history

Queering LGBT History: The Case of Sherlock Holmes Fanfic

This summer, I fell for BBC’s “Sherlock” hard1 — hard enough to drive me back to fanfic. Fanfic has grown up in the past decade: it now has activists, “aca-fans” (academic fans), and copyright lawyers, and a nonprofit defending artists’ rights to disseminate transformative works, including fiction. My casual intention to fill the wait till next season with fanfic rapidly developed into academic fascination, especially because I discovered that its writers are challenging traditional notions of sexuality and narrative in ways that mass media and even academia aren’t.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that some of the problems about LGBT historiography I discussed last week could be mitigated by our adopting a transformative fiction philosophy. Allow me to map the landscape of queer fanfic, using Sherlock as an example, before I argue that point.

Sherlock fans have been writing fanfic ever since Arthur Conan Doyle (or ACD, as fanfic writers call him) was still writing. Anne Jamison, an English and fan-culture scholar, has described the output of the Sherlock fandom over the past century as essentially transformative works. This includes not just unpublished fanfic but also myriad films, novels, and TV programs, because they all transform the canonical ACD stories, in form and content, with a fan’s devotion to “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written about.”2

The genealogy of fanfic for BBC’s Sherlock is particularly rich for my interest in transformative fiction, because it’s a nesting doll of referentiality. BBC Sherlock fic riffs on Moffat and Gatiss’s twenty-first century reincarnation of Sherlock, which itself riffs on ACD’s Victorian Sherlock and the many twentieth-century reincarnations which the program’s creators have declared canonized.3 Fic writer A.J. Hall, as Jamison points out, can make reference to BBC’s Sherlock, ACD’s Sherlock, and a 1950’s “fan-authored pastiche” Sherlock all in one fic4 — yet no one would mistake that fic for any of its source texts.

This is the difference between “canon” and what fans call “headcanon.” Canon is the Ur-text, a status to which fan writers make no claim of aspiring. There is a certain playful value attached to incorporating elements from canon (Sherlock’s affinity for bees shows up in many fics, as well as the TV program), but these nods exist within “headcanon” — a fan’s personal parallel world(s). “Headcanon” exists alongside “canon,” depending upon the source for basic inspiration (usually its characters) but freely recreating the source in a conscious departure from it.

Fans use these parallel worlds to explore what could have been or might be, especially as regards sexualities that have not found mainstream representation. There is no conclusive literary evidence that ACD conceived of his Sherlock and John as “homosexual”; their relationship presents as a romantic friendship, although those were going out of fashion when he was writing. Likewise, despite queerbaiting, Moffat insists that his Sherlock is not gay, let alone ace. In fanfic, however, literally any interpretation goes.

Myriad fanfic categorizing tags allow readers to find what version of Sherlock’s sexuality appeals to them: gay “Johnlock” and asexual!Sherlock/bisexual!John cover some of the more popular ones, in addition to “OT3s” (One True Threesomes) and a plethora of kinks (the usual varieties, along with furries, fauns, and male pregnancy). While these labels can flatten the contours of the actual uniquely queer praxis within individual works (in the same way that LGBT labels can elide sexual and gender complexities), word-of-mouth reviews of the ways in which a writer imagines two characters negotiating an unprecedented relationship reminds me to keep an open mind about my expectations when see a fic’s tags.

Although authors and readers both have pet theories about what Sherlock’s sexuality “really” is, the fan writer’s explicit self-distancing from “canon” means that a plurality of “headcanons” co-exist on the periphery of the source text. My friend can ship gay Johnlock, I can ship bisexual!John/straight!Mary/asexual!Sherlock, and fanfic satisfies both our preferences without (much) argument between us.

In this way, we might think of historical LGBT icons as personal role models without needing or intending to make claims about their “canonical” sexuality. In my parallel narrative, Joan of Arc is patron of trans* rights and John Henry Newman is patron of asexuality. Neither of these is true in historical reality, and I would never write an essay to “prove” it, but that’s my “headcanon,” and (if I may abuse a neologism) — I’m shipping it!

Next week: a coda in honor of Asexuality Awareness Week


Notes

  1. Apologies for the Reichenfeels.
  2. Anne Jamison, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (Dallas: BenBella, 2013), 17.
  3. Ibid. 11.
  4. Ibid. 9.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Overwriting History: “Just Reading” and the Case of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.

Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1  To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of  this will was a deliberate erasure of what they perceived to be a same-sex relationship from public memory in order to “sanitize” Newman’s biography before sainthood.2

In response, the Vatican commissioned an article that, in reactionary fashion, proceeded to do just that. Ian Ker, a professor and priest, insisted that Newman and St. John’s relationship was purely platonic; that Newman had fought off heterosexual lust as a youth and remained committed to continent celibacy as a priest; and that had Newman been alive today, he would surely have submitted to the wishes of the Church, even if She wanted him reburied away from his dearest friend.3 Ker also would claim that none of Newman’s human remains had been discovered in the exhumation.4 With these four claims, Ker discredited the possibly homosexual nature of Newman’s relationship with St. John at the same time as he called into doubt the enduring existence of the relationship itself.

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The public debate over Newman’s identity—saint or sinner, homosexual or celibate5—in 2010 echoes the public debate over Newman’s identity nearly 150 years earlier. In 1864 Newman responded to the criticism of Charles Kingsley, a popular author and adherent of “Muscular Christianity” who publicly accused Newman of displaying perversion in his converting from the Church of England to the Church of Rome—which, since the Reformation, had in England been popularly associated with sodomizing popes and the Whore of Babylon. Curiously, this exchange has today led to scholarly and non-scholarly speculation about Newman’s sexuality.

When I researched Newman for a class on Victorian life-writing, I was struck by how Newman constantly battled public misinterpretation of his life choices and writings during his lifetime. Hence, his publication of that autobiography—an attempt to definitively set the record straight on his supposed perversity. The way in which readers still endeavor today to read between the lines of his writing for evidence of sexual preference seems to me to unravel his endless work to prevent others from commandeering his self-narrative.

This potential for misinterpretation is a problem with declaring historical figures to be “lesbian/gay/bi/trans*.” To call George Washington Carver simply “gay” erases the whole history of slave castration in the American South. To call Joan of Arc simply “trans*” ignores the complexity of early notions of sartorial gender transmutability. Likewise, searching for Newman’s active (homo?)sexuality overwrites not only his stated longtime personal preference for celibacy but also the value of romantic friendship as a relationship that doesn’t have to be hetero–, homo–, or any kind of– sexual.7

To counter this tendency, queer-studies scholar Sharon Marcus advocates a reading process she terms “just reading” as a means of avoiding falling into the trap of “symptomatic reading”—that is, reading our modern versions of sexualities into earlier texts. For her, “‘just reading’ … attends to what texts make manifest on their surface.”8 The symptomatic readings of Newman’s supporters in 2010 looked for “symptoms” of homo– or heterosexuality in Newman’s life. A just reading would take Newman’s text at its word, perhaps with an eye to understanding what it meant for him, as a Catholic priest in nineteenth-century England, to be a celibate man in a romantic friendship. For this reason, “just reading” helps to do justice to the text, its author, and the full spectrum of queer possibilities across the centuries.

Next week: Queering LGBT history


Notes

    1. Ian Ker, “Oxford and Rome Again,” in John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 698.
    2. Robert Verkaik, “Plan to Exhume Cardinal is ‘Homophobic’,” Independent (London), August 25, 2008.
    1. Ian Ker, “Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Exhumation Objectors,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2008, weekly edition in English.
    1. Ibid., afterword to John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 747.
    2. This is their strange set of false dichotomies, not mine.
    1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua & Six Sermons, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 137.
    1. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.

Images of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John’s grave marker found here: http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2010/09/pope_to_beatify_cardinal_newma.html


Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

Recuperation as Resistance: The Icons of LGBT History

 

As I mentioned last week, the original premise of LGBT history month was to spend some time each day in October learning about a new LGBT “icon,” some from current LGBT history and some from the past (and some who are quite problematic, but more on that next week). “Icon,” to me, is a curious word choice. We use it colloquially to describe media “icons” like Ellen Degeneres or George Takei. We also sometimes talk about “icons” of literature, like Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa, or everybody’s favorite flamboyant Victorian, Oscar Wilde.

Where I’m coming from as a researcher of Early Modern Catholicism, however, “icon” carries a lot more political weight. Intended as representations of holiness, artistic icons of saints offered their venerators a means of more immediate connection with someone from Christian history with whom they could identify. Icons were also instrumental for educating the masses about their faith heritage. These were especially important qualities of Early Modern iconography for English Catholics during the Reformation, when the dominant ideology was bent on either converting or persecuting all the Catholics out of England — literally destroying their icons in the process. Icons thus also served as a cause around which the community rallied.

We can see reflections of this kind of political iconology (so to speak) in the icons of LGBT history. Looking to figures in which one sees oneself, especially famous figures, is a way of seeking support in a hostile setting where one is “different” or unwelcome. A significant purpose of the “It Gets Better” project (conveyed through that modern iconographic medium, YouTube) has been to offer  words of encouragement and affirmation to troubled LGBT youth from people just like them who have suffered for their sexuality but have finally arrived at a “better” place. Likewise, especially during times of persecution, to seek out icons of all orientations from the past and share them with others inside the community builds connections among individuals in the community, and between the community and its past.

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A key goal of LGBT history month is thus recuperation — locating where heteronormativity has obscured queerness and bringing queer icons back into the light, to resist the status quo which delegitimizes gender and sexual minorities by declaring them modern “corruptions” with no historical precedent. Although visibility in recent decades has actually made things better for LGBT Americans, it’s still not better enough for many, perhaps especially (ironically) in religious communities.

Thus queer religious studies is a growing field with both academic and activist investment. Frederick Roden writes about the Catholic aesthetics of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a Victorian couple who wrote together as Michael Field. Leslie Feinberg names Joan of Arc as one of hir transgender icons for preferring execution over suppressing her desire to wear men’s clothing.1 And many gay Christians will point to David and Jonathan from the Book of Samuel as models for the Christian same-sex married life. This is the process of identification with historical figures that guides much of the everyday practice of LGBT history. David Halperin, who literally wrote the book on How to Do the History of Homosexuality, describes the process by saying, “Identification gets at something, something important: it picks out resemblances, connections, echo effects. Identification is a form of cognition,” requiring “the ability to set aside historical differences in order to focus on historical continuities.”2

Would Michael Field have described themselves as homosexual? Possibly—the word was coming into use towards the end of their career. Would Joan of Arc have considered herself to be trans*? Not likely, at least not in fifteenth-century France—she had different words for describing why it was her God-given prerogative to dress like a man. Were David and Jonathan the original same-sex couple? In a way, maybe, but that’s not really the point. What is important is the possibility of recognizing the queer aspects of these figures and applying them to modern settings. Like Early Modern Catholics saw themselves in the icons of historical saints, we can bridge past and present to make one long LGBT history by seeing ourselves in these queer icons.

Next week: The problems of writing over history


Notes

  1. Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 31.
  2. David Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Bristol: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 15.

 

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Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

 

A History of LGBT History

 

October is a beautiful month. My favorite bike trail smells like toast, crumbly apple crisp becomes a perfect midterm snack, and the trees are a rainbow of fire. When I walk past the striated maple on my way from class, I secretly like to think that maybe this is why October is LGBT history month.

I know the real history of LGBT history month, of course. First observed in 1994, these thirty-one days of celebration, reflection, and activism grew out of National Coming Out Day, which takes place every year on October 11. October 11 is itself the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. LGBT history month itself, then, has an illustrious history.

Appropriately, one of the demands of the later 1993 March on Washington was for LGBT visibility in school curricula — a sort of collective “coming out” for LGBT history. To this end, a Missouri teacher named Rodney Wilson conceived of LGBT history month as a way to learn about gay and lesbian figures from our recent and distant past. Since then, schools and communities have expanded the scope of the month to include more gender and sexual minorities and more events like lectures, talent shows, and safer-spaces workshops. At its core, however, LGBT history month remains invested in its name: recovering and creating a history authored by and for sexual minorities.

In many ways, this is still important work for our present. In even recent history, sexual minorities had to live off the radar of mainstream, heteronormative society. This resulted in an occlusion of the rich history of sexual nonconformity, which its detractors took advantage of. As queer-studies scholar Elizabeth Freeman describes it, “since sexual identity emerged as a concept, gays and lesbians have been figured as having no past: no childhood, no origin or precedent in nature, no family traditions or legends, and, crucially, no history as a distinct people.”1 Erasure has been one of the key weapons that dominating forces has historically wielded against minorities of all kinds. This is one reason why the incorporation of LGBT history into school curricula remains controversial. Thus, rediscovering LGBT history — filling in the blanks that heteronormativity has generated by writing sexual minorities out of the general history — is an act of resistance and a reassertion of value.

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But there is reason for skepticism about LGBT history from within the queer community, too. The idea that we can have an LGBT “history,” in which we can trace queer “ancestors,” buys into a heteronormative concept of time — that is, linear, reproductive time. There is also the problem of identifying figures from centuries past as “gay” or “lesbian”: not only does doing so efface one’s right to self-determination and self-identification, but it also erases the variety of erotic desires that exist outside the LGBT acronym — modes of desire which pre-date the concept of homosexuality, and sexual identity itself.

Over the next few weeks, I will look at how we “do” LGBT and queer histories (and what’s the difference) from a literary perspective: in particular, what it means to (re)construct a queer history, and the advantages and pitfalls of identifying queer figures in literary history. My examples will come especially from English literary history, since that is where my doctoral research is focused, but I hope that this discussion will illuminate conversations in other literary and non-literary fields. I’ll also consider the ways in which we can locate queer histories within the past while remaining responsible to individual actors in that history.

By way of analogy, I know that my reading of LGBT history in the trees on campus is factually incorrect, not unlike calling Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe “gay” is factually incorrect — if only because to Marlowe “gay” described color, dress, joy, pleasure, and not homosexuality. But I wonder if there’s something in the seemingly queer aesthetic of certain literary texts — like my rainbow trees — that can help us appreciate the beautiful depths of LGBT history.

Next week: Recuperation as resistance


Notes

  1. Elizabeth Freeman, introduction to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies13 (2-3) (2007): 162.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”