thoughts on The Staircase and its portrayal of sexuality

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As a crime junkie, I’ve been meaning to watch The Staircase miniseries for what seems like forever. It is one of the more notorious did-he-do-it cases that the internet loves to argue about, but it’s never been particularly available until recently. (I mean, who has the Sundance Channel?) Luckily, Netflix has just released the follow up film and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s original as a series of episodes!

The basic facts of the case are enough to pull a viewer in: a husband/wife possible murder with a lot of blood, and a curious previous incident that seems crazy coincidental. My original feelings were that Michael Peterson was likely guilty, I wasn’t sure the series could possibly change my mind. It did, but also gave me an entirely unexpected reason to care. The reaction to Michael’s bi-sexuality was upsetting.

Once the series laid out the facts of the case, I felt much less certain of Michael’s guilt. A phrase from the Serial podcast comes to mind, “mountains of reasonable doubt”. As Kathleen had been drinking, its totally possible her trip on the stairs could result in more blood than people would expect (head wounds often bleed profusely), especially with the added factor that there’s a goddamn metal chair lift to smack into.

Aside from the actual scene of the crime, the most questionable aspect of the investigation were the assumptions made about the Peterson’s sex life. I saw exactly where the narrative was going once it was revealed that Michael is bi and had solicited men for sex in the past. This was the wedge that drove the conflict of the evening, its impossible any marriage could have withstood such a breach in trust, etc.

It’s an obvious tactic for the prosecution to latch onto, but that doesn’t mean its true. The family accounts suggest a loving, if non-traditional, situation. Taking in another family’s children to raise as your own reinforces that belief. All the children (aside from Kathleen’s daughter from a prior marriage) are on Michael’s side and viewed the reveal of his sexuality as unimportant.

What upset me the most was the way Kathleen’s sisters would talk about Michael. Truly they are in a lot of pain having lost her, and cannot accept she could have been happy with a man who sleeps with other men. Despite acknowledging that Kathleen loved Michael, they call him a homosexual and put him down constantly. Their belief in his guilt seems utterly tainted by bigotry.

The contempt leapt off the screen to me as one of the more glaring issues with having one’s entire life be subject to investigation.  And hey, since its Pride Month Rainbow Flag on Samsung Experience 8.0, why not consider the horror to be dealt with here: your sexual preference becomes the reason you are untrustworthy. Family and media alike are privy to all your weird fetishes. The hours of porn you’ve downloaded becomes a noted fact. A witness who was an escort made the court laugh by talking about sex with men.

Non-traditional sexuality became a joke in that courtroom. Why is it the idea of a man having sex with other men makes them lesser somehow? So many bisexual and gay men still must live with this prejudice, so they remain closeted. In 2018 we like to see ourselves as all woke and shit, but our prevailing culture still laughs at men with other men. Despite the progress that’s made with regard to wrongful convictions and tainted investigations, there are many outdated views that keep our society from truly understanding people.