanity Hallows,
“I am part of the government’s Hate Crime Advisory Board and it’s obvious, at the minute, that this kind of crime isn’t taken as seriously as other hate crimes but, in my head, discrimination is discrimination no matter what the reason. This is no different from racism, homophobia or abuse due to disability. One of the problems is that the numbers of these kind of crimes are not as high due to under-reporting. If alternative subcultures were treated with more respect, then they would have more courage to come forward. They shouldn’t think they have to put up with this treatment.”
As a result of the charity’s campaigning, Greater Manchester Police became the first police force in the UK to begin to monitor and record incidents of hate crime towards alternative subcultures, with other forces around the country now following suit.
Next month, the charity, co-run by Campaign Manager Kate Conboy-Greenwood, will be releasing a film portraying the events surrounding Sophie’s death. Black Roses, made in collaboration with poet, Simon Armitage, and starring Coronation Street actress, Julie Hesmondhalgh, will premiere at the Dancehouse theatre on Oxford Road, Manchester on Sunday 10th May.