Mistaken Identity

These are dark days for Goths, who say it's wrong to tie them to school violence

The Boston Globe/October 14, 2004
By Emily Sweeney

Sixteen-year-old Sonya Feinn usually wears black clothes, thick eyeliner, and dark lipstick. She listens to Sisters of Mercy and Nine Inch Nails. She is accustomed to people glaring at her Gothic-inspired outfits, so she wasn't surprised when journalists described a Marshfield teen accused of plotting a school shooting as a Goth.

"I've rarely seen Gothic figures portrayed in a good light in the news, the media, and the movies," Feinn said. "We get such a bad rap."

In middle school, Feinn's classmates called her a "Satan worshiper" because she wore dark clothes. Ironically, Feinn left that public school to attend an all-girls Catholic high school in Wakefield that requires school uniforms.

More recently, Feinn's high school classmates gave her friend Mike the nickname "Columbine" because he wears long trenchcoats -- an innocuous article of clothing that became synonymous with school shootings five years ago.

Those notorious long coats and the term "Goth" made headlines in 1999 when two Colorado teens attacked their high school, shooting to death students and teachers. Authorities initially described the gunmen as Goths, because they often wore black clothes to school and dubbed themselves "The Trenchcoat Mafia." Media coverage of the Columbine High School massacre thrust Gothic subculture into the national spotlight, and almost overnight the G-word became inextricably linked to school violence, even though the Columbine killers shared no attributes found in the Goth subculture, with the exception of dark clothing. Flash forward to this month, when once again the media quickly classified a troubled teen as a Goth. When police in Marshfield announced they had arrested a 16-year-old for allegedly plotting a school shooting, TV broadcasts and newspaper articles called the suspect a "Goth" and referred to another student there as a "skinhead." Friends of the Marshfield High suspect say he doesn't consider himself to be Goth.

These recent news reports bothered Goths such as Basim Usmani, a 21-year-old college student from Lexington. Usmani read with concern about the hit list and homemade bomb allegedly built in Marshfield, but wondered why the style of the suspect's clothes was reported as a significant fact in the story.

"There's no relevance at all. Music and fashion have little to do in violence in school," said Usmani. "There's no violence in [the Goth] subculture."

The Goth subculture is not the first youth movement to be misunderstood by the general public. Skinheads have been stereotyped for decades. Because news reports and TV shows typically portray skinheads as racists or neo-Nazis, many people are unaware that the traditional skinhead culture that began in the late 1960s had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with working-class pride. This holds true today. There are skinheads of all ethnicities, gay and straight, and organized groups of SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) that span the globe.

"Just because you have a shaved head and listen to Oi [a form of punk music popular with skinheads], does that mean you're a neo-Nazi?" Usmani asked rhetorically. "Shaving your head and dressing in black is not evidence of racism or violent action. The public looks for easy answers."

Gothic subculture surfaced in Britain during the 1970s as an offshoot of punk. Fans drawn to the haunting music of bands such as the Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie & the Banshees dressed in black clothes and wore dramatic makeup like the musicians. Cemeteries, gargoyles, vampires, and castles -- all of those stereotypical Goth elements from Gothic literature of the 19th century and old horror films -- influenced the sounds and fashion of the early Goth scene, such as the 1979 Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead."

Over time, the Goth movement has evolved into different styles. Some Goths emulate fashion from Victorian and Edwardian eras, while "cybergoths" get decked out in bright makeup and neon outfits, swinging glowsticks to the faster beats of industrial music. The darker elements of the Goth scene are usually used in a tongue-in-cheek way. At ManRay nightclub in Cambridge, Goth nights have included comedy skits onstage, and quirky events such as the Miss Gothic Massachusetts pageant.

"Subcultures like Goth are easy targets, instead of addressing the real reasons, like overworked teachers and lack of guidance and good parenting as the root cause of violence in school among adolescents," Usmani said. "That's what we need to look at, the more serious root causes [of school violence]."

Experts tend to agree. Goths are no more likely to lash out than any other group, according to Daniel J. Monti, a sociology professor at Boston University. "I think it's simpleminded on the part of people to pay so much attention to one particular set of students because of the way they look and the way they dress," Monti said.

Usmani, who sings in a Goth band called Malice in Leatherland, has been involved in the Goth scene since he moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1998.

As a student at Lexington High School, Usmani wore a black leather jacket and long hair, and hung out at coffee shops with friends who were open-minded, artistic, vegan, and enjoyed similar music that could be classified as Goth.

Life wasn't easy for him and his darkly dressed cohorts at Lexington High. Classmates would call them homophobic slurs and throw empty plastic bottles at their heads. "To be a guy dyeing your hair black and wearing makeup, you were under constant scrutiny by your peers," said Usmani. "You couldn't walk around town with black dyed hair and eyeliner without being profiled by shopping clerks or having a couple of kids try to start with you." Usmani added, "After Columbine, [Goth] kids were put on the spot more than before."

Feinn has grown accustomed to being scrutinized because of her self-expression. She said her outfits usually draw interesting reactions from passersby. She recently walked into a bagel shop in her hometown of Reading and witnessed a young mother try to shade her child's eyes from looking at Feinn's Goth outfit. In middle school, her classmates called her devil worshiper, or referred to her as Satan.

"I was treated so badly [in middle school]," Feinn said. "People in this town aren't comfortable with [Goths]."

She finally decided to leave the Reading public schools and attend her high school, where, thanks to the required uniforms, "no one can judge you on what you wear."

"I don't think it would be a higher statistic for Goth people to do a school shooting than say, preppies. But it's sort of portrayed that way," said Feinn. "The Goth girl is the sad, angry one who writes bad poetry and wants to blow up the school." And Goths aren't all alike, said Feinn, whose musical tastes are not limited to Goth and industrial music. Her CD collection includes Sneaker Pimps, the Dresden Dolls, and trip-hop acts.

Her mother, Deborah, dislikes hearing media reports that seem to correlate violent incidents with one group, especially the one her daughter identifies with. Her daughter's affinity for dark clothes and Goth music has opened her eyes to a different subculture, she said. "It's made me a lot more tolerant," she said. "I know my daughter. Regardless of how she dresses, I know she's a good kid."

She is also keenly aware of the public perception of Goths. She experienced it firsthand one day when she met with a friend who hadn't seen Sonya in years. Deborah's friend glanced at Sonya with disapproval before realizing who she was. "I saw the look he gave her," Feinn said. "I know too many Goth people who are just nice regular people, not troublemakers. Just because they're wearing black doesn't necessarily translate to anything mean-spirited or sinister."

Though many Goths are perceived as outcasts and loners, the Goth scene is actually a thriving community of friends, according to Eloni Feliciano, founder of the Miss Gothic Massachusetts pageant, an annual event that celebrates the lighter side of Boston's Goth scene.

"I have never considered the scene to be a gateway to violence against my peers. In fact, quite the opposite -- I always felt that the scene was a cohesive community that gave me support during tough times," said Feliciano, a New York native who lives in Allston. "The Goth community itself is more like Jack Skellington from `A Nightmare Before Christmas' -- gentle, inquisitive, and a little odd. That is the heart of the Goth scene."

Acara, a 14-year-old high school student in Westfield who asked that her last name not be published, said she hates the anti-Goth stereotypes "with a passion." "I find it upsetting that people blame all the school shootings on `Goths' or `freaks' or anyone who dresses differently," she said. "I just don't like how `Goths' are blamed for everything. I dress this way because I feel comfortable in the clothes. I don't like tight clothing; I never really did. I always wore baggy dark clothing, or hand-[me]-downs from my brother."

The recent arrest of Tobin Kerns, a Marshfield High junior, put black clothing back in the news and illustrated that misconceptions about Goths linger. When police announced the arrest last week, reporters and TV camera crews descended upon Marshfield, determined to find out who Kerns is. And the media inaccurately portrayed Kerns as a Goth, according to some of his friends.

Kerns dresses in dark clothes but would not describe himself as Goth, said his friend Nikki Keating. His taste in music ranges from metal bands such as Slipknot to punk from Green Day and the rap-metal of Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse. "He wore a lot of black clothing, but it had nothing to do with anything in particular," said Keating, 17. "He wasn't much for the labels."

Other students mistakenly described Kerns as a Goth to journalists, Keating said. Not many Goths can be found in Marshfield; the punk scene has more of a presence there, she said.

Sean Kelliher, 15, says there is a "small group" of Goth kids at Marshfield High. Kelliher, a sophomore, is not Goth; he sports a mohawk and wears sweatshirts with patches of 1980s punk bands Minor Threat and the Misfits. "I try not to label people," said Kelliher.

Fifteen-year-old Cyrena Upton of Lynn said she feels the same way. "Honestly, I think it's easier to blame the outcast of a social group than it is to blame anyone else, because they're different," said Upton. "For the media, for mothers and fathers, it's just easier to blame someone else." Upton, a sophomore at Lynn Vocational Technical Institute, refuses to be defined by one category of music or clothes.

"Some people would describe me as Goth, but I prefer not being labeled," she said, "because [labels] are stupid."

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