Sunday, May 26, 2013

That Baker Street closet.

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.


  1. Nah. We must agree to disagree. Asexual? Abstemious? Distrustful? Possibly wounded in the past? Much more likely. A classic Aspergian before that wiring was known. Asbergers' folks are notoriously "touch" shy, and obsessed with their favorite topics. Hard for them to build a relationship with the opposite sex. That does not make SH gay, not will it ever in my mind. This interpretation also undermines by attempting to otherwise explain what to me is the strongest depiction of friendship in literature. So to my mind, never. Also apparently not to Moffat and Gatiss, the latter being gay himself.

    1. What's funny is that I find the whole Asberger's theory on Holmes much more controversial than his sexuality. I'm completely on the "not Asberger's, not sociopath" side in the diagnosis wars. (And just for the record, I never agree to disagree. I just disagree and wait for the other person to convince me or come to their senses. And if I'm waiting for all eternity, that's okay, too.)

    2. Okay then, we can just disagree. A sociopath (which I don't think Holmes is) and an Aspie are two very different things. Asperger's is something that is diagnosed on a continuum and at the extreme end is not much like Holmes, I'll admit. But on the milder end, very much like him. However it's also arguable that Asperger's and some other diagnoses, such as bipolar, on their "slight" ends of the continuum simply match up to the Myers Briggs personality categories which were themselves based on Jung's studies of non aberrant behavior, or just variations in "normal" people. A mild Aspie might then be an INTP which is the closest match of the 16. So whether this is a constellation of traits or an actual "disorder" is something that many argue. I don't put Holmes into the extreme Aspie category; he like many Aspies can funciton normally socially, even when missing (or in some cases ignoring) social cues. Holmes of BBC Sherlock is more Aspeergers than canonical Holmes, but there is a resemblance.

  2. Brad, you've been walking through my "mind palace" again! THANK YOU for stating this because I've long felt that Holmes was much more likely to be gay than his possibly dallying with Irene Adler or the more traditional -- as in "Thank god he's not gay" -- option of asexual. Chris Redmond's book, In Bed with Sherlock Holmes, had a chapter about homosexuality in the Canon which did touch on this possibility for Holmes but IIRC he didn't think so. But he wrote that over 25 years ago and attitudes and acceptance have changed quite a bit since then and I wonder how he would write that chapter now.

    The BBC SHERLOCK series seemed to suggest your idea of a gay Sherlock Holmes in the pilot, A Study in Pink, but that has since been used more as a source of humor, to the point where Steven Moffat now denies that possibility by stating that this Holmes is straight but just doesn't have time for sex. How that works with "Women -- not exactly my area" doesn't make sense to me, and really, what healthy mid-30's heterosexual male wouldn't make time for sex if the possiblity presented itself in the form of a naked (and very willing) Irene Adler?

    Elementary avoids the question altogether by making sure we know this Holmes is so straight he'll take on hookers, strippers and two sisters at once. Plus there is his affair with -- you guessed it -- Irene Adler. The fact he hasn't hit on Joan yet seems almost out of character for him.

    You'll probably get some grumbles for this post but thanks for acknowledging the pink elephant in the room. The culture that didn't accept women in it's ranks until the early 90s still has scion groups that are male-only. I can only wonder how they would respond to this.

  3. I couldn't care less about Holmes' sexual orientation, but would love to see a gay Holmes just for the heck of it. Also, I've read a few slash-fics dealing with the difficulties of being gay in Victorian/Edwardian England, so it's not all everyone/everyone.

  4. I think the answer to Holmes being gay ( I don't think so) is in the Persian slipper - there would not be just one with tobacco stuffed in the toe, but two - and on his feet.

  5. This is a fresh and thought-provoking way of looking at it, and the idea that Holmes may have been gay, but that Watson would not necessarily (or even likely) be gay as well is brilliant and (that rarest of things in Sherlock land) new.

    I'll have to turn this one over in my head a while. Not ready to offer an opinion on Holmes' gayness. Either way, of course, it wouldn't have an impact on hs greatness.