Like a lot of people, I enjoy imagining John and Sherlock as romantically involved. More than that, at least with the BBC show, I think imagining John and Sherlock as wanting to be involved is the most straightforward interpretation of the evidence we've seen. Others have made this case more convincingly than I have, but if you're interested, see here, here, and here for arguments on this point.
Lately, though, I've noticed several people saying that because Sherlock likes John he has to be gay. This isn't directed at any particular person, btw; I've heard the comment outside of my particular LJ friends page + Tumblr circle, and I'm fairly sure I've made it myself. I think, though, it's worth remembering that (just like John can be attracted to Sara or Mary or any other woman without being attracted only to women), Sherlock can be drawn to John without that meaning he's attracted only to men. Or that he even has to be drawn to one particular gender or the other. One same-gender attraction, even a string of them, does not a gay person make.
First, some basic terms. These are are my definitions, but I like to think they're fairly noncontroversial ones and they basically match what I've found in various Wikipedia articles and the APA pamphlet "Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality."
- A heterosexual person is someone who experiences romantic/sexual attraction exclusively or primarily to the opposite gender
- For a homosexual person, it's an analogous situation only here it's to their own gender rather than the opposite gender.
- For bisexual person, it's an analogous situation only here neither gender predominance. You're attracted to your own gender and to the other gender and neither type of attraction really is more of an influence than the other.
(As a proviso, I really don't mean to define these terms for the people who identify as them. If I'm using them incorrectly, please take what follows as me working with the concepts as I've laid them out here, and not trying to make a statement about who you are or should be.)
Some scenarios might make this distinction clearer. Say John is at heart a lady's man; that he's always been sexually attracted to female sex characteristics like breasts and rounded hips and the like. But let's also say he's also attracted to specific men, like Sherlock - but not because they're men; it's for reasons that have nothing to do with Sherlock's gender. The excitement turns him on. Sherlock makes him laugh. He knows he can utterly trust Sherlock to be there for whatever John needs. He's not turned on by male secondary sex characteristics, or character traits our society associates with male-ness, or whatever else. He's just deeply attracted to Sherlock as Sherlock. In this case, I'd say John is predominantly heterosexual. His attraction to Sherlock is real, but it's driven by something other than his usual orientation.
Or take Irene. She canonically says she's gay in Belgravia, but she also canonically has all the physiological indicators of sexual attraction to Sherlock (remember, he took her pulse). Let's say she actually is gay, she is predominantly attracted to femininity and the female body – but she's also sexually attracted to Sherlock for other reasons. His intelligence. The danger associated with him because of his brother. His innocence and her ability to manipulate it. Whatever. Again, this would be an exception to the rule rather than something redefining her sexual orientation. So I'd say Irene is predominantly homosexual.
Now, let's say Greg Lestrade is sexually attracted to some things about women as women but also about men as men. He's married, at least until Baskerville, and he clearly has no problem appreciating Molly in that dress in Belgravia, which suggests he has at least a passing appreciation for the female form. But let's assume (because we know it's true) that he also has a thing for Mycroft. And unlike with John's attraction for Sherlock above, Greg's attraction here isn't an exception to the rule. Rather, he's interested both in women because of their femininity and in men because of their masculinity. This on top of everything whatever other characteristics draws him to the specific person. I'd say, in the scenario as I've laid it out, Greg would be predominantly bisexual; he's attracted to both men and women as men and women. Of course it would be possible to write a different view of Greg, where (for example) his attraction to Mycroft was just because Mycroft's that attractive and his inclination is really towards women generally; but there we're dealing with a different set of facts.
Finally, take Moriarty. We don't really get much of an insight into his sexual drives, but it strikes me as pretty plausible that he'd be attracted to both men and women for a whole host of reasons that don't have a lot to do with how society thinks of gender. I can see him sleeping with Molly or Irene just as easily as I can see him sleeping with Sebastian Moran. If he's attracted to the danger, the adventurous spirit, the ability to turn his mind off for a while and just enjoy sex with another body because it's there without needing that body or the person it belongs to to really match up with what he thinks of as masculine or feminine… well, that would be pansexual. My point here isn't that pansexuality means a non-stop orgy (it doesn't); just that what we know about Jim makes me think he's the kind of guy to see past labels. I can see him liking Molly not because he liked women but because she had a bit of ferocity about her underneath that mousy demeanor. The mouse that roared – whether that mouse was male or female – might be a big turn-on to someone like Jim.
So where does this leave Sherlock? Let's assume that he really is attracted to John. I see three basic options:
- Sherlock is attracted to John as an exception to his inclination. He's heterosexual, but he's attracted to John the same way (in my example above; not the only possible reading of John's orientation!) John is attracted to Sherlock.
- Or, Sherlock is attracted to John as an expression of his inclination. He's either bisexual or homosexual, and is normally attracted to masculinity.
- Or, Sherlock isn't really attracted to gender as such. It's neither masculinity nor femininity driving his attraction. He's pansexual – attracted to people independent of their gender.
- Or, Sherlock isn't really attracted to people sexually at all. He's asexual.
With all those options in mind, I think we can draw one conclusion already: just because Sherlock is attracted to John, this doesn't (all by itself) show that he's gay. He could be attracted to John as an exception to his overall sexual inclination, or he could have an inclination that includes attraction to men but isn't limited to it. So there's that. I think we can be more specific here, though.
Is Sherlock heterosexual? If we just go by the textbook definition of sexuality – attraction predominantly to women as women (i.e. attraction to femininity) – then… maybe. There's nothing in the show that disproves that, but we don't actually see a lot of respect for the feminine form as such or for characteristics Western society associates with femininity. Tie that in with his personality, his skills, the things he's good at. Particularly in series three. He likes to dance. He plays classical music. He has what I can only describe as a rather odd for a heterosexual male knowledge of color palettes, and apparently looks up napkin-folding techniques on YouTube. These are not things that scream stereotypical heterosexual male to me. Of course, there's no rule that can't be a little effeminate and still be sexually attracted to women, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'd say this isn't the most plausible reading of his character.
At this point, I think it's worth noting that Sherlock does seem to have some level of attraction to female characters. He's very taken with Irene Adler, for instance. Up until series three I could write this off as just interest, wanting to be a friend with her, but in The Sign of Three they have her wandering around Sherlock's mind palace in the nude. That's a pretty baldly sexual image, and John at least perceives him as a threat. Then there's Molly. Again up until this last season Sherlock could be viewed as just having a friendly interest in her, a fondness for her; but there were moments in this last series where he seems almost romantically (if not sexually) drawn to her. There's the way he reacted to news about her engagement, for instance. The more she asserts herself, the more she stands up to him, the more he seems drawn to her at a romantic level. While I don't ship Molly and Sherlock like some people do, I actually can see how some people would see the inspiration there.
This last point in particular seems helpful in working out just what it is that drives Sherlock sexually. He can dismiss her as a friend until she shows she has some backbone; at that point, even with a several-year gap, he seems a bit hesitant to accept she's now with someone else. Irene, who is defined by her authority over others and her willingness to take charge in an area where she's quite competent, is fascinating in the intellectual if not the sexual sense. And then there's John. Remember that scene in Baskerville where he pulls rank? Or the Sign of Three meme that all but wrote itself, or even the way Sherlock looked at him after he took charge with Lestrade at the very end of A Study in Pink? This is a man who likes competent, even exceptional people taking authority, but I'm not sure it's limited to men doing that in a traditionally masculine way.
Other factors tend to play into this sexual attraction as well. It's not just taking charge, it's being competent to take charge. Sherlock is drawn to people who are good at the things he values. This means (as Irene puts it) brainy really is the new sexy for him. He's going to value people like John and Irene and Molly because they're good at figuring things out, because they have not only the guts to claim authority but the intelligence to actually do something with that intelligence. I think this is a big part of why he's so drawn to John – because John (as he says in The Sign of Three) knows how to do things. But again, this isn't something tied to femininity or masculinity, whatever those things might mean to Sherlock. Irene is sexy, if she's sexy, not because she takes off her clothes to make an impression; it's because she's good at managing people and working out what they want. She's clever, she's capable in an area he struggles with himself, and that's a major turn-on. John can save lives, he can work out what's good and not-good. Molly can see the worth in him and she's every bit as good of a scientist as he is. These are things that are attractive to him, arguably in a sexual way, but they would be just as attractive if (say) Molly was Matthew, a very-capable but now with added Y chromosome morgue pathologist.
It's also helpful to remember two scenes that actually do discuss Sherlock's sexuality. First, there's the infamous discussion at Angelo's [video]. The version I linked to above is from the broadcast A Study in Pink, but the unaired pilot version is even more interesting IMO. So quoting from Ariane DeVere's transcript:
Sherlock: You may as well eat. We might be waiting a long time.
John: Hmm. Are you going to?
Sherlock: What day is it?
John: It's Wednesday.
Sherlock: I'm okay for a bit.
John: You haven't eaten today? For God's sake, you need to eat.
Sherlock: No, you need to eat. I need to think. The brain's what counts. Everything else is transport.
John: You might consider refueling.
John: So – d'you have a girlfriend who feeds you up sometimes?
Sherlock: Is that what girlfriends do: feed you up?
John: You don't have a girlfriend, then?
Sherlock: It's not really my area.
John: Mm. Oh. Right. D'you have a boyfriend? Which is fine, by the way.
Sherlock: I know it's fine.
John: So you don't have a boyfriend then?
John: Fine. Okay. So unattached, like me. Good.
Sherlock: John, you should know that I consider myself married to my work, and while I'm flattered by your interest, I'm really not looking for any kind of…
John: No. I wasn't asking you out. No. I'm just saying, it's all fine. Whatever … shakes your … boat. I'm gonna shut up now.
Sherlock: I think that's for the best.
Many Johnlock slashers read this to mean Sherlock has no interest in women, but that's not actually what he says, in either version. Having a girlfriend, someone who fattens him up and (by implication) sees to other bodily needs, isn't something he's drawn to – even at the level of knowing what it would mean to have a girlfriend. This doesn't mean he's not interested in sex. It doesn't mean he doesn't want to have sex with other people. It's just that forming the normal, steady girlfriend/boyfriend (or boyfriend/boyfriend) relationship isn't really going to ever be his area.
I'd actually argue this is even more true in light of the "goldfish" discussion with Mycroft in The Empty Hearse. Sherlock does want companionship. It's not that he doesn't want other people around. I do still think, though, that those friendships and romantic attachments are going to continue to be unconventional. He's not going to want to have a relationship just because that's what people do, though he will probably be more open to human connection.
Then there's Janine's interactions with him, both in The Sign of Three and His Last Vow. I'm thinking particularly of Janine's statement toward the end of The Sign of Three, that he wishes Sherlock wasn't whatever he was. Does she mean gay? If this was set in certain parts of America (sadly), I could see people using veiled language to describe someone they believe to be gay. But this is London in 2014. We've had both major characters say since the first episode that it's fine to be gay. I can't imagine a charming, young woman in this time and location, of this social class, thinking she had to hedge her language if she thought Sherlock was gay.
A better interpretation, I think, is that Sherlock doesn't quite fit into the normal gay/straight/bi way of divvying up the population that she's used to working in. She honestly doesn't know what to make of Sherlock Holmes. He's not pursuing or rejecting her along the normal lines she's used to.
So what does all this have to do with Sherlock's sexuality? At some level this boils down to an "it's complicated," because it is complicated. The way I read Sherlock's character, he does experience sexual attraction, particularly after his exile after The Reichenbach Fall, but it's going to be attraction to traits he might see in both genders. Which means if he's attracted to Irene and John it may well be for very similar reasons, their ability to command authority well – and that that attraction will be operating independent of their gender. This is the man who doesn't notice John was gone to Dublin for several days or hasn't worked out his morning tea isn't prepared by magical elves – physical attributes are much less important than psychological/emotional/whatever traits.
But there are other options here. You might think he's more asexual than pansexual, or that he's both (I'm not sure the two are exclusive). You may think that sexual attraction is very rare for Sherlock, making him what's sometimes called a graysexual or simply someone edging more toward that end of the scale without necessarily fitting into that label 100% neatly. Asexuality can be fascinating, particularly if Sherlock still has some romantic interest in John but just isn’t interested in sex, or only rarely so. I for one would love to see a fic with Sherlock falling head-over-heels in romantic love, but without having much if any sex drive.
Authors are also free to make Sherlock homosexual or bisexual or even heterosexual with love for John being an exception to that rule. I struggle to reconcile that both with the Angelo's conversation and Janine's confusion over just what Sherlock is, but if an author wants to make sense of that: more power to you. These are all very interesting possibilities that can make for interesting fic because human sexuality in all its variety is beautiful, but downright messy at times. :-)
My point here isn't that Sherlock can't be gay but, even if you think of him and John as a couple, that's not the only possibility out there. As Sherlock himself would say: Don't be boring.