Biphobia - How Bad Can It Really Be?

**This article contains spoilers about the Netflix Documentary titled The Staircase**

There is a docuseries on Netflix that I think has been heavily slept on titled, The Staircase. It is an interesting and totally binge-worthy series that dives deep into the gruesome process of a murder trial. The thirteen-episode show picks apart the case of Michael Peterson, a successful war-novelist, who was accused of killing his wife after she was discovered at the bottom of the stairs. The Staircase really shows how many different processes that take place in such a serious case and expose how easily juries can be persuaded in a trial. 

netflix logot on tv Photo by Thibault Penin from Unsplash

One of the major pieces of the prosecution’s case was based on what Michael and Kathleen, Michael’s wife, discussed behind closed doors. Michael Peterson is a bisexual male. Throughout the entire trial, he persisted that he was open and honest with Kathleen about his sexuality. Other people in his family knew and understood the relationship and marriage. During the trial, the prosecution dug heavily at this aspect of Michael’s life. They led the jury to believe that because Michael was bisexual, he was a bad husband on multiple levels. They accused him of being obscene, promiscuous, and deceitful. The prosecution's main piece of evidence came from Peterson’s computer. Emails that had taken place during the 1990s of Michael contacting and soliciting a male escort. As the emails were read aloud, the footage pans to the jury and revealed their shocked faces. The prosecuting attorney described the emails as “filth, pure filth” (Netflix). 

Even though Kathleen’s death happened in 2001, and the five-month case took place over the next few years, there was a very harsh narrative that was pushed in that courtroom. The prosecutors were pushing a narrative of biphobia. Biphobia is defined as “Biphobia is prejudice, fear or hatred directed toward bisexual people. It can include making jokes or comments based on myths and stereotypes that seek to undermine the legitimacy of bisexual identity” (Human Rights Campaign). While every bisexual person faces biphobia in different ways, typically it is rooted in some form of stereotype. In this case, Michael Peterson’s biphobia was based on the stereotype that people who are bisexual are promiscuous. In the docuseries, Michael refers to Kathleen as his everything. There are many scenes throughout the movie that are simply talking about their life and their relationship. At one point he even said that their love was comparable to “Romeo and Juliet” (Netflix). The prosecution didn’t buy the fact that they had a happy relationship. They didn’t believe that he could be satisfied in a monogamous relationship.

Michael’s defense lawyers fought against Michael’s sexuality and sexual history even being used in court saying that “it would be ridiculous to suggest that that somehow reflects upon the state of their marriage to the extent that it would be relevant to whether you would commit a murder years later” (Netflix). The defense argued that it was being used to prejudice the jurors “because even if only one juror starts looking at Michael Peterson differently, not because they think there is a connection to what happened to Kathleen, but they look at him and say ‘oh my god this guy is gay’ if even one juror does that then Michael Peterson has been denied the right to a fair trial” (Netflix). The prosecution defended their stance on the relevance of his sexuality and orientation as a part of the motive saying, “the bottom line is he’s looking for [sex] outside the marriage” (Netflix). Ultimately, the judge allowed them to use it as a part of their motive and allowed the prosecution to continue to use it as a part of their case. 

While this might not seem like such a serious thing, because of the fact that the prosecution was able to use Michael Peterson’s sexuality as a piece to his motive, it was very convincing to the jury. Michael Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder without the possibility of parole. Michael was fifty-six at the time. The documentary shows the surprised faces of the people, including the prosecution, in the courtroom after the verdict was announced. After spending eight years in prison, the case was given the opportunity to be retried. In an interview conducted after the case was reopened for a possible retrial, the original judge of the case, Judge Orlando Hudson, admitted if he were to be able to do it again, he would have made some different decisions. More specifically, Judge Hudson would have handled the mention of Michael’s sexuality differently, “I thought that all the homosexual evidence, however, it was used, would’ve been unduly prejudicial to the defense and probably shouldn’t have come into evidence and I believe ultimately a fair, and a reasonable juror could make a different decision than was made by that first jury" (Bustle).

Just like any form of homophobia, biphobia has much deeper effects than what people think. It could be something as small as thinking that people who are bisexual are more likely to be unfaithful in a relationship or the most common being that bisexuality is just a phase. Those small things can accumulate. Just like in Michael’s case where it can be argued that part of the reason he was convicted is the fact that the prosecution used biphobic stereotypes to deteriorate Michael’s character. Biphobia seems like a very small category within homophobia that isn’t that severe, but in some cases, it can literally destroy lives. 

Sources

https://www.netflix.com/title/80233441

https://www.hrc.org/resources/bisexual-faq

https://caselaw.findlaw.com/nc-supreme-court/1195408.html

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/tv/article218655225.html

https://www.uis.edu/gendersexualitystudentservices/students/bisexual-guide-uis/bisexuality-myths/

https://www.bustle.com/p/the-staircase-judges-comments-about-the-michael-peterson-trial-add-another-layer-of-uncertainty-to-the-case-9336213

http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/08/12/ctv.novelist.trial/