Sunlight & Shadow: Understanding the Gothic Subculture
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Balance: The Integration of Light and Dark

Most people in the United States believe that they have a right to live their own lives the way they choose (barring the harm of others or infringeing on others' rights) and that they have a particular right to be themselves and live free of outside pressures to present themselves as something else. Goths are no different. Goths don't want society's approval, or its blessing, or even its acceptance-Goths simply seek its tolerance and the right to be who and what they are without fear of harm to mind, body, or freedom.

Goths are routinely stopped by police simply for daring to appear in public: "Last week, while on a walk on Route 206, Jonathan--wearing his long, black trenchcoat--says he was stopped by Montgomery Township police," explains an article in the Princeton Packet Online News. Concerned citizens in the New Jersey town had phoned the police, saying they were afraid of a "suspicious" looking character wearing black. "The officer seemed puzzled as to why he was stopping me--all because of the way I looked," Jonathan said of the incident. Goths everywhere could relate exceedingly similar incidents. "To have to fear being who you are because other people are ignorant is a sad and scary thing," Goth "Ice Princess" said in an online newsgroup according to an article in the Sacramento Bee. If African Americans are singled-out, people rally against racism; if women are being similiarly victimized, society raises a flag against sexism; if Jews who are being ostracized, countless thousands would flame against anti-Semitism. Goths have no "isms" to call upon.

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice, working with the U.S. Department of Education, publicized a set of official "warning signs" for wayward youth a few years ago. They outline several things that are more than likely normal behaviour for most adolescents, such as social withdrawal, feelings of isolation, feelings of rejection, and feelings of being picked on or persecuted. Most Goths would also exhibit these "signs ," but chances are they would be called on them where other adolescents would not; at the very least, that was my own experience. However, the majority of these warning signs point out a very different type of teenager than the typical Goth: being a victim of violence; low interest and poor academic performance; expression of violence in writings or drawings (author's note: violence and "unpleasantness" or "morbidity" are very different things); uncontrolled anger; patterns of chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviour; intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes; drug and alcohol use; affiliation with gangs; inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms; and serious threats of violence. Most of these last warning signs tend to fit those who ostracize Goths rather than the Goths themselves.

Where were my high school's officials with the "expression of violence in writings or drawings" guideline the day I found a note in my locker with a drawing of a nude woman strapped to a pole in a blazing fire with the words "Burn the Witch" underneath? But they certainly sprang into action a few days later when they called my friends and me into the guidance counselor's office and threatened to suspend us under "reasonable suspicion of threat" based solely on the complaints of several students that our black attire was disturbing them and that they were afraid of the "witches."

The document containing the warning signs does caution teachers, parents, and other officials about the potential misuse of the guidelines:

It is important to avoid inappropriately labeling or stigmatizing individual students because they appear to fit a specific profile or set of early warning indicators. It's okay to be worried about a child, but it's not okay to overreact and jump to conclusions.

Unfortunately, it would seem that most parents and teachers don't quite get to that part in their hysterical panic to assume the worst. Ricky, another Goth from Montgomery, New Jersey, told the Princeton Packet Online News that although he was a good kid with good grades and a good relationship with his teachers and fellow students, he was often called into the principal's office. "On these visits, Ricky said, he is asked whether he is a Nazi or in a cult. In his case, he said, neither applies," explains the article. Ricky also says he once fell asleep at his desk and was immediately sent for a drug test (which came back negative). Ricky's school officials told him and his friends that they should simply change the way they dress, and then they wouldn't be bothered anymore. Ricky, however, thinks those officials "might be better served by speaking with the people who are being cruel and trying to change their behavior." Perhaps Ricky has a point.

One way or another, those in the Gothic community demand to exist with as many rights and as much respect as is given to any "normal" human being. The Gothic population is millions worldwide, and Goths laugh, cry, and live just like anyone else. They are your doctors, your counselors, your grocers, your teachers, your students, your librarians, you favourite authors, your fathers, your daughters, and your friends. Goths may choose to revel in the shadows, but they smile with those who would rather live in the light of day. Being Goth is not a "phase," it isn't dangerous, and it isn't going anywhere. Everyone deserves a chance to simply be. This is all Goths ask: Let us be.