Dahmer on Netflix: Tony Hughes's story should be a call to action
His story should not just be a heart-wrenching tale.
The story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was recently dredged up once again, this time by Ryan Murphy for Netflix, with Evan Peters playing the eponymous figure in DAHMER - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The show has achieved record-breaking ratings, but it has also come under considerable criticism – including from the victims' families themselves.
One particular victim who has captured a lot of attention due to an episode that was largely focused on him is 31-year-old Anthony Hughes (played by Rodney Burford). His family seemingly weren't consulted about the series, with his mother Shirley telling The Guardian that what plays out in Dahmer "didn't happen like that", adding: "I don't see how they can do that. I don't see how they can use our names and put stuff out like that out there."
There's been extensive discourse about the moments surrounding his death, but much less interest in how he lived and the broader circumstances that made him particularly vulnerable.
Hughes was born on August 26th, 1959. As an infant, he was given medication which caused him to lose his hearing, and he used sign language to communicate with those who understood, writing notes for those who didn't. Notably, Hughes used BASL (Black American Sign Language), a type of signing that was developed by d/Deaf Black Americans to better express the specifics of their expressions and experiences, which shares some similarities with AAVE (African-American Vernacular English).
Hughes had aspirations to be a model, but as a gay, Black and deaf man living at the turn of the '90s, things were far from easy for him and tragically, his life was cut brutally short.
Dahmer had befriended Hughes before inviting him to his apartment. It was there that he spent his final moments, like so many others before and after him.
Hughes's experience gives us a real insight into the issues faced by disabled people, particularly those with other marginalisations, and how they are especially vulnerable to mistreatment and violence. Dahmer spotlights just how difficult it was for him to secure a steady job, not only on account of his race and disability, but also due to the relatively limited education and widespread fear-mongering about AIDS.
It should be said that while 2022 is unrecognisable in many ways, with HIV/AIDS thankfully no longer a death sentence, and a raft of organisations doing good work to protect people like Hughes, there are still substantial social barriers in place for many. Disabled people may find themselves excluded from queer spaces, with some of the venues where queer people meet not always accessible for wheelchair users and lacking in interpreters.
There are huge ethical questions to be asked of Dahmer – most prominently, should the series have been made at all? – but it does take the time to highlight what Hughes and his peers endured decades ago and what many people continue to face today.
More like this
"Some people assume that one minority group is more likely to be accepting of another," reads one account on the website of disability charity Leonard Cheshire. "This is because both face challenges around access, policy, and social image. Unfortunately, I was treated as an outsider due to my intersectionality. This even happened within support groups and at identity-specific events."
And the plight of Hughes and countless others isn't just limited to social exclusion; some people also face material consequences. Disabled people, queer people and people of colour face persistent employment discrimination. As a result, people in these groups are sometimes pushed into precarious and criminalised labour which puts them at risk of violence from both the state and malicious people – for example, sex workers are disproportionaterly disabled due to exclusion from conventional labour.
Those combined racial and economic barriers likely played a part in the recent conviction of Ed Buck, who has been convicted of drugging vulnerable, queer Black men with methamphetamine in exchange for sex, with two men dying as a result.
As witnessed in Dahmer, the work of Black and queer activists to bring attention to these issues was ignored by the authorities for years, allowing the serial killer to continue his reign of terror. That injustice is also front and centre in BBC drama Four Lives and ITV's Des, which both highlight how members of the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies were routinely ignored by police, in turn enabling Stephen Port and Dennis Nilsen to murder young queer men.
Anthony Hughes's life and the tragedy of his death shine a light on the challenges faced by the multiply marginalised, and emphasise the essential role that we all have to play in calling out prejudice where we see it. His story should not just be a heart-wrenching tale but a call to action, prompting a collective effort to build a world in which people like Hughes are able to live full, dignified lives, because that is the very least all of us deserve.
DAHMER - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is available to stream on Netflix now. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times View From My Sofa podcast.