I am a longtime fan of the BBC show Sherlock, and I’d like to tell you a story of a dream denied, an opportunity lost, and a generation abandoned. I know this sounds overly dramatic, but for many people, this is the way that it was. So please bear with me patiently, because as any child who has ever watched their birthday pass without remark by their parents and family has known, when a deeply held hope is lost, it makes a scar that never really goes away.
What I am talking about is a television episode called The Final Problem (Episode 3 of Season 4) of the television show Sherlock. I watched this episode tonight and it was okay. It has a villain who is both deadly and sympathetic. It has interesting camera elements, and it has a plot that ends with our leads back home with their family solving cases as they always have. All in all, it isn’t that bad. This isn’t about the quality of the show that was shown. It was about the opportunity that the show had to change the world in a meaningful way. An opportunity that was lost.
What I’m talking about is a suggestion made by the writers of the show years ago that the show Sherlock was not a detective story, it was the story of a detective. They said that the show was based on the movie, “The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes”. The director of that movie has said that it was his intention to imply that Sherlock Holmes was a gay man. Because homosexuality was illegal at the time, he could only do so using subtext. That is to say that he could say so by implication, but he could never say it out loud because to do so would mean that the movie could not be made. The movie could not be distributed, because it would be promoting publicly something that was not only illegal, but was culturally considered immoral. The love that Sherlock Holmes had for his best friend could never be uttered. It was “The Love that must not speak its name.”
But we live in 2017, the world is different now, right? If Billy Wilder made that film today, he could just say out loud that Sherlock is a gay man, right? Gay marriage is legal in all fifty of the United States, and the laws preventing its being shown in a positive light in Britain are a thing of the past. There is no reason that anyone would need to hide the sexuality of a gay main character in this day and age, is there?
Cue BBC Sherlock. Since the beginning of the show, the main character, Sherlock Holmes, has been coded as gay. He denies interest in women. He denies interest in human relationships, except with John Watson. He constantly refers to other people as being gay, and the tells that he uses to identify them as gay, are tells that he also generally has. During the course of the show, he only shows deep affection for one character, and that character is his best friend and flat mate, John Watson. Very few people would be surprised at this point if this version of Sherlock Holmes said that he was gay. However, the writers of the show never have the character say that he is.
What does it matter, you say, if one character in one television show doesn’t come out. There are plenty of gay main characters in movies and television, aren’t there? Well, in actual fact, there are not. Look around you. There are very few lead characters in any mainstream works who would admit to being gay. Side characters do, and most of those are relegated to being jokes or being killed off. Even in the twenty-first century, where you would think that gay main characters would be acceptable to a mainstream audience, I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
And this is where BBC Sherlock comes in. It is a international show with a massive following. The main character is coded as gay, and the one of the writers is gay. Because of the nature of the show (a mystery show) it is not uncommon for the writers to hide details of the cases until the very last minute so that people will not be spoiled to the ending and this is where the opportunity came. Many people, hearing that this was the last Sherlock episode for a long time, and hearing that what it was about to show would be groundbreaking, came to the very logical conclusion that the main character would finally mention, in an unambiguous way, that he was a gay man. They were waiting for it, hoping for it, praying for it. Why? Because a statement as simple as, “I am gay,” or for Sherlock to look into John’s eyes and say, “I love you.” Either statement would have been television history. It would have been text, not subtext. It would have showed that people were right to believe that things had changed. Gay people no longer had to hide their identity. A character could be gay and still be popular. A story staring a gay man could have an international audience that loved him and said that he was okay to be who he was. This would have truly been groundbreaking.
What did we get instead? A story where it was suggested that Sherlock slept with a female character, who by the way has said unambiguously that she was a gay woman. A story where our main, gay coded, character said “I love you” to a woman who has a crush on him and whose affections he has previously scorned. Multiple images of his best friend’s wife and child to solidify the fact that John Watson is not, nor could ever be accused of having an interest in sexual relations with another man. In fact, it went out of its way to scream, “NO HOMO!” to its audience. To state that anyone who thought the character was gay was overthinking things. It told everyone that it was perfectly fine with keeping suggestions of homosexuality in the closet for another several years.
But this was the absolute wrong message for this time. In 2016, the presidential election in the United States meant that conservative social values were on the rise. The appointment of cabinet members that believed openly that being gay was a disease and that electro-shock therapy was a valid treatment for it, caused many mainstream Americans to be afraid of what was to come. Young people, especially those who are gay, were looking for signs that it was okay to continue to be who they are. That it was okay to say publicly they were gay. When they heard that the new season of Sherlock was planning to make television history, many assumed that Sherlock would say he was gay, and they were waiting for it. If they had done so, it would have sent a powerful message, an international message, that Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Queers existed, and that they had a right to exist. By NOT sending this message, by backing away from this message, the creators of Sherlock have lost a colossal opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of people all over the world by validating them, by giving them representation in a very public way. They could have done it. They could have done it easily, but they did not.
The easy answer would be to say that the writers never intended to say such a thing in the first place. I can show you a dozen evidences that that is not the case. The very same writers who made Sherlock have made characters very like him who are openly gay. Making Sherlock Holmes openly gay would not have been a stretch. But Sherlock is a huge international phenomena, a money maker. If this Sherlock were to openly call himself gay, then many countries would refuse to buy the show. Also, the very same political movements that make young gays wish for acknowledgement, are the ones that are seeking to deny them a voice. There are forces coming into power which actively seek to silence non-traditional voices. This is why a Gay Sherlock would have made such a big difference now. To have the message go out before the anti-gay lobbies get their hands on the entertainment industry would have been a coup. It would have had long term effects that would have been felt for generations. Instead, we get a lukewarm episode that denies that gays have any existence or validation at all. Yes it mention that Sherlock’s psychopathic sister once had gay sex, but that just supports the fact that this is considered abnormal and amoral. The time to make a stand was now, the time to have made a stand was yesterday, and it was missed. It was lost… forever. Even if next year they make a Sherlock episode where Sherlock and John run naked through the streets screaming out their gay love. It won’t matter. We didn’t need gay normalization to come next year. We needed it now, and we didn’t get it.
So what are the consequences?
Right now, right this very minute, in fan spaces, people who were certain that this show would affirm them and their life choices are in shock. People who denied that a gay couple would ever be canon are currently shaming them publicly for ever believing that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson could be a couple. The fans are being laughed at. They are being mocked. Older fans are sending out messages asking young gays not to kill themselves. The final problem is indeed staying alive.
Overdramatic, you say. Why are people so fragile as to put their faith in television shows. The fact is, it isn’t just about the show. It’s about the backlash. Every one of those “I told you so’s”, every smirk from a friend of family member who tells those children that they were reading too much into the story, is a sign that they, as gay or bisexual people, will never be accepted by the mainstream. It is a strong message that the closet is still there, and that they should stay in it.
Visually, the show has Sherlock Holmes and John Watson living in the same flat and caring for Watson’s child while they work together. They could have easily acknowledged themselves as a couple and been a positive image of a same sex family. Instead, by throwing up images of girlfriends and wives, by denying that anything other than friendship is even possible between these two buddies, they are sending a very strong message that nothing has changed. They can throw around references that insane women, villains, sex workers, and drunks can be gay, but no decent, upstanding men can be, and certainly no main characters.
If I get comments on this article, I predict that there will be a host of ones that say that it was stupid of me to even imagine that a character so venerated as Sherlock Holmes could ever be degraded by making him gay. I will get insults, and mockery that probably insult my intelligence and possibly mock my age. I predict these responses will occur, because that is what I have seen happening on other sites. Even in the twenty first century, the mainstream is not willing to acknowledge gay stories, or gay people.
As a black woman who has rarely ever seen herself on film, I can attest that seeing images of smart, intelligent, black women (Like the woman in Hidden Figures) can have a strong positive affect on the psyche. There are millions of people out there dying for similar images of smart, happy, gay people. Denying them those images is oppressive and soul crushing. Sherlock had the chance to make a difference, and they dropped the ball. They dropped it and let it smash to the ground. They will never get that faith back again.
For those of you who are wondering where to find positive gay images, I suggest that you start by looking to small independent presses, and film makers. They are out there, and they want to show you those messages. Gone are the days when Hollywood was the only game in town. Independent works are being filmed by direct subscription, and crowd funding campaigns. Support these works and help to flood the world with what you want to see.
I probably will remain a Sherlock fan, but I won’t go to the BBC for guidance on stories any more. The true authority on Sherlock Holmes for me now is the Sherlock Fandom who write hundreds of stories with decent, affirming, characters who have healthy homosexual and heterosexual relationships.
For me 2017 will be remembered as the time we dreamed, and our dream was denied. From now on, We must take our dreams in hand, and build them ourselves without expecting others to do it for us. It won’t be easy, but I guess for us, “It is what it is.”