"White on white translucent black capes, back on the rack..."
A strobe light in an underground club in the 80's was my introduction to the goth scene. Tribal drums and nails shrieking along a guitar. David Bowie was there, and Catherine Denueve. They were vampire swingers looking for a meal and a fuck. I'd come to see them. I'd not expected the gaunt creature bellowing from behind a mesh fence, reminding me of what seemed obvious at the time: Bela Lugosi was dead.
Peter Murphy's brief cameo in the bisexual vampire film The Hunger left an impression on a gender-confused gay teen who spent too much time in the horror section at the local Movie Gallery. I'd known little of goth outside a flirtation with the overhyped Evanescence some years prior. The queer macabre brilliance of Murphy with his glittery eyeliner and billowing shawls held deeper resonance and meaning.
I felt like I'd found a place I belonged. I wasn't just gay in a small town. I was weird and gay. Goth seemed like a perfect fit for me.
But before we lose ourselves in the swoon of "the alternative": to proclaim the goth community as this bastion of progressive acceptance is to completely ignore the many problematic aspects of the culture and community.
There still persists a snobbish elitism that rejects those who aren't different in "the right way." Among that elitism contains a hypocritical embrace of bigoted mindsets that would alienate the outcasts goth claims to reach. Homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and racism just to name a few.
Serene Pristine, an up-and-coming black poet with a stylistic voice reminiscent of Sylvia Plath and Franz Kafka, recalls her first Peter Murphy show at 16. She'd been very excited, with her Sky's Gone Out faux leather jacket and red Bauhaus shirt, running to the first in line despite the bitter cold.
"These gorgeous, white goths came up, and I was in love with their looks. They were dressed to the nines. However, they had a bit of an elitist attitude, and took one look at me and I sensed they thought I was inferior. This was proven by the fact that when they realized they were lined up on the wrong side for the show, they tried to skip me in line, and I was only defended by the security guy who saw me hours before. The majority of the group walked to the back, except for one woman, who gave him a look, thinking perhaps her gorgeous figure would make him reconsider. It did not. That was a shit feeling. I did feel insecure."
Serene says she's only felt safe within the goth community on the internet.
"I've managed to surround myself with wonderful online friends my fashion, my selfies, my taste in music—there was one brief period where I got a string of anonymous racist hate (I assume it to be all from one person), which addressed my music taste, and my appearance, but I just thought it to be funny, and somewhat sad that someone would waste their time on the internet in that way.
Out in real life, though, it doesn't happen as much anymore (as I don't get out a lot), when I was a baby goth/punk hybrid, I got called an "oreo" and my black peers would give me looks—probably thinking I was trying to conform to some white standard.
One peer, a black boy whose name I forget, even straight up asked me about liking 'white music' which is a shame, considering black people started rock n' roll."
Serene readily agreed there was hypocrisy within goth culture, though in her experience had escaped most of it through the privilege of being a slim-bodied cisgender woman often told she has an "exotic" look or "something other than 'African-American'" based on her features and hair.
"That I think has given me more of a pass in certain sitautions, than say, an African American goth/alternative queer person who is of a darker complexion, who may wear their hair natural, and is not petite—all in all though, if you're not pale and dying, you have to constantly prove to white goths just how goth YOU are."
This sort of shameful elitism doesn't just target members of the goth fandom, but also to long-time musical favorites. Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows is the musical creation of trans woman Anna Varney Cantodea and has been creating neoclassical darkwave music within the goth community since 1989. Her music videos are typically self-produced art pieces that are as disturbing and pessimistic as they are enchanting and beautiful.
Each video has the same lamentably predictable reaction with comments filled to the brim with cishet confusion and transphobic slurs. It's no wonder she refuses to perform publicly.
Even for those who could have ascended to the enviable rank of "elder goth" within the community still find themselves on the backlash of bigotry. Prava Couture, the musical curator behind the site and brandGlitch Witch, is a black genderqueer social justice witch with their own brand of anarchic magick. They were kind enough to talk to me on their way to a video shoot.
"As an 'elder' I feel responsible to look out for the safety of others. Micro-aggressions can be sneaky and sly, manifesting in a number of ways and before long you're playing second string to some Amy Lee wananbe because you've been made to feel you don't deserve to be in the spotlight."
Prava remarked that what's helped them avoid discrimination within the community is avoiding specific situations.
"Usually any that demand high visibility, such as modeling. I remember accepting a host position at a club and everyone getting very quiet upon my entry. No one there had seen me before—I received the position through word of mouth. I was fired within three months for 'not being the right fit.'"
I've encountered my own share of bigotry and homophobia within the goth community in the past—it's really strange to get called a faggot in a community where men wear makeup and hairspray.
I asked Prava for their thoughts on the matter, how that brand of homophobia had snuck into a culture originally created by queer people. They responded:
"Machismo sourcing goth culture as a way to prey on women they think are damaged."
The patriarchal standards of hating women and hating to be seen as feminine fuel homophobia the same ways in the goth community as they do out there in the "regular world." It's also the same reason many of these same men might have gotten picked on and tormented as children and teenagers—for failing to adhere to a rigid structure of masculinity.
Most people come to the goth community not looking to be cool or edgy, but because it's a place where they think they'll fit in. It's the same reason anyone joins any fandom; you're looking for people who share the same interests, aesthetic, etc.
But just as some seek a fandom as a refuge from estrangement, others see subcultures as a way to wield power.We come into these subcultures holding oppressive ideas from the "mainstream"—this enables some to assume the role of bullies and oppressors, with only a thin veneer of "not like normal people" separating them from the same society that ostracized them.
We must work to make it better, to create a safe place within our community not just for those who like dancing home alone on Friday nights to Joy Division and the Cure, but also for trans women, people of color, and queer people of all kinds.
If we don't, we're no better than the Biff Tanners of the world; just another bully in someone else's story.
Serene Pristine had this to say to those wishing to make the community a safer place:
"For white goths, actively confront racist/homophobic/transphobic assholes. Don't dish out your mental 50 question quizzes on goth culture when you meet someone who doesn't look the stereotypical part. I also think black and queer goth/alternative people should get together and host parties, where we can all mingle and get to know each other, and just have it be a POC/queer only party."
When asked the same question, Prava Couture sent me one message in all capital letters, CONSTANT VIGILANCE.