- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The 1980s-era movement started by young fans of punk and hard-core music was unapologetically clear-headed: no alcohol, no smoking, no drugs. Now that lifestyle — known as “straight edge” — is making a comeback. Inspired by a song of the same name, the movement developed a reputation for intolerance in the 1990s when a few straight-edgers turned militant, starting fights with anyone who challenged their views. Two were convicted in a 1998 killing in Salt Lake City.

These days, a small but growing core of young people who live the straight-edge life, also known by the abbreviation “sXe,” are trying to reclaim a more positive image by promoting a range of causes, from pacifism and environmentalism to racial diversity.

“There are so many facets of straight edge — so many different kinds of people who can adopt this lifestyle and define it for themselves,” says Monika Seitz, a 24-year-old straight-edger who recently moved from San Diego to Columbus, Ohio. The common thread is a vow to avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

Miss Seitz — who figures she has had “one beer total and a couple of cigarettes” since high school — has helped form a club for straight-edgers across the country who are into vintage scooters.

Other young straight-edgers have posted Web sites and online message boards to spread the word about the movement’s positive attributes.

On one site, www.toefur.com/straightedge, operated by someone who goes by the name “Toefur,” a large graphic on the home page that says “Poison Free” sits just above a poll about how “gross” cigarettes are.

The straight-edge movement “is a more philosophical offshoot of the punk movement, a reaction to the hedonism and self-destruction that characterized punk,” Toefur’s site says in its “frequently asked questions.”

Straight-edgers often are identified by big, black X’s on their hands, the mark bouncers at punk shows use for those under the drinking age.

“As the straight-edge philosophy grew popular, punkers who were older than 18 but didn’t drink for ideological reasons started to mark themselves with the X in a show of solidarity,” Toefur says.

Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., has sanctioned a school-owned residence with a straight-edge theme.

Geoff Bickford, a senior who lives in the house, says he and six others formed the “X” house “to offer some sort of a sanctuary to ourselves and others who want to escape the typical weekend activities of a college town.”

Schuyler Brown, a trend-spotter who specializes in youth for the ad agency Euro RSCG, has noted the movement’s revival, which she says has been inspired by more than a “just-say-no” mentality.

“They’ve bought the message, but on their own terms,” Mrs. Brown says, noting that many straight-edgers are rebelling against alcohol and cigarette companies that market to them.

Many straight-edgers are also vegetarian or vegan and some promote monogamy, another aspect inspired by the lyrics to “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat.

Followers debate whether Minor Threat or another band of the 1980s, the Teen Idles, are creators of the movement. Web site publisher Andrew Dickson said the birthplace was in Washington where the Teen Idles originated, and Minor Threat’s lead singer, Ian MacKaye, said in a recent interview that he didn’t want to take credit for starting it all.

“I don’t think I came up with some brilliant idea,” Mr. MacKaye said. “I just came up with a handle that people could work with. I’d like to think that it was relatively positive, that was encouraging people. I have no regrets about my lyrics. But I’m not part of a movement. It’s not my phenomenon.”

While the straight-edgers of old may have been intolerant of other youth lifestyles, the new breed takes a softer approach to substance-free living.

Anna Tran, a 21-year-old student at the University of Utah, goes as far as calling her straight-edge life “something like a religion.”

“Being straight edge should open your eyes to different points of view, open your eyes to view life on a deeper level,” Miss Tran says.

How would someone who isn’t living the lifestyle become part of the movement? “You don’t join straight-edge, you take on the straight-edge,” Toefur says. “You just get involved in the scene and start thinking for yourself.”

Miss Tran says she was annoyed when she and her friends — singled out because of their dark clothing, “rocked out” hair and tattoos — were questioned by security guards at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Salt Lake City officials had added straight-edgers to a list of potential terror threats, although no violence was reported.

Some law enforcement officials still worry about youths who take the movement to a confrontational extreme.

“On the surface, the ideals and beliefs sound pretty doggone good,” says Brad Harmon, a detective with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department who helped convict two straight-edgers in the killing there. “But when you start getting into a cause and there’s friction against the cause, then something’s got to give.”

A professor at the University of Utah said she dropped her study of the movement after receiving personal threats from more militant straight-edgers.

Michelle Etheridge, a 16-year-old Canadian straight-edger from Vernon, British Columbia, says raucous behavior among “crews” of teenage boys who call themselves straight edge has caused some classmates to drop the label.

She says the boys’ antics — jumping off low buildings and other stunts akin to those on the MTV show “Jackass” — are aimed mostly at one-upmanship.

Other serious straight-edgers bemoan the fact that straight-edge T-shirts and other merchandise are sold online and even at some mall stores.

“It seems like a fad,” says Scott Foster, a 31-year-old from Coplay, Pa., who has been straight edge for years. “Now it’s a good way to rebel against society without … losing your car privileges.”

Still, Mr. Bickford, the Wheaton College student, sees it as a cause worth promoting.

“If kids are taking care of themselves and living positively,” he says, “I can’t see a downfall to that.”

Staff writer Lauren Schulz contributed to this report.

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