The latest episode of The Staircase has everyone asking one question: Did Michael Peterson’s bisexuality play an unfair role in his conviction for killing his wife?
It’s hard to talk about the murder trial of Michael Peterson without talking about his bisexuality.
The question of whether Michael killed his wife Kathleen Peterson is the subject of new Binge TV series The Staircasestarring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, and from the first episode we’re made aware that Michael likes a little bit of something on the side that Kathleen can’t provide.
Michael was found guilty of murdering Kathleen in 2003, then was granted a retrial eight years later, in which he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to time served and released.
But the question of what really happened to Kathleen Peterson on the staircase that night is one that may never be answered for certain.
A picture-perfect life
Equally fascinating to a true-crime-hungry public is the backstory of Michael Peterson. A Vietnam veteran, novelist and politician, Michael lived an enviable life of influence and advantage. But, as with many lives that look perfect from the outside, there were secrets and lies simmering beneath the surface.
The question asked at trial: Was Michael Peterson’s bisexuality enough of a reason to kill his wife?
And the question The Staircase asks now is: Was the focus on Michael Peterson’s sexuality alone enough to see him convicted?
A gay military man
A proud serviceman, Michael Peterson said in a documentary series about his trial that he always tried to keep his bisexuality hidden when he was in active service due to peer pressure, saying he just wanted to appear “normal”.
While preparing his defence, when asked about the affairs with men he admitted to having during his marriage, Michael said he never explicitly told Kathleen about them, but that he felt she knew and accepted that part of his life.
“It was simply understood again that – no, I think it would have been for some strange reason more upsetting to her if it had been other women,” he said. “I think that might have threatened her more, I don’t know, but in all the conversations that we’d have, all the joking, every time we go to a military base: ‘They’re just like you. They’re all gay. Look, they’re all touching each other, patting each other all the time.’
“I think that there was enough awareness on her part of me as a person and who I was, which is what made this relationship so good, that yes, she understood these aspects about me and was not bothered about that because I loved her. That yes, I did have sex with other people, but that had absolutely nothing to do with not loving Kathleen or loving her less.”
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Bisexual in the Bible Belt of the US
Michael and Kathleen Peterson lived in Durham, North Carolina, part of the socially conservative Bible Belt.
Even now, Protestant Christianity plays a strong role in society and politics in the area.
Twenty years ago, being openly bisexual would have been social suicide for a man who lived a largely public life – first in the military, then as a novelist and newspaper columnist and, when Kathleen died, as a candidate for public office.
Michael said that he figured out when he was growing up that he was bisexual, but he knew he had to keep it hidden.
“It was part of who … I was trying not to reveal,” he said in previous documentary series also titled The Staircase.
“Well, you get to a certain point … and let’s be honest here. It was the shortstop on my baseball team. I was really confused.
“What’s this all about? I had never before that time ever had male thoughts and then, suddenly, he was there. In that fantasy. And I was very confused by that, but it didn’t go away from my fantasies. And I realized at that time, I felt a great attraction for females, but for guys, also.”
What did Michael Peterson try for being bisexual?
The scandal of Michael Peterson’s bisexuality coming out at trial in a place like North Carolina may well have been enough of a crime in itself to make an early-2000s conservative jury suspicious and ready to convict.
When asked in 2017 if he thought his bisexuality played a part in his conviction, Peterson said, “Of course that had to have an impact. Why does that translate into murder? It made no sense at all, but it certainly went, ‘There it is!’ in the judge’s head.”
The judge on the initial trial agreed, saying that if the trial were to happen now, he would not have allowed the issue of Michael’s sexuality to be admitted to the trial.
“Over the years, you can see how with time and more examination of the evidence that did come in, maybe [the trial] wasn’t without prejudice,” he said. “There are things that I would have changed. All of the homosexual evidence, however it was used, would have been unduly prejudicial to the defence.”
Would Michael Peterson have been found guilty if it wasn’t for the prosecution’s insistence that he killed his wife Kathleen because she’d found out about his affairs with men?
Even Colin Firth, the actor who climbed inside the character of Michael Peterson, says he doesn’t know whether Michael did it.
We may never know for sure either, but The Staircase allows us a behind-the-scenes look at the story and asks us to draw our own conclusions.
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Carolyn Tate is a journalist, runner, dark chocolate enthusiast and chatterbox. Find her on Instagram at @tatewriter