It was today announced that Series 3 of Sherlock will air on BBC1 on January 1st 2014. I recently got into it. As a lifelong Sherlock Holmes geek (calling ourselves Sherlockians since 1891), I’d resisted the gimmicky enterprise, and finally succumbed, geeking out at the in-jokes and revelling in the campery. Because I was researching a report on Sherlockian fan communities, and because social lives are for losers, it was a matter of time before I Googled ‘Sherlock fan fiction.’
My eyes. My innocence. I’ve been at university since 2007, transforming from religious fundamentalist to exuberant queer, with girlfriends, boyfriends, and much in between. There’s a lot I’ve done, seen, or at least heard about. But what Sherlock and John got up to in some fan fiction was an education.
Then I noticed a comment on one piece of slash. ‘They are not GAY. They are HEROES!’ Because, obviously, being a misunderstood genius and being non-heterosexual are mutually exclusive (Oh, hi, Michelangelo, Christopher Marlowe, and Virginia Woolf). The logic isn’t a million miles from that deployed in infamous YouTube comments concerning Harry Styles. But it is consistent with the world of Sherlock. While the Robert Downey, Jr. films play up the potential for a gay romance between Holmes and Watson for laughs, in the BBC series it is explicitly discredited in the first episode.
Sherlock assumes Watson’s friendliness indicates sexual desire and ‘hilarious’ scenes follow in which they establish that they’re not attracted to each other. Hilarious. Sherlock is asexual. Which, apparently, means he is attracted to women but doesn’t know how to deal with them. Because, obviously, heterosexuality is entirely natural and any other sexuality is just a failure to be straight properly. That’s what Sherlock tells us. Sherlock, in which minor characters like John’s sister or someone else’s boyfriend are allowed to be gay, but certainly not the stars.
However, the idea that the original Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are gay deserves to be treated seriously and not just because the doctor tends to ‘ejaculate loudly’ while his ‘friend and partner’ sucks at a pipe.
But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Victorian. He wrote about bachelors sharing quarters in Oscar Wilde’s London but homosexuality was not on his mind. Well! In 1901, he appealed for a soldier not to be discharged from the military on the grounds that his offence, being a homo, had nothing to do with his job. Think about recent debates and you’ll realise how progressive that attitude was. Doyle was more open than we realise.
If Holmes is not explicitly gay, there’s evidence that he’s an outsider just like gay men were at the time (the late nineteenth century). He cross-dresses (disguise, eh?), does most work undercover, and mixes with undesirable types like urchins and criminals. Just like homosexual men, who were, then, criminals. There were huge gay underground networks in London, and Holmes seems to know of all the underground networks around – and he’s a hero, not a villain.
Holmes and Watson live together. That’s it. They love each other, even if they can’t show it because Holmes is cold and weird. In one story, some ruffian shoots Watson. Holmes beats him up, then hugs Watson and has a good weep. Watson says:
It was worth many wounds to know the depth of [his] loyalty and love … The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking… All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
Should I buy a hat for the big day?
But Watson is married! It’s a long-running joke among Sherlockians that Watson had more wives than Henry VIII. He is vague about details. The wife’s name keeps changing. In one story she’s dead; in the next she’s nagging her husband. When Mrs Watson appears, she calls her husband, John, ‘James.’ Well, Saint Oscar had a marriage of convenience, didn’t he? And, oddly for a man claiming ‘an experience of women that spans several continents’, Watson never flirts, nor does he describe any woman with the kind of detail he gives Holmes in his dressing gown. It’s not outlandish to suppose that a man who talks too much, inconsistently, about all the women he’s had might be hiding something.
Conan Doyle didn’t care how people interpreted the character. He liked people to fantasise about Holmes, or to hate him. He recognised that the character meant something unique to each reader. When an actor adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1894, he asked Doyle if he could give Holmes a wife. ‘Marry him, murder him, do what you will,’ Doyle responded. Score.
It’s been taken up as a call to arms, and we’ve had Holmes as a woman, a robot, Jack the Ripper…. My favourite is Robert Lee Hall’s 1994 book, Exit Sherlock Holmes, which outs him as a time-travelling alien. Aside from the ever-terrifying internet, there aren’t that many proper gay Holmeses. He has been queered, though, by Joseph R.G. DeMarco in short stories collected as A Study in Lavender. It’s charming to see the Holmes and Watson’s relationship develop beyond innuendo. Doyle’s estate has actually given the red light to ‘explicitly homosexual’ film adaptations. Apparently that’s ‘not true to the original spirit of the books’. Not only is this startlingly homophobic , it’s also ignorant. Whether or not he’s ‘explicitly homosexual’, Sherlock Holmes is a queer icon; a queer hero; one of us.