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Love and Hate Crime

Written by gaytourism

Love and Hate Crime. Image courtesy of Ben Steele

Love and Hate Crime is a criminal anthology series produced by US cable network ID.

Episode one in the series tells the story of Mercedes Williamson – a 17-year-old trans teen who was violently murdered by her boyfriend, Josh Vallum.

Vallum presented a defence of ‘trans panic’ – that it was a crime of passion when the 29-year-old suddenly found out that the girl he was dating was trans.

The crime took place in the US stage of Mississippi. The case resulted in the first-ever conviction of a federal hate crime charge arising from the murder of a trans woman.

Director of the documentary about Mercedes Williamson is Ben Steele. We spoke with Steele for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.

When did you first encounter the story of Mercedes Williamson?

In early 2016, my producer Victoria Musguin-Rowe heard about the story. She flew out to Mississippi to try and meet with the district attorney overseeing the prosecution, to start the very long process of securing access to everyone involved, and to also start the work needed to gain access to the court, the police, and the prison authorities.

What was it about this crime that caught your attention?

At that time we had no idea this would become a legal first – and become a landmark historic case. But we knew that hate crime is rising across America, and that this case represented an opportunity to explore the complex motives that can drive people to carry out such acts.

As a director, I want to shed a light on despicable practices, but I’m also interested in understanding the motivations of people carrying out these attacks. It’s too easy to just dismiss the perpetrators of this kind of anti-gay violence out of hand. What’s harder is to do is to try and understand what their –often heartfelt – motivations are.

Basically, I’m interested in trying to get inside the human psyche, to illuminate that thing that make us – all of us – tick. To me, this is often revealed in crunch moments – moments of great trauma when people get caught up in life and death events, events where people are willing to fight for the ‘right’ outcome.

Crimes against minorities and people labeled as ‘other’ are really interesting. I think that wider social problems are also revealed in attitudes to people that mainstream society views as ‘different’ and somehow ‘evil’ or ‘shameful.’

How did you go about obtaining access to the key people and securing the footage required?

My producer did most of this work. Our approach though is simple – to always be straightforward and honest with contributors and institutions we’d like to film. We explain our intentions – to make a film where the central participants explain their thinking and actions to the audience, without being guided or told what to think by a reporter or narrator.

Of course, because we’re approaching everyone involved in a murder, there’s a good chance someone else will contradict them, or offer an alternative way of viewing events, but we leave it up to the audience to make their own minds up about who is telling the truth and who is lying.

During your research, did you get a sense of what had triggered Vallum’s decision to remove Mercedes from his life at that point? Was there some sort of catalyst?

Josh continues to maintain his story despite – as unfolds during the film – a very considerable amount of evidence against the narrative he presents. Ultimately it’s up to the audience to decide who they believe. It could be he’s telling the truth, or it could be that he’s lying to protect a greater secret. In his mind, there’s a secret that’s worth more than the life of the woman he loved, and his liberty.

The murder of Mercedes resulted in the first-ever conviction of a federal hate crime, but trans women in the US still seem to be particularly vulnerable and subject to violence and abuse. Is it fair to say that the US legal system has ultimately failed Mercedes Williamson and many women like her?

US society doesn’t properly respect – or even really understand – the rights and choices of trans women. Don’t forget, much of America remains very conservative in attitude towards LGBTI people, and New York is not representative of prevailing attitudes.

Mercedes was incredibly brave in following through on her decision to lead her life as she wanted to – especially as she lived in the South, in the Bible belt. It meant she was bullied at school. It meant she was pressured and punished by members of her family. It meant she had to leave home. It was a decision that made her very vulnerable, and put her on the margins of society.

What sort of response have you had so far to the documentary?

Its been brilliant. The first broadcast was on the BBC in the UK , and now we’re so excited that it’s going to be showing on Investigation Discovery in America.

What do you hope that people feel when watching this documentary?

I hope people feel conflicted. It’s a film that has a lot of twists and turns, and hopefully stays with you long after watching.

There’s plenty of television that tells people how to think, but I’m less interested in that – it runs the risk of just preaching to the converted, or being easily dismissed as having a steamroller agenda.

Ultimately, I don’t want people to see Josh as a ‘monster’ despite the terrible nature of the crime he committed . He’s more complicated than that. This is a crime that’s not just an act of violence against Mercedes – in many ways, I see it as an act of violence against himself.

Mercedes was a very brave young women who is no longer alive because of the actions and decisions Josh took. But maybe, if he’d been brought up in London or New York – in other words in a more accepting environment – he might have made different choices.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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