An undeniable joy in reading the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the sheer number of times that Watson ejaculates at Holmes, including the most perfect five-word erotic story ever written, found in the pages of The Resident Patient: ‘“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.’
There’s also a particularly great scene in The Man With The Twisted Lip involving a ‘heap of shag’.
That viewers of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation might go on to imagine the Great Detective and his Boswell sharing more than just the keys to 221B Baker Street seems a natural progression.
This is exactly what many fans of the wildly popular BBC series Sherlock did, practically before the first episode had even finished airing in 2009.
The posited couple – ‘Johnlock’ in the portmanteau parlance of fan fiction – was subsequently so widely embraced that Time Out ranked them number one in their Valentine’s Day list of ‘London’s Top Ten Couples’, ahead of Wills and Kate, who are not only real people, but an actual couple.
While the romantic relationship was not explicitly depicted, the show’s Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, never confirmed nor denied his sexual preferences onscreen, making him ‘assuredly queer’ according to one media studies scholar: ‘He is suspended within a realm of permanent possibility.’
Over the course of Sherlock’s first three series, a subset of fans, many identifying as LGBTQ, started to take their queer reading of the show one step further, theorising that it wasn’t simply subtext but text.
In countless pages of online analysis, more Derrida than Tumblr, they demonstrated how every onscreen glance and line of dialogue proved incontrovertibly that the show’s creators intended us to see Holmes and Watson as being in love. They became convinced the couple would seal it with a kiss in the upcoming, and likely final, series.
Sherlock’s creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, disavowed the theory completely. As Moffat said, ‘We’re not engaging in a clever conspiracy to write something under the radar, we’re just writing the show we’re writing.’
This denial simply fuelled the fans further, who now not only had a reading, but a conspiracy theory: the show’s creators must be lying to protect the impact of their ‘big reveal’, the characters’ first onscreen kiss.
The word ‘invested’ does not begin to describe the relationship between these fans and the conspiracy theory. For some, their specific understanding of Sherlock had helped them to discover how their own heteronormative conditioning was blinding them from seeing ‘who I truly am’.
‘I figured out I’m bi because of this show,’ one said. It ‘helped me understand myself and come out as a young gay woman,’ said another. Tumblr user weeesi summed it up like this:
I see myself in this show, these characters are like me, and if they can be happy, maybe people like me can be happy, too.
In other words, Holmes is where the heart is.
I know what Sherlock Holmes would say to that. He’d say what a capital pun it is, but also warn that ‘emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning’. He would smile to himself and say he knows exactly how this story is going to end.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson did not kiss.
I watched the aftermath of the series four broadcast unfold online.
‘Ultimately my life doesn’t matter. I’ll never have representation like other people. I’ll never be able to be myself,’ one fan posted on Twitter. This fan had gotten a Sherlock tattoo – ‘ink on my skin I want to tear off now.’
On Tumblr, the numbers for suicide hotlines were circulated. On Reddit, disappointed Johnlock conspiracy believers were ridiculed. Gatiss, a proud gay man, was being spammed with ugly, personal accusations of queer-baiting. A crackpot theory started going around that the BBC must be holding back the ‘real’ episode for a more explosive time-slot.
I never bought into the Johnlock Conspiracy, or more correctly, I didn’t need to. Those who did weren’t so much deluded as simply seeing what they yearned for: the elevation of an iconic queer romance, and its widespread acceptance.
What better platform than the most popular show on Netflix in the world? And what better frontman than Sherlock Holmes, once beautifully described as ‘all that we are not, but ever would be’?
But he’s not the man for the job. He already has a job. He is a detective, a fictional detective. He doesn’t take on real-world cases. Holmes’ availability to us is an illusion, a failure in our logic fuelled by emotion, just like he said. No matter how much we want him to be, he’s not beholden to us, only to the will of his authors. Gatiss summed up this power so frankly it smarts:
It’s our show, they’re our characters, they do what we want them to do.
Were the purveyors of Johnlock wrong in what they saw on the screen? At some point haven’t we all tricked ourselves into seeing what we want to believe? Even Conan Doyle himself who, after creating the poster-boy for scientific reasoning and logic, became an embarrassingly fervent advocate for seances, perhaps because he wanted to believe he could commune with his beloved dead wife.
In a way, this story ends with Conan Doyle being right about that: people can exist in another realm, accessible not via ouija boards, but Twitter.
As the fourth season of Sherlock was airing, a Twitter user called @contactSH with the bio, ‘You know who I am. Sherlock Holmes, the world’s only consulting detective’, started tweeting along with the show. The tweets were identical to those being sent by Cumberbatch’s onscreen Holmes, a neat bit of multi-platform performance art.
After the season had finished though, @contactSH took on a life of his own, while continuing to remain impressively in character. He corrected his followers’ spelling, goaded his flatmate @contactJW into making him tea, and even tweeted at the actual Barts hospital to accuse them of infecting him with a mutant cold from their lab (they replied, of course; you don’t ignore Sherlock Holmes). He took on cases, like a diamond theft in Amsterdam, that were clearly fictional but bolstered by hot-on-the-trail updates and photographic evidence in realtime.
The accounts didn’t have Sherlock’s audience reach of tens of millions, but they did quickly amass 20,000 Twitter followers, including, I noticed, that same fan I mentioned earlier, the one who wanted to tear his Sherlock tattoo from his skin.
And that is where it happened. In front of all those followers, and one hundred and twenty years after Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson started ejaculating at each other: @contactSH and @contactJW kissed.