As I woke this morning, I was contemplating the changes modern tales have been making to Sherlock Holmes and how they reflect social change. Holmes was pretty sexist in the 1800s, and now Watson is a woman in the mainstream. Holmes was pretty racist in "Three Gables," and now we have the race-bent comic Watson and Holmes. The one boundary we still haven't fully crossed, however, is the one that has more solid Canonical footing than either of those others.
Dr. Watson wasn't a woman. We know that. Holmes and Watson weren't black. It's an interesting change to see them so, but still a change. But answer me this: do we know for a fact that Sherlock Holmes was not gay?
Yes, we've seen slash fiction, where everybody and their brother is having man-on-man sex and cuddles with each other. But when you shift the entire universe away from vagina-friendly, it takes away from a true exploration of what a gay Holmes was going through in Victorian England. Life is easy for him if his room-mate is gay, too.
But Watson married and moved out, and is obviously fond of the ladies in the original text. Sherlock Holmes, however, gets away with "women are never to be trusted" and never actually having a heterosexual relationship over the course of three decades, and mainstream Sherlockians have tended to leave that alone, or else shove him into an off-screen dalliance with Irene.
Irene Adler. "The" woman. She who beat Holmes. In the very story, Watson specifically writes: "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler," and he couldn't say it any plainer than that. And yet we still want to make Irene the detective's beard.
I don't give Elementary a lot of credit here, but I will give it this. It has managed a whole season with a male Holmes and a female Watson without even hinting that they have to have a romantic relationship. And to me, Sherlock Holmes coming out of the closet could only be done faithfully if his relationship with a male Watson sticks to that same disciplined approach.
"Faithfully" is the key word here. It's easy to twist Holmes into being a vampire or a wizard or a what-have-you if you completely leave the Canon behind. You can be as true to the original sixty stories as can be and still have Sherlock Holmes be a carefully closeted gay man. It's not so unrealistic to even see that as the reason Watson seems to be in and out of Baker Street so much. Yes, he actually married and moved out one of those times, but perhaps his first departure was an impulsive move after being initially shocked to find his fellow lodger's tastes didn't match his own. (The horrified Watson of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes comes quickly to mind. That movie danced on the line of a gay Holmes, but inevitably came back to him just liking "bad" women.)
It's interesting to look back and see how easily old school Sherlockians have playfully questioned Holmes or Watson's gender without ever giving serious study to the elephant in the room. Those were different times back then, of course, so you can't really blame them. A culture that didn't accept letting women into a certain major dinner until the 1990s wasn't going to . . . hey, wait a minute . . . (Okay, not going there.)
In any case, now that we're seeing explorations of Holmes and Watson in ways Victorian London would never have permitted in their original incarnation, perhaps it's time we truly explore a Sherlock Holmes that could have existed, that maybe even did exist, for all of the mainstream blinders in that direction.
"You say we go round the sun," Holmes once said. "If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."
And neither would Holmes actually having been Canonically gay. Let that phrase roll around in your head for a minute: Canonically gay. That way all along.
The times, they are a'changing, but we still have a ways to go. The day we see a mainstream Sherlock Holmes who truly doesn't favor the ladies, as we know he didn't, perhaps we'll know we're finally there.