Attacks against goths, punks, emo kids, metallers and other followers of alternative music scenes will be recorded as hate crimes by Manchester Police.
The move has been hailed by campaigners as a much needed drive to tackle a form of prejudice that causes misery to thousands every year but rarely receives much attention.
It is the first time a British police force has classed attacks on subcultures with the same seriousness as offences against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.
The change means victims of a crime who believe they were specifically targeted because of the way they dress will receive special support from the police. However courts and judges will be unable to impose harsher sentences on perpetrators because that would require legislative change.
Senior officers at Manchester have been working closely with the mother of Sophie Lancaster, a 20-year-old Lancashire student who was viciously beaten to death by a gang of teenagers after they took exception to her dreadlocks and piercings. Following her daughter’s murder, Sylvia Lancaster later set up the Sophie Lancaster Foundation which campaigns for better protections in law for members of subcultures.
The announcement was widely praised by “alt scene” followers, many of whom regularly have to run a gauntlet of abuse – from the verbal to physical – purely because of the way they choose to look. David McComb, editor of Bizarre magazine, told The Independent: “It’s fantastic news. It seems ridiculous to me someone would attack someone purely because of the way they look or how they dress. But sadly it’s not a rarity.”
He added: “This is not the end of the story. It’s one small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Anyone who doubted whether goths, punks, emos and metallers faced abuse needed only to pick up a copy of Bizarre in the two years following Sophie murder in 2007. Each month they ran a regular two page slot in memory of Sophie asking readers to describe the kind of vitriol they faced. Replies flooded in, ranging from shouts of abuse to being spat at and physical assaults. Many remarked that if such attacks were targeted against a religious or racial community they would have caused widespread public revulsion and a much firmer policing response.
Xander Dodd, a 28-year-old from Coventry currently sporting pink hair, facial piercings and tattoos, told The Independent he had been physically attacked twice because of the way he looks. “The abuse becomes a day to day thing,” he said. “You don’t go out to certain places at certain times because if you do you’re an easy target. It should not be acceptable to abuse or threaten someone because they look differently.”
Emma Lake, a 32-year-old retail manager from Camden, north London, who has sleeve tattoos, a chest piece and facial piercings, said abuse was common while growing up in Liverpool and could cause real damage to teenagers especially.
“Nowadays I tend to head out to places where it’s socially accepted to look the way I do but it’s very hard when you’re 15 or 16 and have nowhere else to go,” she said. Her employers – the Office shoe chain – have no issue with how she dresses but she believes companies that refuse to hire those who adopt a subculture lifestyle also help reinforce wider prejudices.
“Obviously we choose to dress the way we do and I chose to adorn my body but there are parallels with religion,” she said. “People chose a religion but you wouldn’t discriminate against someone because they choose to worship a certain way or dress differently. The fact I chose to appear in a certain way shouldn’t count against me.”
Liverpool resident Louise Street, 34, manager of a football team for goth girls, said she hoped Manchester’s initiative would be adopted by other forces. “I’d love to see the rest of the country follow suit, because Manchester isn’t the only place this happens,” she said. “If the police worked together, they might understand the amount of hate crime against goths and emos.”
Johna Curtis a 30-year-old shop worker from Manchester, who describes his look as "very borderline transvestite," said he has been a victim of bullying all of his life.
"It started getting significantly worse when I started dressing in a gothic style when I was 14. I got beaten up every day in lessons at school and the teachers wouldn’t do anything.
"I got attacked at a fairground by 14 lads once. I had my face kicked in and I was severely injured. Every time I see gangs of young men I have to cross the road. I do everything I can to avoid them. "
Mr Curtis welcomed the move by Manchester Police, but also feared that people could exploit the new classifications.
"Just because they’re a goth it doesn’t mean they can’t provoke people," he said.
"Obviously most attacks on goths are going to be based on their appearance but they’re not all saints.
"It’s good that there’s more protection for people like us but I don’t know if it will change anything to be honest.
"I think there’ll always be hate. There’ll always be racism, there’ll always be sexism. There’ll always be people who want to beat up men who wear makeup. In 50 years it will be the same I think. It’s a sad thing to say but I reckon there will always be prejudice of one form or another."