Toward a broader recognition of the queer in the BBC's Sherlock

Amandelin A. Valentine

University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, United States

[0.1] Abstract—With an eye toward the growing body of scholarship on the new Sherlock (2010–), this article considers both the show's possibilities for queer identification and the limitations of analyses of the show that rely too heavily on Holmes's relationship with John Watson as evidence of Holmes's queerness. Despite the producers' proclamation that Holmes is above sex, much less gay sex, the show is ripe with a queer subtext that viewers have recognized and reclaimed as their own. Several scholars have examined Sherlock's appeal to these viewers, but their focus has primarily been on the ways these readings conflict or intersect with how the show and its producers understand him. This article calls for a reading that conceives of a queerness outside of the homosexual domestic. Using José Escobar Muñoz's theory of disidentification, I argue that we should explore readings of the show that do not demand validation of queerness through normative relationships and behaviors. Instead, Sherlock's illegibility allows him to exist in a queer space, outside both essentialist and constructivist ideas of who and what people can be.

[0.2] Keywords—Disidentification; Fandom; Sherlock Holmes; Slash fiction; John Watson

Valentine, Amandelin A. 2016. "Toward a Broader Recognition of the Queer in the BBC's Sherlock." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The BBC's critically acclaimed reboot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective stories, Sherlock (2010–), has a dirty little secret: Sherlock gets up to all sorts of things in the shadowy, slashy corners of the Internet. With over 80,000 works on fan fiction archive sites and nearly 50,000 of those featuring male/male erotic adventures (otherwise known as slash), Sherlock's position as a contemporary queer icon cannot be denied. Despite the producers' proclamation that Holmes is above sex, much less gay sex, the show is ripe with a queer subtext that viewers have recognized and reclaimed as their own. Several scholars have examined Sherlock's ambiguous status as a queer text, but their focus has primarily been on the ways these readings conflict or intersect with how the show and its producers read him. Others have conceived of Holmes as a contemporary antihero, compelling in his complexity and social ineptitude. Instead, I focus on the construction of Holmes as a character who is recognizably queer—though this recognition troubles the very people constructing him. Using José Escobar Muñoz's theory of disidentification, I suggest that we explore readings of the show that do not demand validation of queerness through normative relationships and behaviors. Muñoz's theory is particularly applicable to fan communities, as it acknowledges the subject's ability to find or create space within texts and contexts that are otherwise coded to exclude them. While much of the criticism surrounding the show's queerness or, alternatively, queer-baiting focuses on the relationships between Sherlock and John Watson, Irene Adler, and even Moriarty, I wonder if it isn't a step backward, rather than forward, to consider Holmes's sexuality as contingent upon others', when his very ambiguity may be why the show has such a profound resonance for its queer fan base.

[1.2] Sherlock's Holmes provides a point of identification in a cultural moment marked by gender and sexual fluidity, shifting identity boundaries, and a sense of disconnection from mainstream expectations. In particular, he demonstrates an inability (or, perhaps, unwillingness) to color within the lines of traditional gender performance, sexuality, and personality. This inability or unwillingness seems to resonate with an audience increasingly struggling with these issues in their own identity formation. Though the original Sherlock Holmes is commonly seen as a paragon of traditional British masculinity in all of its logical, legible, patriarchal glory, Tom Bragg's work on the original stories argues that Doyle struggled to reconcile his hero's transgressive, contradictory masculinity with the traditional, chivalric variation he preferred (2009). The BBC's new Sherlock provides a contemporary lens through which our expectations of these values are interrogated and, ultimately, queered. This queering is a significant reason for the show's immense popularity, particularly among members of its fandom. In claiming Holmes as a queer figure, viewers are able to disidentify with a character whose illegibility and contradictions speak to a queer experience.

2. "Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes?"

[2.1] Sherlock's popularity has not gone unnoticed, and there is a growing body of scholarship interrogating what, exactly, makes this particular adaptation so compelling for the modern audience. Sabine Vanacker and Catherine Wynne's 2013 collection, Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives tackles the modern Holmes more generally. Bran Nicol's essay in that volume on adapting Sherlock for the 21st century highlights the detective's "work and occasional indiscretions" (2013, 125) as essential to his appeal, while the idea is introduced that fan works "focus on scenes not described in the canonic stories, or develop and speculate on certain characters" (97). Louisa Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse's collection "Sherlock" and Transmedia Fandom focuses more specifically on the BBC series. Lyndsay Faye's prologue, "Why Sherlock? Narrator Investment in the BBC Series," notes in particular that "humans are compelled to fill in the blank spaces upon the map, and thus one may argue that a hero about whom very little is known proves to be the most compelling sort" (2012, 5). It is this ambiguity that has made Sherlock a site of such intense scrutiny and analysis. Faye argues that although the canonical Sherlock Holmes is "monastic…his extreme reticence to discuss any aspect of his sexual inclinations has led to speculative romances for him of every nature imaginable" (2012, 6).

[2.2] Judith Fathallah considers the interruption of heteronormative performance and paradigm in the BBC series, arguing that even as the show works to disrupt normative masculinity, it either delivers such disruptions as jokes or undermines them by quickly backpedaling to explicitly reinscribe the characters' normativity. She introduces Lee Edelman's No Future to discuss how Sherlock fulfills Edelman's "manifesto for jouissance and embrace of the death drive" through Holmes's, Watson's, and particularly Moriarty's performance of (or failure to perform) traditional masculinity (Fathallah 2015, 497). In "Queer (Mis)recognition in the BBC's Sherlock," Stephen Greer (2014) also addresses elements of queerness and recognition in the show, though he determines that the show ultimately creates a "(mis)recognition." He notes, in particular, that while Holmes and Watson are often misrecognized as a gay couple, the show's seemingly essentialist defense of the binary of gay versus straight works to close down the possibilities opened by their unusually intimate bond.

[2.3] To limit one's reading of Sherlock's queerness to his relationship with Watson is, however, as reductive as is the gay/straight binary that critics argue the show relies upon. Instead, we can recognize the doctor as heterosexual and the detective as queer in a way that does not depend upon a monogamous, faux-normative romantic bond between them. To do this, we must look for gay romantic possibilities beyond those patterned on the heterosexual. In "Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)streams," Lynne Joyrich notes that representation of queer identities on television has moved beyond the inclusion of explicitly nonnormative characters. She explains that the very nature of television programming is becoming "more queer: more eccentric and playful, more connective and transformative, with more stand-out strangeness than just stand-up straightness." She goes on to define queering and the queer as separate parts of speech, with the verb queering referring to "the process of playing, transforming, and making strange" and the noun queer as "identifying people who are 'recognizably' LGBT" (2014, 135).

[2.4] Both of these elements are at play in Sherlock, though we might benefit in our understanding by updating Joyrich's acronym to LGBTQ+, as it's the + that is perhaps most relevant here. She explains also that television programming has been the very definition of mainstream for years and "is still typically seen as the most ordinary, everyday, and commonplace of our media forms." In contrast to this, she defines the queer "as the subversion of the ordinary, as the strange, as the irregular" (Joyrich 2014, 134). Because of the possibilities for this sort of subversion on television, some scholars have referred to the genre as a haven for the nonnormative. Quinn Miller, in "Queer Recalibration," explains that primary television texts "serve as scaffolding for a broader array of intertexts, paratexts, extratexts, and auxiliary texts that, in drawing out cross-pollinations and meanings that exceed standardization, draw out the networks of meaning within which representation comes to life in its queerest manifestations" (2014, 143). Even as Sherlock relies on these same kinds of texts for its canonical characterizations and deductions, Miller's observation produces a general lens through which the viewer can read Holmes's characterization as decidedly outside of the normative. Queer fan readings proliferate in interactive settings, frequently online, where the very boundaries that contain the show's text are blurred and bent. Using the show's subtext and Holmes's transgressive characterization, many viewers construct narratives that address the moments occurring between the ones depicted in each episode.

[2.5] Can the nonnormative remain illegible, though, without undermining the queerness of the text? In "Slashing the Fiction of Queer Theory: Slash Fiction, Queer Reading, and Transgressing the Boundaries of Screen Studies, Representations, and Audiences," Frederik Dhaenens, Sofie Van Bauwel, and Daniel Biltereyst note the problematic tendency of some LGBT advocates to "normalize" queer relationships by paralleling their structure with traditional heteronormative paradigms. Specifically, they argue that "queer theorists are concerned mainly with how gay and lesbian scholars try to legitimize homosexuality as a sexual minority by positioning it within the binary construction of homosexuality versus heterosexuality…As a result, these minorities remain conceptualized as the opposite extremes in a spectrum where the center is intact." They further note that queer theory is a "conscious refusal of labels" and that it "emphasizes a retreat from binary thinking" (2008, 337). This binary thinking plagues readings of Sherlock as a show whose failure to follow through on its homosexual subtext undermines its queer presence. It is important to acknowledge that Holmes doesn't have to be homosexual to be queer, and he certainly doesn't have to be romantically or sexually involved with Watson.

[2.6] Instead, Holmes's queerness is the result of a collection of nonnormative characteristics that exclude him from traditional paradigms of identity and sexuality. His very illegibility may be what appeals to the diverse group of fans who both receive and reciprocate the pleasure of reading (and writing) Holmes as a queer character. He deviates completely from traditional expectations, which very well may be the quality that makes him so compelling. Though scholarship has often identified slash writers as predominantly heterosexual females, these labels again revert to a limiting binarism—after all, how traditionally heterosexual can a woman be if she invests so heavily in the production and consumption of queer erotica? Francesca Coppa's "Sherlock as Cyborg: Bridging Mind and Body" illustrates the limits of these identity binaries even—or perhaps especially—when discussing fans. She notes, "Sherlock, by putting all these binaries on the table—man and machine, intellect and desire, public and private, nature and culture, primitive and civilized, sane and crazy, straight and gay—but not quite managing to put them together in a way that looks normal…attracts a female and queer mediafannish audience that is looking to renegotiate and integrate these binaries in new ways for themselves" (2012, 218).

[2.7] In fact, writing (slash) fan fiction has only recently emerged as a mainstream occupation. For many years, the practice itself was transgressive—something writers and readers generally hid from their nonfannish friends and family under the assumption that these more normative loved ones would find the practice deviant. In "A Critical Eye for the Queer Text: Reading and Writing Slash Fiction on (the) Line," Rhiannon Bury relates one fan's experience of confessing her slash proclivities to her husband: "He finally broke down and admitted that he thought slash and homosexuality were just sick and that I was a lesbian because I liked it" (2006, 1156). Bury also references Alexander Doty's Making Things Perfectly Queer, in which he argues that a variety of identity sites and locations can be read as queer, noting that even a viewer who identifies as a heterosexual woman may obtain pleasure from reading the "gay erotics of male buddy films" and that "queer reception…stand[s] outside the relatively clear-cut and essentializing categories of sexual identity under which most people function" (1993, 16, 15). In fact, it is the ambiguity of many characters that compels fans to recognize them as queer. For Sherlock, this recognition transcends the erotic pleasure of a queer reading and provides a site of identification. A motivated searcher could likely find a fan-authored slash text for virtually any media product, but the discourse surrounding Sherlock goes beyond these texts, revealing that many viewers find their own queerness embodied in Holmes.

3. "If anyone out there still cares, [John Watson is] not actually gay."

[3.1] There may be no better place to begin discussing the queerness of Sherlock than with its ostensibly least queer character—or, at least, the character whose heterosexuality the producers go to the greatest lengths to affirm. Scholars have criticized the show's relentless denial of Watson's potential romantic or sexual attraction to Holmes, and it's certainly difficult to miss the smoke signals, skywriting, and billboards Sherlock has put up to remind us that Watson is the hetero king of London. The markers of his masculinity are overt from the first: he was a soldier, he keeps a gun handy, and he has difficulty sharing his feelings, even on a blog. These elements of characterization are carried over from the original stories; Bragg, in "Becoming a 'Mere Appendix': The Rehabilitated Masculinity of Sherlock Holmes," notes that while many critics have attributed Doyle's mention of Watson's military service to an atmosphere of Imperial anxiety, it serves an important additional function. He explains, "To Victorian males…the reference would signify the most heroic qualities of British manhood in the face of adversity…By including these conventional adventure stories and military references, Doyle masculinizes the ambiguous atmosphere of [A Study in Scarlet]" (2009, 12). He further notes that "the conservative Watson" was "always closer to Doyle's preferred style of masculinity than Holmes" (2009, 11). The BBC's adaptation functions in much the same way—though Watson and Holmes form a close, intimate bond, Watson is wearing the traditional pants in the household.

[3.2] Watson's heterosexual leanings are constantly affirmed, and critics are quite right in noticing that much of this affirmation occurs immediately following someone's misrecognition of him as Sherlock's romantic partner. We're hardly fifteen minutes into the first episode of the series before this happens: their landlady Mrs. Hudson tells them there's a second bedroom upstairs, if they'll be needing it; she sympathizes with Watson's burden of a husband who's always on the go, but not to worry, they've got all sorts around here—even some gays who are married; Sherlock's brother Mycroft wonders if there might be a happy announcement coming; Angelo, the restaurant owner, offers Sherlock and his date anything they want, on the house. With both John's heterosexuality and its perceived diminishment when he's in the company of Sherlock established, the restaurant scene tasks John with asking Sherlock the questions to which those around them have already been assuming the answers:

[3.3] John: You don't have a girlfriend, then?

Sherlock: A girlfriend, no. Not really my area.

John: All right. Do you have a boyfriend? Which is fine, by the way.

Sherlock: I know it's fine.

John: So you've got a boyfriend.

Sherlock: No. ("A Study in Pink," 2010)

[3.4] When Holmes rather delicately attempts to discourage Watson from what he perceives to be romantic interest, he does so without referring to an incompatible sexuality: "John, I think you should know that I consider myself married to my work, and while I'm flattered by your interest…" Though we might consider this scene as an instance of queerbaiting, to do so is to undermine this important first step that the show takes toward revealing Sherlock as a queer character. Whereas John is flustered and a little defensive at the suggestion that they may be romantically involved, and anxious to assure his new (maybe gay) flatmate that he's not homophobic, Sherlock is concerned not about what this discussion means in regard to identity and recognition, but rather about what it suggests about the dynamics of their budding relationship. As Jennifer Coates notes in "The Discursive Production of Everyday Heterosexualities," "heterosexuality, like gender, is performed; in other words, sexual identity has to be repeatedly and interactionally achieved" (2013, 537). Coates even argues that "when someone has an affair or claims she does not want children or does not align themselves with the dominant norms of masculinity or femininity, they undermine the taken-for-granted nature of heteronormativity, and thus queer it" (2013, 549). Though Watson's heterosexual identity is supported by his statements, Sherlock's never is—he wanders away, seemingly unconcerned, from every attempt to identify him as either homo- or heterosexual. The one character who consistently interacts with Holmes as though he were an eligible bachelor of traditional bent is Molly Hooper, a morgue registrar with a blatant and enduring crush on Holmes. Sherlock's apparent (and out-of-character) obliviousness to her romantic affection for him may serve a comic purpose, but it also serves to decenter a normative reading of him. We are supposed to believe that while Holmes can easily read the interest of Molly's allegedly gay new boyfriend, Jim, he is incapable of recognizing it in Molly herself.

[3.5] Of course, unlike Sherlock, John does date throughout the series. He dates quite prolifically, in fact—unsurprising, since he seems to leave few female characters unpropositioned in his efforts to perform the work Coates notes above. More than that, he is apparently quite successful with the ladies, which indicates that John on his own does not read as queer. It's only when he's with Sherlock that these assumptions are made, and one has to doubt that Londoners are quite that parochial. It must be the presence of Sherlock, then, that nudges John across the line from eligible bachelor to sexually ambiguous. It's not insignificant that Watson is quick to correct all of these misconceptions, but then it's also not insignificant that Holmes never does. John's denials function as a reflection of his discomfort with what everyone seems to recognize as a beautiful (and very queer) friendship.

[3.6] Though scholars have paid much attention to the restaurant scene in the show's first episode, there are others that give, perhaps, a more intimate view of the relationship. "A Scandal in Belgravia" (2012) is particularly rich in examples. Roughly halfway through, as John and Mycroft rush to evaluate Sherlock's mental state following the apparent death of Irene Adler and, just in case, clean 221B Baker Street of any drugs or related paraphernalia, John's girlfriend Jeanette waits (long-sufferingly) on the couch. "You know," she says, "my friends are wrong about you. You're a great boyfriend…Sherlock Holmes is a very lucky man." She has but one request in answer to his protestations: "Don't make me compete with Sherlock Holmes." Later in the episode, when a shocked John meets with a still very much alive Irene, Irene observes a similarity between herself and John:

[3.7] Irene: Are you jealous?

John: We're not a couple.

Irene: Yes, you are…

John: Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes, but, for the record, if anyone out there still cares, I'm not actually gay.

Irene: Well, I am. Look at us both.

[3.8] In this episode, then, we have two women commenting on John and Sherlock's relationship, both of whom are in a position of some authority on the issue. Irene's opinion in particular should carry significant weight; after all, she knows what people like.

[3.9] While the show also freely allows strangers to misrecognize John and Sherlock's relationship, these two women are bound to the men with their own forms of intimacy. Is it really fair to say that they, too, are mistaken when they identify the relationship as queer? Is there room for a humorous misrecognition in these scenes? We could discount the innkeeper in "The Hounds of Baskerville," Angelo's assumptions in "A Study in Pink," and the almost kiss of a fan's fantasy in "Many Happy Returns" as attempts at lighthearted flirting with queerness, but Jeanette's and Irene's investments in the two men are far from superficial. Instead, the moments in which the women identify John and Sherlock's relationship as queer are significant—with Jeanette, the moment marks the end of her relationship with John; with Irene, it highlights a point of profound affinity between her and John. Irene Adler is a gay woman and John Watson is a straight man—what they should have in common is an attraction to women, but instead it is an intimate bond with this man. The balance of comic relief and uncomfortable insight may lean a bit self-consciously toward the former, but we're doing the queer possibilities of the show a disservice if we disregard the latter.

[3.10] In many ways, Sherlock honors the sexually ambiguous origins of its hero. Bragg has argued that Sherlock Holmes began his long life as a "marginal, sexually-problematic figure" who, "despite Doyle's best efforts…would never be so uncomplicated a proponent of manliness and normality as the soldiers, explorers, and athletes that people Doyle's other fiction" (2009, 4). Similarly, Sherlock's Holmes stands in contrast to much of contemporary heteronormative television masculinity. Rebecca Feasey, calling on Raewyn Connell's Masculinities, argues that those dominating the cultural climate are "white, heterosexual, competitive, individualist and aggressive men in the paid labor force" (2009, 358). In his stirring "Masculinity as Homophobia," Michael S. Kimmel explains the performance heterosexual men put on to be sure that no one gets "the 'wrong idea'" about them: "every mannerism, every movement contains a coded gender language…Never dress that way. Never talk or walk that way…Always be prepared to demonstrate sexual interest in women that you meet" (2005, 148). We can loosely identify a hegemonic masculinity as one that is dominant, emotionally controlled, violent, sexually accomplished, powerful, and demonstratively superior to women and homosexuals. Kimmel makes much of the power of the "sissy" slur to incite a man's fear and anger, and it's not much of a leap from this pejorative to John's stubborn repetition of "not gay," "not gay," and "still not gay." In his responses to many of these early misrecognitions, he performs the traditional hegemonic knee-jerk response to an accusation of homosexuality: emphatic denial. It is all the more significant, then, that Sherlock himself never deigns to comment. His failure to comment is so total, in fact, that all his closest friend in the world can say on the subject is, "Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes."

[3.11] Even if we highlight those elements of traditional masculinity that Sherlock does display—dominance, emotional control, superiority—we cannot translate these qualities to heteronormativity. The instinct to read Sherlock's masculinity (or femininity, for that matter) as proof of his sexuality is problematic. Queerness and masculinity, after all, are not mutually exclusive, and to complacently conflate the masculine with the heterosexual reverts to essentialist perceptions of gender and sexuality that harm, not help, every viewer. The markers of Doyle's straightening out of Holmes may very well have been patriarchally hegemonic, but we must hope that a contemporary audience is better able to accept these traits in individuals all along the spectrum of gender. In "'Real' Men: Construction of Masculinity in the Sherlock Holmes Narratives," Joseph A. Kestner notes traits that were "radically gendered as masculine in Victorian culture: observation, rationalism, facticity, logic, comradeship, pluck, and daring" (1996, 77). Sherlock's detective may very well embody these qualities, but so do a variety of other characters in our popular culture lexicon who are not normatively male: the teen girl detective Veronica Mars, the plucky college girl comrades of the Pitch Perfect movies, and several (very queer) gentlemen in Queer as Folk. Within Sherlock itself we have John's wife, Mary, whose secret skill set draws upon the same masculine markers that characterize her husband. We simply should not assume that the presence of these "masculine" characteristics unambiguously indicates hegemonic heteronormativity. To premise analysis on the hopefully outdated assumption that a masculine male character cannot be queer is to discredit the many queer individuals who embody such characteristics and might relate to such a character.

[3.12] Sherlock does not shy away from depicting LGBT+ characters textually. Our first example, of course, is Harriet Watson, John's lesbian sister, whom Sherlock at first misrecognizes as a straight man. Then we have Irene Adler, whose very introduction comes on the heels of a set of scandalous photographs of her and some unnamed female member of the royal family. A more muddled example may be James Moriarty's performance as the closeted gay boyfriend of Molly Hooper in "The Great Game"; Sherlock immediately reads him as gay, but is not in the least surprised when Jim apparently recognizes a queerness in him and discreetly gives Sherlock his phone number. It's easy to gloss over this moment, as Moriarty later admits to playing dress-up so that Sherlock would read him as queer, but the fact remains that no one in the room at the time finds it unusual that a gay man would be hitting on Sherlock Holmes. Ultimately, Sherlock's sexuality is completely illegible, which leads critics to a variety of conclusions: he is gay, or he is very straight, or maybe he is asexual, or possibly he is just above sex. There is another option, though it's less satisfyingly definite: Sherlock's illegibility allows him to exist in a queer space, outside of both essentialist and constructivist ideas of who and what people can be.

[3.13] As Guillermo Avila-Saavedra reminds us in "Nothing Queer about Queer Television: Televised Construction of Gay Masculinities," "queer studies propose that sexuality is not restricted to heterosexuality or homosexuality, a binary system reinforced by hegemonic patriarchal societies, but is a more complex array of gender possibilities" (2009, 7). Further, he argues, "representations of gay and lesbian identities in the mass media are occurring in a rather conservative period for American society and therefore are harmless to heteronormative values. Homosexual images are presented in a way acceptable for heterosexual audiences by reinforcing traditional values like family, monogamy and stability" (2009, 8). It is arguably these faux-heteronormative elements that we find wanting in Sherlock if we deny its queerness on the basis that Watson and Holmes are only misread as a joke. To demand a Sherlock whose romance with Watson is physical and canonical is to fall prey to the mainstream trend of "queerness that is less socially threatening: that of the urban, sophisticated gay male…In the radical, disruptive sense of the term, there is nothing queer about queer television when the flexibility of the term is reduced to an interpretation that reinforces the traditional homosexual/heterosexual binary" (Avila-Saavedra 2009, 11).

[3.14] Certainly, one way to read John's stalwart heterosexuality is as a disavowal of the queerness of the relationship. Another way to read it, however, is as a point of normativity against which Sherlock's deviance stands in stark contrast. When placed alongside Watson, Sherlock is demonstratively bent. This is perhaps never more evident than when John and Mary marry (and accidentally reproduce) in "The Sign of Three" (2014). The wedding ceremony is both the peak and the foundation of the heteronormative. It is, Coates notes, "the taken-for-granted end-point of the (heterosexual) romantic journey" that does "enormous ideological work, reaffirming what is 'normal' and acceptable in Britain today. A traditional wedding is one of the most visible symbols in our society of heteronormativity" (2013, 537). This particular wedding is a symbol for which Sherlock is painfully aware he has little affinity, though he endures and even attempts to adapt to it in service to his profound relationship with John. In fact, "The Sign of Three" stands out as one of the most textually explicit acknowledgments of Sherlock's queerness. It is in this episode, after all, that we see Sherlock participating most closely in the "sissified" wedding planning activities of cake tasting and seating planning, while simultaneously planning a booze-soaked bachelor party. We see him both folding fancy napkins and threatening to ruin Mary's ex-boyfriend if he seems too attentive. We see, too, the way he either opts out of or fails to be aroused by the traditional wedding party mating activities—made evident by Janine's obvious interest in him and his obvious disinterest in her. "I wish you weren't…whatever it is you are," she says, gazing at him with an air of longing regret. He replies, "I know." What, then, is he? Janine is yet another intimate companion who finds herself unable to put a name or label on what Sherlock is. It is difficult, after all, to read the performance of a person who cannot be located on either side of our most popular binaries.

[3.15] Though Stephen Greer offers a way to read Sherlock as queer, if opaque, he still finds that "the queer potential within Sherlock's depiction of a broadly post-homophobic cultural space imagined by the series is nonetheless constrained by narrow and normative associations of gender and sexual identity" (2014, 51). Focusing on the idea that sexuality and identity are readable from a set of epistemic social markers that signify their wearer's identity with near-certainty, Greer finds that while the show's canonical "(mis)recognitions" might suggest a queerness, "the recurring 'joke' of the first two seasons may enact a kind of regulation which constrains the terms of intelligibility that exist for relationships between men, even as the possibility of other attachments and identities is implied" (2014, 66). Though Greer's analysis thoughtfully considers the potential of both the homosexual and the homosocial, it focuses on the possibility of discovery of a sexual or romantic relationship between John and Sherlock as the central point of queerness in the text. The illegibility of this relationship, however, is not the problem—it's the answer. In presenting an intimate bond between a man whose sexuality is never in doubt and one whose always is, Sherlock queers these boundaries and the way they are so narrowly and restrictively represented in much other programming. If we want Sherlock to address the possibility of identities and relationships that step outside of the heteronormative binary, we need to stop evaluating it in the terms of that binary—Holmes's identity cannot and must not depend on Watson's.

[3.16] What could (and often does) problematize a reading of Sherlock as queer is the insistence of its writer, Steven Moffat, that Holmes is neither gay nor asexual. Moffat asserts, "There's no indication in the original stories that he was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn't want the distraction. What does that tell you about him? Straightforward deduction. He wouldn't be living with a man if he thought men were interesting" (Jeffries, 2012). Of course, Moffat's insistence that Doyle's Holmes was celibate by choice rather than queerness has its own problems—namely, the inconsistencies between such an assertion and the text of the show. How, for example, can we believe that Holmes finds women so interesting if he fails to notice Molly Hooper's repeated attempts to get his attention? What are we to make of the dozens of literal question marks that make up his first reading of Irene Adler's nude body? And what of the great detective's earliest origins? Bragg's analysis contextualizes Holmes's character as

[3.17] uniquely suited to celebrate many Victorian masculine paradigms, managing to move from one style to another with a seamless grace: the cold scientific reasoner but also the committed artist, the consummate professional but also the gifted amateur, an honorable conservative but also a "bohemian" outsider…Rife with contradictions, he is able to reconcile differing models of masculine behavior…but these very contradictory qualities that suit him to this widely acknowledged role also problematize his masculinity, opening him to suspicions of abnormal behavior and transgressive sexuality which Doyle was always at pains to contain. (2009, 4)

[3.18] Like Moffat's, Doyle's preference for traditional masculine values faltered as a result of his depiction of the detective as "an effeminate and morally ambiguous character, with hints of social deviance," and his attempts to rehabilitate Holmes were only partially successful (Bragg 2009, 4). These contradictions plague Moffat's incarnation, as well. Despite Moffat's desire, and that of the show's other creators, to write Sherlock (and have him read) as a definitively masculine, logical, straight-as-an-arrow-but-celibate-by-choice paragon of British masculinity and rationalism, the text itself is rife with queer subtext. Judith Fathallah explains that Moffat's perception of Holmes reflects "the series' investment in a well-known model of white British neoimperial masculinity and triumph of the individual over the social" (2015, 492). This model is not the one that is recognizable to or resonant for a significant portion of the show's fans, however. Instead, these fans have found their hero in a man whose social awkwardness, intensity, and ambiguity make him defy easy categorization. The Watson/Holmes paradigm may take for granted that viewers will position themselves with John, the everyman—indeed, Fathallah notes that Martin Freeman, who plays Watson, is frequently cast as "archetypal 'nice guys' who get pulled into adventures and emerge as unlikely heroes"—but many viewers find themselves identifying with Holmes instead (2015, 494).

4. "Desperately unspoken"

[4.1] The question we ask, then, is whether Moffat's perception of Holmes can define or even reflect the way the character is received by the audience, or if we must allow Sherlock's textual ambiguity and illegibility to speak for themselves and value, instead, the show's resonance with its queer audience. In Disidentification: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz details a process of disidentification that allows the subjective memory to reformat experiences, "letting it work within…internal narratives of subject formation" (1999, 4). Since much of the representation of queer identities on 21st-century television errs toward the normative in order to defuse the impact of its subversion, likely in an effort to avoid alienating mainstream audiences, people who claim nonnormative queer identities may have to read between the lines to find themselves represented in the media. These viewers already know that representations of themselves are unlikely to be explicit, so points of identification (or disidentification) rely on subtext to straddle the mainstream and the queer. Sherlock performs just this straddling, and while Moffat's denials of Holmes's queerness are adamant, they are also external to the text and contradicted by any number of experiences and observations within the show.

[4.2] As Muñoz explains, "to disidentify is to read oneself and one's own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to 'connect' with the disidentifying subject," or to "hold on to this object and invest it with new life" (1999, 12). The process of disidentification with Sherlock, then, may be not only to find oneself within nonnormative moments, but also to find oneself within the normalizing discourse that surrounds them. Though some aspects of the show may attempt to use Sherlock's self-diagnosed "high-functioning sociopathy" to associate the character's queerness with antisocial behavior, it is clear to many in the audience that the story is a redemptive one. Sherlock is redeemed by his relationship with John even as John is rehabilitated by it. The unusual intimacy of their bond, along with Sherlock's status as an outsider to traditional heteronormative paradigms, speaks to its queer audience, regardless of how many times John Watson reminds us that he's not gay.

[4.3] As is increasingly the case with popular cultural texts, the published critical work on Sherlock is only one small part of the conversation. Turning to the online fandom reveals a number of critics whose work is, in its own way, published and peer reviewed. Sherlock fan scholars perform close textual readings and detailed analyses of the show that move beyond mainstream expectations of erotic fan fiction. In one such reading, Tumblr user EmmyAngua notes, "3 series. 3 finales. ALL of them have the same ending. John is in danger and Sherlock chooses to die to protect him" (Tumblr post, December 9, 2015). Another user performs a close analysis of the development of John and Sherlock's relationship throughout the series that she titles "Desperately Unspoken: The Ongoing Relationship between Sherlock and John," arguing that its queerness exists not in what is said, but in what remains unsaid:

[4.4] They can happily enjoy their sexual tension without either of them having to alter their plans or their identity. Sherlock has sort of let him off the hook by being resolutely disinterested in sexual or romantic relationships. John is safe to feel whatever he likes, essentially. Sherlock will remain unthreatening to John's self-perception, because if John does feel something for Sherlock, it can be safely channeled into their work and their unorthodox friendship. (Ivy Blossom, Tumblr post, January 11, 2014)

[4.5] These "amateur" readings of the text, fueled by both insight and investment, manage to create what few published scholars have achieved: a queer space in which Sherlock and John can blur the normative lines of male friendship and attraction without being forced to conform to some sort of norming gay or straight standard. Another fan responds to Moffat's rejection of a queer or asexual identity for Sherlock by referencing Moriarty's "playing gay" scene: "Moffat makes me laugh. Also if Sherlock isn't gay then why does he put product in his hair? Moffat's show told me that is definitely a sign of homosexuality in men" (raonndx, comment on a Tumblr post, December 9, 2015). Coates's analysis of the social performance of heterosexuality explains how these identities must be actively perpetuated (2013). As the fan readings demonstrate, claiming that a text is straight is not the same as proving it to be—to establish Sherlock as a heterosexual would require the show to "repeatedly and interactionally" validate that identity (Coates 2013). Instead, the text repeatedly and interactionally destabilizes any possible heteronormative identity for Holmes.

[4.6] It may be tempting to write off fan analyses and recognition of the show's queerness as part of the increasingly public phenomenon of online fandom, but we must also consider consider Sherlock fandom's remarkable impact and reach to evaluate how recognizably queer it is in comparison to similar offerings. Another Moffat-written show, Doctor Who (2005–), which is comparatively popular in many other online fandom venues, had 55,116 works on the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own as July 29, 2016. Of these, only 14,567 are tagged m/m (male/male erotica or romance). The CBS show Elementary (2012–), which similarly features a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, has only 2,093 stories in the archive, 246 of which are tagged m/m. The 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. have a total of 1,612 stories in the archive, though the proportion of m/m stories here is staggering at 1,108. In contrast, Sherlock currently has 88,688 stories published, of which 52,941 are tagged m/m. The three most popular when these searches were done, "A Cure for Boredom," by emmagrant101, "Performance in a Leading Role," by Mad_Lori, and "Nature and Nurture," by earlgreytea68, have a combined hit count of over 1,525,970.

[4.7] If we turn our attention to asexuality, a less mainstream orientation that is frequently cited in discussions of Sherlock, then we find much lower numbers overall. The Archive of Our Own lists a mere 5,001 stories tagged "Asexual Character," but of these, 776 also feature Sherlock Holmes tags. The "Asexual Relationship" tag has even fewer entries, only 925; of these, 186 relate to incarnations or versions of Sherlock Holmes. Roughly 20 of these tagged "Sherlock Holmes and related fandoms" and either "Asexual Character" or "Asexual Relationship" are about the Downey films rather than the BBC series, while the Elementary tag has a handful of stories containing asexual relationships or characters. Sherlock is also one of the ten fandoms that contain the most stories tagged "Aromantic," "Queerplatonic," "Genderqueer," "Trans Character," or "Pansexuality." Since Archive of Our Own claims to include stories from more than 22,250 fandoms, then Sherlock's strong representation across the taggable spectrum of LGBTQIA+ fan works bears consideration. These are not isolated readings, and it would be shortsighted to discount the queer resonance Sherlock has with its audience.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Sherlock's story is still evolving, and so must our understanding of its text and subtext. Ultimately, however, I believe that readings of the show's queerness that rely on a physical relationship between Holmes and one of the men (or women) in his life revert to a destructive binary that adheres too closely to essentialist definitions of gender and sexuality. What Sherlock does, with or without the validation of its producers, is to present a character whose identity is entirely illegible, and in this very quality, it is a site of profound recognition for its queer audience. Holmes may be gay, or he may not. He may be asexual, or he may not. He may even be straight (or he may not). What he continues to be, however, is a point of identification (or disidentification) for viewers to whom his inability or unwillingness to find a place within the hegemonic, heteronormative paradigm of "traditional values" is a point of rare representation in popular culture. The show's writers and producers may be guilty of queerbaiting, as some scholars have argued, but they may also be guilty of mainstream baiting, since the first three series of the show have no textual denials of Holmes's queerness, only extratextual ones. If we limit our reading to the text itself, however, and (metaphorically) kill its author, we find that Holmes's queerness is as frequently textually rendered as Watson's heterosexuality.

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