Back in 2003, Michael Peterson (above), a novelist and local journalist in the affluent enclave of Durham, North Carolina, was found guilty of killing his wife Kathleen, whom he claims to have found bloodied and lifeless in the stairway of their palatial home on Dec. 9, 2001.
A riveting 13-part docuseries, The Staircase (Netflix), trails the trial from Peterson’s perspective, illuminating the ways in which a corrupt criminal justice system put a man away for life without the possibility of parole on shoddy and irrelevant evidence, including his sexual orientation.
In a recent telephone interview, David Rudolf (above), Peterson’s defense attorney in the series, told NewNowNext the prosecution’s infamously homophobic presentation of Peterson’s bisexuality likely wouldn’t pass muster today.
“People’s views about sexual practices and sexuality have expanded and changed,” he said.
15 years ago, however, then-district attorney Freda Black (above) presented a chillingly hateful assessment of Peterson’s same-sex desires, extramarital liaisons with men, even his porn habits to rebut Rudolf’s assertion that the couple were soul mates and Kathleen knew about Peterson’s bisexuality. In a laughably overwrought performance, Black, verbatim from the trial, asked the jury:
“Do you really believe that Kathleen Peterson knew that Mr. Peterson was bisexual? Does that make common sense to you that it was okay with her to go to work while he stayed at home and communicated by email and telephone with people he was planning on having sex with?…And you honestly believe that Kathleen Peterson knew about that? Would have approved of that?…You saw the rest of the things on his computer.
Once again, these things are so filthy we can’t even show them on TV. Filth. Pure-T filth. This isn’t people involved in a relationship. This is just ‘any which way.’ This is called hard…core…porn! Do you think she approved of this type of activity while she’s off at work or sleeping? I argue to you that doesn’t make sense. And that’s not the way soul mates conduct themselves. That is not.
Rudolf, who said there was “gay-bashing through the course of the trial” reflected on Black’s comments, saying, “When she starts talking about ‘pure-T filth,’ she’s talking about homosexual sex. So there’s an undercurrent of ‘anybody who can engage in homosexual sex is defective.’” She also resorted to stereotypes that cast bisexuals as insatiable nymphomaniacs who go “any which way,” or, in popular parlance, “sleep with anything that moves,” feeding the narrative that Peterson’s appetites were wild and off the rails and didn’t conform to the dictates of civilized behavior.
By contesting the assertion that Kathleen knew of her husband’s same-sex desires and sexual encounters with men, Black depicts Peterson as duplicitous, guiding the jury away from viewing him as a reliable narrator of the circumstances surrounding her death.
Rudolf wagered that the prosecution would probably think twice about highlighting Peterson’s sexuality in such a negative light today, as present-day jurors are likely better educated about LGBTQ issues and people.
“There’s a greater tolerance about people’s sexual practices and preferences, so I’m not sure that the argument that two people aren’t soul mates because one of them is bisexual is going to fly in 2018 the way it did in 2003.”
The cumulative impact, he said, of more pop cultural depictions of queer love and relationships, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, “and various other events in the country have combined to change people’s attitudes.”
Bi activist Ron Suresha, author of Bi Guys: Firsthand Fiction for Bisexual Men and Their Admirers and Bi Men: Coming Out Every Which Way, however, isn’t so sure the movement forward has been as linear for bi men.
He said progress for bisexual people amounts to one step forward and another bigger step back, adding “male bisexuality has always been far less visible, understood, and accepted than female bisexuality.”
There’s a complicated tangle of reasons why society affords women more fluidity as far as their sexual practices and gender expressions go — surely, it’s due, in part, to society’s lesser investment in maintaining the integrity of their bodies and value of their personhood — but Suresha argues that the AIDS crisis was a major culprit in thwarting progress for bi men because, he said, “it decimated and deeply stigmatized the bi male population.”
He does acknowledge, however, that “for the past 15 years male bisexuality has become increasingly less taboo and more accepted.”
In the last episode of The Staircase, the presiding judge on the Peterson case makes a shocking admission that speaks to the attitudinal shift toward queer people.
“Over the years,” he says, “you can see how with time and more examination of the evidence that did come in…it wasn’t without prejudice….I thought that all the homosexual evidence, however it was used, would have been unduly prejudicial to the defense and probably should not have come into evidence.”
Still, the evidence that more work is left to be done is shown in his use of the term “homosexual,” as opposed to “bisexual.”