Acceptance, Not Tolerance: The Legacy Of Sophie Lancaster

This article was originally published at MEDIA BLASPHEMY in August 2012.

On a warm summer’s night in a rural village in Lancashire, a young couple were savagely beaten simply because of the way they looked.  When Robert Maltby, then 21, was attacked in Bacup’s Stubbylee Park, his girlfriend, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster tried in vain to protect him.

Whilst Rob would recover, albeit with long-term side effects, Sophie died in hospital on August 24th2007: thirteen days after the attack which had sent shockwaves throughout the media. International news reports and a tidal wave of grief followed, which brought to the fore a previously ignored form of hate crime.

What emerged in the aftermath was that the couple, long part of the local goth scene, had been targeted because of their outward appearance alone. Maltby’s brightly dyed hair, Lancaster’s dreadlocks and their combined piercings had attracted attention from a gang of youths who later boasted to witnesses: “There’s two moshers nearly dead up Bacup park. You wanna see them. They’re a right mess.”

Five years on, the effect of Sophie’s death is still being felt throughout the alternative community and, crucially, in government – with a revised action plan for hate crime legislation produced in March 2012 citing the work of The Sophie Lancaster Foundation as a major contributor to the new strategy.

Set up as a registered charity in 2009 by Lancaster’s mother, Sylvia, the foundation’s cottage-industry approach to charitable campaigning – it operates with just three full time staff members: Lancaster, Kate Conboy-Greenwood and Sophie’s childhood friend Stacey Elder – aims to challenge attitudes which led to Sophie’s murder.

Working from an office in the picturesque village of Haslingden, Lancashire, today Sylvia is as determined as ever. “Time make me more determined,” she explains. “For the first couple of years you cry at anything and everything.”

“That recedes slightly, because you realise you’re not going to see them again. I think you’d be incapable of doing anything otherwise. I get more bolshy and stroppy, but that’s how you’ve got to be to do what you’ve got to do.”

Nationwide, reports of attacks on goths before and since the attack on Rob and Sophie have been sporadic at best. In 2008, an attack on student Paul Gibbs and friends in Leeds lost him an ear. More recently, in November 2011, a couple were attacked boarding a tram in Bury last year.

Sylvia believes that one of the main issues the Foundation has faced is convincing people that attacks such as these are far from isolated incidents.

“The majority of people never come across it,” she explains. “People don’t have dealings with anyone from alternative sub-cultures, so can’t understand it. Part of the work we do is to get that message out there and say to people that attacks are more commonplace than it seems.”

According to Greater Manchester Police’s website, a hate crime is classed as any criminal offence driven by hostility or prejudice based on someone’s disability, transgender, race, sexual orientation, religion or belief. At present, this does not stretch to those from alternative sub-cultures, which goes some way to explaining The Foundation’s claims that seventy percent of those who contact them have experienced some form of hatred directed towards them, yet on the whole, it goes unreported or worse still, unnoticed.

Sylvia remembers a recent experience at a meeting with her assistant Stacey Elder. “I could tell she was being looked at the whole time,” she reveals. “Simply because of the way she was dressed. The saddest part of it is that I don’t think she even noticed. It’s just part of how we live, I guess. A lot of people accept it, which is frustrating. No-one should put up with that.”

It seems that for many, it is easier to move on than press for criminal proceedings. Sarah Taylor, 28 of Hull, has been a goth since her teenage years, and she and her husband, Matt, have both faced victimisation. She feels that in the past, they failed to report physical and verbal abuse as a coping mechanism.

“You just want to put it behind you as quickly as possible,” she explains. “It’s hard to do that when you have to confront it by reporting it and dealing with any follow-up, especially when there’s a possibility you won’t be seen as the purely innocent party.”

Whereas most hate crime victims can blame pre-determined specifics for their differences – be they race, gender or sexuality, those from alternative sub-cultures are seen as choosing their own fate. Fellow alternative, Kelly Wainwright, 27 of Bury, believes this is a crucial point.  “People are blamed for bringing it on themselves by the way they dress and the music they enjoy,” she states. “They feel humiliated and disregarded by members of the mainstream culture due to preconceived negative perceptions.”

Changes to the law, as suggested by the Home Office in March, may put an end to the belief that nothing can be done. Sylvia Lancaster was, she says, ‘blown away’ by the decision,  which hinged on proceedings in the trial of Sophie’s killers.

“Judge Antony Russell, who presided over Sophie’s case was mentioned,” she divulges, “because he said that what happened to her was a hate crime, which set a precedent in law.  Going forward, judges will be able to prosecute in similar situations under the hate crime legislation.  We can’t ask for any more than that, but we still need people to report attacks, because it gives us figures to work with.”

The Foundation’s action plan doesn’t end with legislation. Their primary focus now is on schools, colleges and workforces, promoting acceptance, not tolerance. “It’s funny,” Sylvia suggests, when the notion of tolerance is raised. “People use that phrase all of the time. It’s not about tolerating those who are different, in any walk of life.  It’s about saying:  We will celebrate you and your difference. We’re quite pro-active in saying that it’s so much more than toleration. There needs to be acceptance on both sides.”

This approach neatly addresses anyone who believes that revenge is a viable option.  Sylvia is keen to point out that her daughter is no martyr. “You’re only a martyr,” she points out, “if you chose that end for yourself.”

This stance has been embraced by the alternative community. The Foundation’s message has the backing of big names: from make-up company Illamasqua, who sell eyeliner named after Sophie; to heavy metal festival Bloodstock – who created The Sophie Lancaster Stage for their events in 2009.

And that’s not all. A string of concert events took place in the immediate aftermath of her death, including a headline set from cult goth-punk outfit The Damned, whilst regular events at the Whitby Gothic Weekend – a favourite destination for Lancaster – culminated in a bench being dedicated to her memory on the town’s West Cliff.  A t-shirt designed by Maltby was sold with support from hit band Enter Shikari and stars of Shameless and Coronation Street.  Alternative culture magazine Bizarre even introduced a regular column entitled ‘Proud To Be Different’ in honour of Sophie, focusing on its readers and their positive attitudes towards being unique.

“We certainly wouldn’t be where we are now if it hadn’t been for that support initially,” Sylvia explains. “We may have been preaching to the converted along the way, but the reality is that the converted are usually those who have put up with the intolerance and prejudice. They support us because they know that what we are saying is right. What’s happening now is that we’re moving more towards the mainstream, because that’s where we need to be.”

This move has gained a notable figurehead in the form of poet Simon Armitage, whose Radio 4 play about Sophie’s death entitled ‘Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster’ has earned high praise since it was first broadcast in 2011, including a win at the BBC Audio & Music Awards. Elsewhere, the Foundation’s focus is now primarily in the form of interactive workshops and training courses. Resources available include a short animated film – commissioned by Illimasqua and Propaganda to tell Sophie’s story, and featuring the haunting music of Portishead – and a game designed by international training firm Huthwaite International, in which thirty playing cards represent common ethnic, religious and social groups and subcultures, and players are set a series of tasks designed to challenge preconceptions.

The Foundation claims this encourages development in problem solving and team working skills, and are keen for the game to be used for more than just schoolchildren.  “It’s quite a simple idea,” Sylvia explains, “but done in a clever way.  We’ve had teachers and outside trainers looking at it and it’s really flexible. It can be used in lots of different ways, which wasn’t what we originally envisaged. It’s become more interactive than we ever thought, and the high-end design really sparks an interest. When it’s used by the right trainer its gets a fantastic response.”

If all of this feels pro-active, then Sylvia believes the Foundation is on the right path. “We’ve been quite reactive so far, because we’ve been so busy,” she explains. “Now it’s time for us to actually get out there and sell ourselves. We have the media profile, and it’s about time we took something back.  Though with only three staff members, we can only do what we can do, and I think people tend to forget that!”

Sylvia’s latest team member, Stacey Elder, is far from phased by the workload. A childhood friend of Sophie’s, she is adamant that this is the best thing she can be doing. “It’s amazing,” she enthuses. “Honestly, it’s not a job – it’s a pleasure.”

The pair are understandably still very much in touch with their memories of Sophie – a keen film buff, former record store worker and gap year student aiming to undertake an English degree when her life was taken. They are keen to keep her personality alive whilst her name becomes an increasingly large brand. They admit to being conscious of not revealing too much about her, keeping the use of her image to a minimum. Speaking to them, it is all too clear that their love for the friend and daughter they lost is as strong as ever, and they cannot help but muse on what might have been.

“There used to be a young lad on Coronation Street called Spider,” Sylvia remembers. “She used to be mad on him, and we used to laugh saying she’d bring someone home like him. I always thought she’d be an animal rights activist. I think she would have done something like this, and if there’s one positive to draw on, it’s that people do look to her now. It’s great that they see her story as something to remember and stop happening again.” She pauses for a moment, and smiles: “And what a wonderful legacy that is.”

For personal reasons, Robert Maltby declined to comment, but continues to support The Sophie Lancaster Foundation and gave this article his blessing.

INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL AUSTIN – STAR OF BLACK ROSES: THE KILLING OF SOPHIE LANCASTER

Hi Rachel, what can you tell us about your role in Black Roses.

My role in Black Roses was to tell Sophie’s life through beautiful poetry written by Simon Armitage. It was a challenge to capture elements of Sophie’s character but also trying to deliver the poems clearly. Alongside the poems, Sylvia; Sophie’s Mum spoke of her daughters life and the lead up to the attack. It was the saddest and yet most beautiful thing.

How much contact did you have with the Foundation?

Sylvia rang me once I had been given the part and we chatted for about an hour. It  was the saddest and yet most beautiful thing hearing Sylvia talk about Sophie.  We met at the recording and got on straight away.  The story and the Foundation have since become huge parts of my life.

Was it difficult to find Sophies character?

I didn’t intend to ‘play’ Sophie. I wanted to tell her story. I picked up on her zest for life and tried to put her vibrancy and colour into my voice.

Youre set to reprise the role on stage too…

Yes! I’m so proud.  It’s a powerful piece that has reached so many people.  It’s being adapted for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, starring Julie Hesmondalgh and myself.  Our first performance is in September, which is rather exciting!

How can Sophies memory be kept alive?

Spread the word & wear your S.O.P.H.I.E band… always.

For more information, head over to The Sophie Lancaster Foundation.

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About Paul Holmes

Editor of The Velvet Onion since 2010, I also work in arts marketing and digital content producing, writer for a few things, listen to a lot of vinyl and watch lots and lots of Doctor Who.

Posted on August 11, 2012, in Articles, Interviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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