As I get closer and closer to defending, it seems like the right time to post one of the oldest and longest-surviving parts of my dissertation. This is an autobiographical narrative that shows up in Chapter 1, an as-yet-unnamed chapter about the complications of queer desire when it comes to shipping.
Picture a car driving down the 401, somewhere between Ottawa and Toronto and on its way to Waterloo. In the car, a young(ish) woman with pink(ish) hair is sitting in the passenger seat, staring out the window trying to hide the fact that she’s holding back tears. That’s me, sometime in the somewhat recent past. I’m trying to explain to my father what my research is about, so I do what I normally do when talking to people who don’t know what fandom, fic, or shipping is: I talk to him about the John/Sherlock ship and the fandom that believes that John and Sherlock could end up together, romantically and canonically, in BBC’s Sherlock.
I say something like “There are a lot of people who think that there’s more than just friendship between John and Sherlock. People write stories where they fall in love.”
He says something like, “It’s okay to imagine that.”
I could stop there – getting people to understand that fic is okay, that writing stories using other people’s characters is okay, is surprisingly difficult. So, the fact that he’s fine with people writing stories where two fictional men fall in love is probably a win. I should take it.
I don’t, though. Because there’s something about the way he says it’s okay that feels off – that says there’s a silent but.
“Well, some people aren’t just imagining it. They think that John and Sherlock are in love – in the show. Like, they write essays arguing that the show will actually end that way.”
He’s not as okay with that. I don’t remember exactly what he says in response, but I do remember hearing the words “weird and strange.” As in:
“It’s one thing for people to imagine whatever they want, but to think that they have the right to make their weird and strange stuff part of someone else’s story …”
Or, “Having John and Sherlock be in love is just … weird and strange.”
Or, “Why do they have to make the relationship all about this weird and strange…thing? Why can’t they just be friends?”
He follows this up by explaining that he doesn’t think gay people are weird and strange. Being gay is fine (phew). It’s just that saying that fictional people could and therefore should be gay is weird and strange. It’s not weird and strange that any one person imagines that they’re gay, it’s that a bunch of people agree on this and then get upset when Moffat teases them with jokes about how everyone in the show (wrongly) assumes that John and Sherlock are gay. That’s what’s weird and strange.
I explain that John says, several times in the show that he’s “not gay,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s straight. He says “not gay” (and not “I’m straight) in a show that depicts a woman in a relationship with another woman falling in love with a man. Bisexuality, however unnamed, exists in the canon of Sherlock thanks to Irene Adler. So: couldn’t John saying “not gay” be a way for him to say that he’s bisexual? Isn’t that a logical conclusion?
“Maybe, but why would they add that? The story is good as it is.”
I explain that John thought he was on a date with Sherlock, in episode one, and still met up with him at Angelo’s. It wasn’t a date, but John went there thinking it might be. And, I add, getting into a familiar rhythm, Sherlock never actually says that he’s straight either. Just that he’s more into his work than men or women. He doesn’t even say that (or if) he prefers one over the other. No one says they’re queer, sure, but no one says they’re straight, either. What we do know is that the two men repeatedly fail to have a lasting relationship with anyone but each other.
But – despite never having had this argument before – he’s ready with counter-points:
John says that he’s not gay and most people know that means he doesn’t find men attractive.
It’s not a date.
John dates women. He marries one!
Sherlock is a man of the mind, not of the heart or body.
They’re really good friends. Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t we celebrate media that portrays friendship? Not everything has to be a romance.
Why do you assume that two best friends who live together and work together have to be gay?
Isn’t that kind of weird and strange?
Aren’t you kind of weird and strange?
(He doesn’t say that last one out loud, but I hear it.)
At this point, I realize I’ve made a mistake: there’s no way for me to win this argument. I’ve lost before I’ve started, just by agreeing to the playing field. He wants to find out what’s true and he wants proof that what I’m saying is accurate. I don’t really care about what’s true (death of the author and all that) but I still want him to understand. I just want him to get that so many people feel this way, and we’re hurting because we keep being told that we’re stupid to even want it. I don’t want to have to prove it to him, I just want him to feel it too.
I could just stop. I should change the topic to something safer. But then I’ve lost by forfeit: if I stop, he wins and I lose, because debates about proof are zero-sum games. And this is a game for him – a fun debate about something that no one else has ever brought up to him before. It’s a fascinating intellectual exercise and he enjoys stretching his mind to find way sto shoot down my arguments.
And I’m staring at the highway outside my window willing my voice to sound calm and hiding the fact that I’m crying.