Weirdo, Mosher, Freak: The Legacy of Sophie Lancaster

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This past Bank Holiday weekend marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Sophie Lancaster. In the early hours of Saturday 11th August 2007, Sophie was kicked and stamped into the coma from which she would never recover. Sophie was attacked along with her boyfriend Robert Maltby in a park in Bacup, Lancashire by three teenage boys who were heard abusing them for how they were dressed. The gang went for Rob first and, when Sophie tried to protect him, they turned on her too. Rob was also beaten into a coma but he survived, just barely. On 24th August, after doctors confirmed that she would never regain consciousness, Sophie’s family made the decision to turn off life support. She was 20 years old.

The violence of the unprovoked attack is as shocking now as it was then. Details released by Sophie’s mother Sylvia following her death stated that one of the attackers had stamped so hard on Sophie’s face that the imprint from the design on his shoelace was imbedded in her cheek. After she died, Sylvia released the now infamous photograph of Sophie taken in hospital after the attack. Bruised and swollen, with tubes in her mouth and nose, it is only her dreadlocked hair that identifies that girl as the slight, smiling young Sophie Lancaster from pictures taken before the attack. The photograph launched the story into the national press. Soon afterwards, Sylvia set up The Sophie Lancaster Foundation (S.O.P.H.I.E), and in 2009 the Foundation became a national registered charity, devoted to challenging prejudice and intolerance towards people from alternative subcultures.

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Seven years on, I still find Sophie’s death heartbreaking and the savagery of the attack on both Sophie and Rob incomprehensible. Like Sophie, I became immersed in alternative culture from a young age, identifying with the darkness and the drama of the music, clothing and art of the goth and metal scene. Dyed hair, heavy makeup, leather and fishnet, dog collars and big boots – I found self-expression in the creativity of dressing up, making and remaking myself and my image in a way that helped me make sense of who I was and how I felt comfortable in the world. There was the occasional bullying at school for how I looked but, thankfully, it never became serious. At college I met more people into the same music and at university I found an inclusive scene that embraced all kinds of alternative subcultures and lifestyles.

During that time I was lucky to get away with just verbal abuse and having the occasional object thrown at me (once, rather bizarrely, it was a mobile phone, launched hard at my head with a string of abuse from a passing car). Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Coming home from a rock club in the early hours of the morning with a group of friends, five or six years before Sophie’s death, one of them said that he would go the local 24-hour garage to pick up the obligatory post-club cigarettes and Pringles. The garage was less than a ten-minute walk away along a main road, a journey that all of us had made countless times before. When the front doorbell rang a short time later, I looked down the hallway and saw him rush into his bedroom at the front of the house. Then I heard his girlfriend scream. I walked into my friend’s bedroom to see his t-shirt pulled up and blood running down his side – a group of three strangers had attacked him on the way to the garage and one of them had stuck a knife in his back, just below his left shoulder blade. He said that the gang had started shouting abuse at him when he walked past them, mocking how he looked and calling him a ‘freak’, before jumping him. It was actually the long black leather duster coat which they mocked him for that had stopped the knife going in further and possibly saved his life.

Sobriety happened immediately. As a couple of friends took him to the hospital, I remember sitting on the stairs trying to process what had just happened and  being completely unable to comprehend how anyone could do something like that. How could someone possibly be incited to murderous rage because they don’t like or understand how another person chooses to dress? It’s one thing to hurl an insult (or a phone) but something else entirely to stick a knife into someone or, in Sophie and Rob’s case, jump up and down on their head until they lose consciousness. The gap between the two suddenly seemed terrifyingly small.

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Sylvia Lancaster speaking at Haslingden High School, Sophie’s high school, in 2014.

Sylvia and S.O.P.H.I.E (Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred & Intolerance Everywhere) have worked relentlessly since Sophie’s death to promote understanding and tolerance of alternative subcultures within schools and communities.  Working with Huthwaite International, the Foundation run educational workshops aimed at challenging the perceptions of young people about those around them who look differently and live alternative lifestyles. With the help of funding in 2009 from The Lancashire Criminal Justice Board, the Foundation was able to develop its range of teaching resources and training courses for teachers and youth workers. Sylvia frequently goes out into communities to talk about Sophie and regularly appears on television and in press interviews about the work of the charity and their fight against hate crime.

Along with education, the main cause of the Foundation is their campaign to have UK Hate Crime legislation extended to include people from alternative subcultures, lifestyles and dress codes. Sylvia is a member of the Hate Crime Advisory Board, working with a variety of organisations to help them shape their policies and procedures in relation to hate crime. In April 2013, Greater Manchester Police became the first UK police authority to add alternative subcultures to their list of monitored Hate Crimes, meaning that crimes such as the attack on Sophie and Rob will now be recorded as a crime in the same way as disability, racist, religious, sexual orientation and transgender hate crimes. Warwickshire Police followed suit in early 2014 and, in July this year, Sylvia and the Foundation’s campaign manager Kate Conboy-Greenwood met with Norman Baker MP, Minister of State for Crime Prevention, to discuss the under-reporting of hate crime and what can be done to support victims more effectively.

The alternative community continues to stand alongside Sylvia and the Foundation. In 2009 Bloodstock Festival renamed one of their stages The Sophie Lancaster stage and the Foundation frequently has stalls at music festivals and events across the country throughout the year, selling merchandise and providing information about their work. Lots of musicians and artists have shown their support for the charity in the press and by wearing official S.O.P.H.I.E wristbands. Earlier this month alternative band Bad Pollyanna released their official S.O.P.H.I.E. charity single ‘Invincible Girl’.

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Courtney Love wearing her official S.O.P.H.I.E wristband onstage in London.

International music merchandise retailer Backstreet Merch stock the official charity merchandise and cult UK make up brand Illamasqua donate £3 from each sale of their jet black S.O.P.H.I.E Eye Colouring Pencil to the Foundation. In 2009 Illamasqua also commissioned Dark Angel, a short, animated film about the attack featuring music by Portishead. The film premiered in Manchester and was shown on MTV to raise awareness of the work being carried out by the Foundation.

Support for S.O.P.H.I.E has also come from poetry, theatre and radio. In 2011, poet Simon Armitage wrote a collection called Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Ted Hughes Award for Poetry. The poems are spoken in the voice of Sophie, before, during and after her attack. Black Roses was performed as a BBC radio play, with the poems intercut with prose taken from Sylvia’s recollections about her daughter. In March this year, the Foundation, along with Goldblade’s John Robb and MP Kerry McCarthy held a Black Roses listening event followed by a discussion on Hate Crime in The House of Commons. That evening, Black Roses was performed at the Southbank Centre. The play was simple, powerful and devastating to watch – when it ended, the audience sat in silence for some time before a quiet applause began. Black Roses was followed with another Sophie-inspired radio play, Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster, earlier this year.

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Rachel Austin as Sophie and Julie Hesmondhaigh as Sylvia in Simon Armitage’s Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.

In a society where social media has pushed image to the forefront and is constantly giving us new ways to judge, hate and unite against each other, the work that S.O.P.H.I.E is doing, particularly with schools and youth groups, is as important now as it has ever been. In June this year, Sylvia Lancaster was awarded an OBE for her work over the last seven years towards a more tolerant and safe society for those people who are seen as ‘different’. Whereas there can be no doubt that she would prefer to have her daughter alive than to have the letters after her name, the recognition is well deserved and the legacy that she is building for Sophie is one that will hopefully make a real difference to the lives of many.

 

LINKS:

The Sophie Lancaster Foundation website (Registered Charity Number 1129689)

Donate to S.O.P.H.I.E by texting SOPH05 £, followed by the amount you wish to donate to 70070

Buy official S.O.P.H.I.E Charity merchandise here

S.O.P.H.I.E on Facebook

S.O.P.H.I.E on Twitter

Watch Illamasqua’s film Dark Angel here

Listen to ‘Invincible Girl’ by Bad Pollyanna here

Read about Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster here

Read about Porcelain: The Trial for the Killing of Sophie Lancaster here

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Medical research is not funded by selfies

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My facebook timeline was flooded with selfies this morning. Bare-faced, no-filter (ahem) selfies, posted by friends in the name of cancer awareness and asking others to do the same. In my usual bleary-eyed, early morning confusion I couldn’t understand why, on a social networking site where most of us scroll mindlessly through the interminable selfies of the people on our friends list every single day, another selfie would help cure cancer. By mid-morning (OK, by midday) I was more awake but still none the wiser.

A few years ago there was an unofficial facebook campaign intended to raise awareness about breast cancer – women were encouraging each other to post the colour of their bra in a veiled status update along the lines of ‘Red’ or ‘My favourite colour is black’ or whatever. The idea was that people would see this happening all over their timeline, would ask what it was all about and then the person who had posted the status would let them know that it was about promoting breast cancer awareness.

Quick and simple. Awareness spread. Warm feelings all round. Marvellous.

I received four of these covert inbox messages from women on my friends list, with an instruction about what to put in my status in order to pique people’s interest. However, only one of these private messages referenced raising awareness of breast cancer. The other three said that this was a fun joke intended to confuse men and generally ‘get some LOLs’. Similar campaigns happened over the next couple years – where do you keep your handbag? ‘I like it on the floor’, nudge nudge, wink wink. Again, the emphasis was on confusion and primarily the confusion of men. Yes, men get breast cancer too but how would a nonsensical status update about the colour of my bra help a guy find the information he needed about this, should he be concerned? Wouldn’t women reading the status updates be better served by a link to details of how to check their breasts for cancer? The intention was good but somewhere along the line the message had been lost.

That’s not to say that I think these campaigns were ultimately pointless – anything that gets people talking about cancer awareness is, of course, a good thing – but the lack of a direct link to a cause WILL lead to the dilution of the message. And cancer isn’t a saucy, suggestive, Carry On-style joke. In 2011 (the most recent official statistics available), 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK alone and 159,000 people died from cancer in the UK in the same year. Making a bewildering statement about the colour of my underwear just didn’t seem action enough to me.

Facebook has, perhaps inevitably, become a haven for pious armchair activism. The idea that if you ‘like/share if you agree’ then you are actually contributing to a cure for cancer or to the eradication of the fur farming industry or similar is as absurd as it is self-indulgent. The message is that just one click of your mouse (So easy! You don’t even have to move!) can save a life.

It can’t. It doesn’t.

Working in publishing, I am very aware of how important social networking is when disseminating information but what saves lives is directly engaging with the causes that you feel strongly about – fundraising, protest, sustained comprehensive awareness campaigns and the support of intensive medical research where appropriate, alongside support of local hospices who work closely with terminally ill patients to help manage their physical and emotional needs in the last years of their lives. Your picture of a skinned dog, prefaced with a sad-face emoticon, is more likely to get people to hide your updates in their timeline than jump up and do something about it, nor does your willingness to post such an image make you a stronger advocate for the cause than someone who chooses not to. Similarly, just because a trend says that it is about raising cancer awareness doesn’t mean that you have to blindly follow suit. It is important to question if what a campaign is encouraging you to do is actually helping the cause to which it has aligned itself. HOW does your selfie with no makeup on raise cancer awareness or contribute to a cure? The bare-faced female selfie movement has been gathering speed for a while now, as a backlash against the endless tweaked, filtered, camera-over-the-head selfies that flood the internet, themselves the spawn of the photoshopped, fantasy images of women with which we are relentlessly bombarded by the media. This is a good thing – a reminder of what women’s faces actually look like without a half-inch of makeup and the Amaro filter on – but, when it comes to finding a cure for cancer your face is not your most powerful (or your most sustainable) resource.

By all means, post your selfies. Just make sure that you also tell people why you are doing it, link them to some useful information and put your money where your lipstick-free mouth is.

USEFUL LINKS:
Make a £3 donation to Cancer Research UK by texting BEAT to 70099
Cancer Research UK
Marie Curie Cancer Care
Macmillan Cancer Support
St Luke’s Hospice

This post is also published here: The Huffington Post UK.

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Endo What?

Two weeks ago a man shaved off my pubic hair in my sleep. Well, that’s not strictly true. I wasn’t asleep, I was unconscious.

Rather than being yet another inebriated incident to add to my litany of shame, said shaving occurred during an operation to treat the disease endometriosis. I’d tell you not to google it and spare you the gruesome photographs but I want you to google it, because endometriosis is a disease that affects 1 in 10 women. That is almost as many as breast cancer and I am pretty sure that most people reading this will have absolutely no idea what it is.

In brief(s), endometriosis is a gynaecological condition and the primary symptom is chronic pain. Endometrial tissue that should stay in the uterus decides to go off-road and implants itself at various points in the abdominal cavity. These implants grow and thicken along with the lining of the uterus in accordance with the woman’s menstrual cycle and when a period starts, they break down and bleed too. There is no way for this tissue to leave the body, which leads to pain and inflammation. Other symptoms can include nausea, fatigue, severe bloating, back/leg pain and pain during sex. It can also lead to problems with fertility and increase the risk of miscarriage if a woman is able to conceive.

Endometriosis is not an infection, it is not contagious and it is not a sexually transmitted disease. No definitive cause has been identified and there is no cure. Fun, huh?

In 2007, after years of complaining to doctors about the symptoms I was experiencing (and had been experiencing since my teens) I had my first laparoscopy. Endometriosis is not visible on scans and cannot be identified with blood tests. The only way to confirm diagnosis is through surgery. Diagnostic laparoscopy is quite a tidy business and involves two small incisions – one in the belly button, to insert a camera and to pump carbon dioxide in to separate the abdominal wall from the internal organs. A second incision is made just below the knicker-line (cue shaving) and what I like to refer to as a ‘poking device’ is used to allow doctors to move the internal organs around to hunt for the demon endo. The surgeon struck somewhat rubbish gold and confirmed that I had endometriosis happily growing behind my uterus.

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I had my second operation earlier this month following a difficult ten months during which my symptoms worsened considerably. This time around the operation involved laparoscopy with the added bonus of diathermy – the removal of rogue endometrial tissue by laser treatment. As well as shiny new belly button and knicker-line scars, I also got two (distressingly unsymmetrical) incisions on each side of my lower abdomen – one where the laser was put in and another where a cooling treatment was used to clear the smoke and stop it all overheating in there (I quite liked the idea that someone had to blow into a straw for the whole time but I was assured this wasn’t the case. Sad face). After the operation, the surgeon said that the endometriosis had spread to several other places in my pelvis and that they had lasered the hell out of it. Then they gave me some lovely morphine and…well, who knows what happened after that.

Treatment options for endometriosis are limited – hormone drugs that place your body in a state of pseudo-pregnancy to deny the endo implants the menstrual hormones that they need to grow and allow them to ‘die off’ temporarily, steroid nasal sprays that do something similar and helpfully also reduce bone density, a variety of surgical procedures to cut and burn away the tissue (which in most cases will grow back and, to add insult to injury, seems to flourish on scar tissue) and, that trusty old cure-all, hysterectomy. Except if the implants have grown on tissue that is not on the reproductive organs, such as the stomach, intestines, etc, then this doesn’t work either. Some women have found that symptoms are reduced after childbirth (if they are able to get pregnant) but, personally, I think that a baby is a pretty hefty commitment to a painkiller. In my own case, after some horrific experiences with medication, the things that have worked best so far (combined with painkillers) are the natural options – a diet and supplement regime developed specifically to work against endometriosis (link to Dian Shepperson Mills’ brilliant book on this below) and as much regular exercise as the pain permits. However, whilst these things help they are not a cure and they have varying levels of success depending on the severity of the disease.

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So, why do so few people know about endometriosis? Why are we still fighting in the dark?

I think the fundamental issue is that girls are told from a young age that periods are painful. It hurts, kid – take your painkillers, strap on a hot water bottle and get on with it. Yet, there is no gage given for menstrual pain. Yes, there is likely to be some discomfort and cramping, what with all those muscles contacting to push blood and tissue out of your womb once a month, but if you are crippled by agony and unable to function during your period that is not normal. If you are vomiting or passing out from the pain or can’t go to work/school, that is not normal. If you have pain at ovulation or at any other stage during your cycle when you are not menstruating, that isn’t normal either. These are warning signs that something could be wrong and should be monitored and discussed with a doctor.

Unfortunately, there can be reluctance by some GPs to take pelvic pain seriously and also to give credit to female patients for knowing their own bodies, contributing to a diagnosis time for endometriosis of anything from five to ten years. When I moved house in 2005 I found a list of symptoms that I had taken to a doctor about six years beforehand because I suspected that I had endometriosis. He dismissed it without discussion – ‘No, it’s not that. You’d know if you had it.’ Yeah, thanks doc. I did know.

Another obstacle is that people just still don’t feel comfortable talking about things like this. That old, embarrassed ‘Christ! Women’s problems!’ attitude. I mean, who wants to listen to people talking about periods?

I do.

Because this isn’t just ‘talking about periods’. It is about raising awareness of a disease that is under-researched, underfunded and that ruins lives, and we all need to get over the stigma of talking about it. It isn’t just women that need to be talking about endometriosis – men need to be made aware of it too, as this is a disease that can seriously affect the lives of the women that they love. Girls need to be taught from puberty what is healthy for their bodies and be given the confidence to assert themselves when they are concerned, in order to get the treatment that they deserve. After the dismissive GP debacle I vowed never to be pushed around again when it comes to my health and I haven’t been. This is a tough disease to nail down but diagnosis starts with standing your ground.

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Next week is Endometriosis Awareness Week (March 3rd – 9th). Endometriosis UK will be organising various activities, online support groups and drop-in meetings to raise awareness and promote discussion. Information can be found here.

The first Million Woman March will also take place on 13th March. This is an international event involving participants from 53 countries. It is not a sponsorship event, instead it is about raising public awareness and showing solidarity. The London Event will take place in Kensington Gardens. If you have the disease, know someone who does or just feel like getting involved then you can register to join the march here.

At the moment I am working through the sinking feeling that this operation may not have actually made any difference to my condition. There has been no discernable change in my symptoms. I have had pretty much constant, painful cramps since the surgery, along with the usual sudden (and delightful) ‘endobelly’ inflation, which is debilitating both mentally and physically.

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What if nothing changes? That is hard for me to think about and will be even harder to deal with. At the same time, I keep reminding myself that, whilst the external damage is minimal, there has been some pretty hardcore internal frying which will take longer to heal and so I won’t know for sure how much has changed for another couple of months or so. All I can do is wait, take the painkillers and try to take the best possible care of my health.

(I am told that this does NOT involve drinking copious amounts of gin. Furious).

Useful links:

Endometriosis UK: The leading UK charity dedicated to providing information on endometriosis and support for those affected by endometriosis.

The Million Woman March for Endometriosis: Information and resources about this international event.

Endometriosis: A Key to Healing and Fertility through Nutrition: Excellent book by Dian Shepperson Mills offering safe and practical nutritional and healthcare advice.

Celebrities with endometriosis: via Endometriosis: My Life with You blog.

This post is also published here: The Huffington Post UK.

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