Our strongest reactions always take us by surprise.
When a recent vote by a very old Sherlock Holmes society to allow women into its membership after all this time was not met with celebration from all corners, there were some very strong reactions. Two points of view surfaced that were naturally opposed. One, that had long accepted societal barriers and exclusive memberships of elder clubs. Another, that saw those exclusions as a remnant of a past they thought was behind us all. And both got a little surprised by the result.
So where does this leave us? Forgive the past and let the group start anew? Call for a stronger denouncement of the past from the next group to drop a barrier?
Or maybe think about dropping the barriers across the board.
Barrier societies . . . those with rules to exclude or invitation-only entry policies . . . are never built around a positive reason for their walls. If three of my friends and I are having dinner and go "Let's form a club that has the four of us in it!" that's a nice bonding moment. But the moment we go, "Let's select someone else to be in our club, but not just anybody . . . they have to be the right sort of person!" suddenly we're making a negative comment on fellow Sherlockians. Someone out there just doesn't deserve to be in our special club.
Will you find a better time at a barrier society's event than at an open society's event? Personally, I haven't encountered that. In fact, some of my favorite Sherlockian moments have been those dinner evenings when we'd just pick up every Sherlockian we'd run into on our way out of the hotel, like a big Sherlockian snowball rolling down a hill. Snowballs do make some folks nervous, I know. Running out of chairs is one of the ongoing arguments for invitation-only groups. But it's been my experience that chairs can be found if one really wants to find chairs.
What other reasons are there for Sherlockian barrier societies? Well, the biggest one is that having a barrier society creates a thrill for those who do cross the barrier at last. The first women seated at a formerly men-only banquet. Getting your name called after a decade of not hearing it come up. There's a thrill there, a little surge of dopamine, adrenaline, or some other bodily reaction that you'll hear described in the most loving fashion by those who experience it, and then later enjoy remembering that feeling as they see others have the same feeling. It's a cheap thrill, and by cheap, I do mean inexpensive . . . if you don't count the price paid by those who never get to experience that thrill for whatever arbitrary reason a barrier society's leadership decides.
One of the worst arguments I saw during the recent blow-up was someone announcing that a younger Sherlockian could not complain about discrimination because they hadn't suffered it as much as that older Sherlockian had suffered it. People do suffer from barrier societies. The ones most hurt by such things often leave Sherlockiana and get forgotten . . . or if they aren't forgotten, get written off with some variation of "I guess they weren't the right sort" or "apparently not a devoted Sherlockian." They don't record their experience for journals, or go to banquets to relive their experience with the Sherlockian world.
The old model of the Sherlockian society is the "sparking plug" model, where a single person's enthusiasm causes them to plan and organize meetings. Sometimes they have a partner, sometimes they gather a committee, but usually you can see who's holding a group together. And if the personality of that core member thinks barriers are necessary, it's going to have barriers. This is where the "private club" argument comes in . . . though I can't think of a single Sherlock Holmes club that was founded by a public institution and required to let anyone in. All Sherlockian societies are privately run, most are just nice and friendly about it.
Barrier societies tend to get the most attention when they're a remnant of a discriminatory past, as with the "no girls allowed" groups. But they can exist in other forms as well. A happy hobby like Sherlockiana makes it easy to go "La-la-la, nothing but fun here!" and not consider the full impact of maintaining a society with barriers. Yet purposefully not giving something a thought is purposefully allowing it to exist. So we should give these things some thought now and then and consider the choices we're making.
Do we still need barrier societies? Is the rush of crossing the barrier worth the cost to those who never cross? For some, it might always be. But the world is a surprising place these days. You just never know what might happen. Oh wait . . . maybe we should put up a barrier to prevent that.