Furries are a little ridiculous.  We have an understanding about that.  But every blip of attention, even an attack on our second-most populated convention, investigated by authorities as an intentional act, is an occasion for poking fun.  Midwest Furfest is in Rosemont, Illinois, and this year it attracted 4,571 fuzzy folks.  My wife and I are regular attendees, though this year work obligations found us elsewhere.  Very early Sunday morning on December 7th, someone laid chlorine powder in a ninth floor stairwell.  Nineteen people hospitalized (one of them a good friend of mine), and hundreds endangered and inconvenienced, and all of them odd ducks.  Please remember how odd they are, and that they sometimes have sex, which is odder still.  So the gorge of distrust between our community and the media grows wider.  “We’re just not going to talk to you people any more,” we tell ourselves periodically, when the eye of mainstream culture is upon us.  Mainstream culture then obliges us.  A pity, because insulation from outside scrutiny is poisonous for any human endeavor.  But who is ready to cover us?

Paula Young Lee’s article in Salon was briefly heartening.  She is sympathetic to the idea that no one, even very ridiculous people, ought to be beset by poisonous gases, and she is duly critical of those who have a giggle at our peril.  But she runs into trouble when she tries to profile furries as a social phenomenon.  She mischaracterizes the fandom not out of malice, but out of a reliance on sources of dubious relevance. Her article records not a peep from an actual furry, not even a mouse.  How does one get “inside the ‘furries’ craze” without even talking to one of us?

Furry is a subculture of people-animals who like animal-people.  Invocations of the furry “fandom” are mostly for the alliterative utility.  There is no one property, one thing, that we collectively adore.  The “thingness” is a shared quality in us.  There’s something, a furriness, that is deeper than appreciating a cat with a form of dwarfism that is cute.  Millions of children watch Disney’s Robin Hood and go on with their lives, while for others… there’s a kind of lightning bolt that digs into the pit of you and generates a current throughout your whole life.  A drunk person exiting a gathering in a party store zebra costume is not a furry.

What of our sources in the media?  Furries are terribly sensitive about the “Fur and Loathing” episode of CSI.  It’s a TV show that is a fake thing a committee of people made up for entertainment.  The less said about it, the better.  George Gurley’s voyeuristic safari into our spaces, “Pleasures of the Fur” in Vanity Fair, is also infamous in the fandom.  Reading my mom’s copy thirteen years ago, I said, “Well, OK.  Where do I sign up?”  Now that I’m grown, I’m amazed that his subjects were so candid with him.  Profiles written in good faith by outsiders are thin on the ground.  Accurate ones do not exist.  Do not feel discouraged.  If you really “got it” like we get it, you’d be one of us.

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The Graham Norton Show, via typette on Tumblr

So who are we and who am I?  I’m the Hooded Utilitarian’s furry in residence.  I write about furry things because I was invited to.  Dr. Sam Conway might perhaps enjoy a position as an unnofficial spokesperson for furry, but that’s not necessarily what I want out of life.  Though it is nice when people say nice things about what I write. 

I’ve been a furry since I was 14 and started posting my art online.  My “fursona” is a mouse.  Hi.  I draw the mouse as a stand-in for myself, an inspiration from my background in alternative comics, especially the mid-2000 wave of autobiographical material inspired by cartoonist James Kochalka’s daily diary strips.  Furry art pushed me to admit to myself that I love men, and I met my wife at a furry convention.  Go figure.    I’d like to think I’m well-rounded.  You wouldn’t know from meeting me what I’m into, which doesn’t make me one of the “good ones.”  The standards for being the good ones (well socialized, neurotypical, non-sexual) are not good or just or fair in any case.

Animal stories continue to fascinate and inspire me as a writer, and as a kid my particular obsessions were the Wind in the Willows, Redwall books, Aesop’s Fables, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Don Bluth movies in general.  There are Lion King furries and Digimon furries and uncountable Robin Hood furries, but I figure I’m a “little mice in big people world” furry.  Sleeping in a sardine tin, rapelling down a hoosier cabinet on a strand of darning thread.  Those sorts of things still capture me, as I often think of most everyone else as big people world.  It’s a professional as well as personal attachment to me, and I don’t hesitate to identify mself as a furry cartoonist to the outside world.  The alt comics of alt comics.  I may only have a career within the bounds of the fandom.  I think that would be fine.  Though I’m always happy when non-furry small press shows will have me.
 

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A selfie with my wife as Sweatervest Cornbread Peach Pit Jones and myself as Coyote at Rocky Mountain Fur Con 2014.  Suits by Jill Costumes and Kilcodo Costumes.

Sharing this weird thing, it’s only natural that strong bonds can form between strangers from different walks of life, so regular convention attendance can become personally vital and necessary for maintaining strong relationships.  Furries have been meeting like that since the very early 1980s.  Thanks and credit is due to Fred Patten for keeping track.  It could be said that a proto-furry subculture germinated in the funny animal comics fandom, which had been producing alternative press anthologies and fanzines since at least 1976.  Publications like Vootie and Albedo Anthropomorphics were the launching pad for nationally acclaimed comics such as Reed Waller, Kat Whorley and Charles Vance’s Omaha: The Cat Dancer in the former and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo in the latter.  Later zines like Yarf! cultivated comics and stories focused inward and circulated primarily among the furry culture that began emerging as a superset of the existing fanzine scene.  While there was an early gathering at a San Diego Comic Con, furry discussion groups mostly emerged out of science fiction fandom at Westercon, NorEasCon and other conventions.  Small parties and groups grew into formal gatherings and eventually miniature ecosystems of diverse participants.

Fursuiting and comic book/anime cosplay are connected purely superficially, and exist as distinct and separate cultures.  Furry costuming as a tribute to existing characters in pop culture is rare.  Suiting is important to us, though.  It’s the most visible face of our community and is adored and envied widely.  Fiercely competitive dance competitions with contestants in full animal costume are often the nexus of communal energy at conventions. Believe me when I tell you that any kind of physical activity in costume is immensely challenging.  Coordinating a dance routine, conveying charisma and confidence and sex appeal in a blank-eyed mask without overheating is Herculean.  It’s a big deal.  Characters and suiters can accrue a modicum of celebrity, as can the people who make them.  They are sought out for their skill as craftspeople and individual personality.  Jill Costumes made my wife’s suit on commission, and it is modeled after her drawings.  Our friends at Wild Life don’t take commissions at all.  They create whatever creature they fancy at the time and sell them at auction.  There’s a small community of Wild Life suits in Japan.

The furry lexicon journalists trot out is a grand old cliche, and as with any outside attempt at corralling slang, always painfully out of date.  The word “yiff” is legendary.  I’m one of the doomed few manifesting its earnest use in a withering swarm of ironic re-appropriation.  But to most, its use is dreadfully passé.  So meet me at the greymuzzle breakfast with that one.  The jumble of screech and malaprop that furries exchange is plastic and varied.  A friend of mine once innocently typo-d “walf” in place of “wolf.”  Then for a brief time walf WAS wolf.  We ran across a complete stranger once who had printed it in block letters on a tee shirt.  But I haven’t given you anything for free, because wolf is something else now.  You’ll have to wade into furry twitter, a subgenre of interaction with its own elastic parlance and decode it yourself.

Why, man?  Why do we do this?  Well it’s fun and we like it.  We meet our best friends and partners.  We establish small communes and all-furry households and keep each other safe.  A person starts an online discussion board about Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs and a community forms around that.  Furries start making suits, or soap, or a trading card game, or high-end sex toys modeled after dragon genitals, and a community supports a modest living for them.  A charity for rehabilitating abused pit bulls is identified, and that charity is subsequently handsomely funded.  We love animals, and we love cartoons.  Without people who continue to love and fixate on cartoons as grownups, cartoons don’t get made.

And we come to the point where the essay is supposed to take a turn.  But what of a “darker” element?  What about sex?  You want to hear about the sex.  Ok.  A respectable position is one of incredulous denial.  “Oh, THAT stuff?  I’ve heard of it.  Really we’re not about that.  Sex and pornography are entirely marginal in furry, as they are in the rest of the world.”  It’s a defensive posture, an understandable one, a human one, buttressing our identity against a mainstream culture that uses sexual taboo against us.  Marginalized groups are historically hypersexualized by those in power as a tool for keeping us marginal.  Take for example this buzzfeed piece of work.  It is actually well researched, and features actual furries who confirm the writer’s narrative.  The frame is an insinuation that the subject of furry sex is a general anti-social perversity. It uses clearly stigmatizing language and cherry picked news items to portray the sexual impulse as some sort of sordid underbelly of a group of damaged folks.  The ray of hope, and the path to us being respected, is our disavowal of the notion that our culture might touch upon our sexuality in some way.  We’re growing up and getting real jobs that good and nice people have, like as police officers.

Ok.

I don’t tolerate being put through this ringer of conditions for respectability as a bisexual person.  Not to conflate my experience of being a sexual minority in general to this thing I like.  However, I am conscious of the sense of disgust leveraged against furries, who are likelier than the general population to be gay or bisexual, transgender or non-binary, and it doesn’t fly with me.  “Furfag” is the pejorative du jour for furries online, and it did not fall out of the sky.  Why are furries seemingly preoccupied with sex, though?  I dunno.  Why do adult people like Star Wars?  The answer is, who gives a shit?  Or rather, if you might be asking “what causes someone to be like this, instead of like everybody else,” you might be just comfortable in couching something you don’t understand in the realm of pathology.  That’s rude.  Sex is clearly a part of the fandom, as the fandom is a part of our lives which include a desire and drive for sex. Impolite fantasies are not proprietary to outgroups.  Remember when Zeus transformed into a white bull so he could fuck a lady?  That’s not on us.

Furries draw a lot, and we draw a lot of porn.  I’m friends with people who make their living from it.  We can have a catalog of what we like in our favorites gallery.  We might exchange an erotic drawing as a friendly gift.  Artists attract loyal followings with a clear understanding of what they will and will not draw, as the list of things that people might want is long and tall. I like that you get to make your own fun if mainstream porn bugs you or isn’t your thing (it bugs me and is not my thing).  We are fixated on our desires, like everyone is fixated on their desires.  Furry erotic work can be outrageous, uninhibited or self-conscious, imaginative, cute and uplifting and vanilla, or nihilistically depraved.  Many furries are on the asexual spectrum and nevertheless experience great joy in expressing unusual fantasies.  Snouts that stretch absurdly, a dripping goo that transforms a rat furry into a cow furry, a character that inflates like a balloon when you blow into the right nozzle, characters from the video game Star Fox but they are giants and making love against a skyscraper, swallowing a lover whole and now they take a nap inside you, lulled by your massive heartbeat.  Cats and dogs living together!

Furries like to date other furries, sometimes they meet and fall in love and sometimes have one night stands.  Sex in costume is indeed rare, but it does happen, between adults individually responsible for the care and cleaning of their own fursuits.  If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it.  Maybe one day you’ll lock eyes with a coyote in the elevator line and you’ll get zapped with that funny feeling, or maybe you won’t.  The imaginative fetishes and non-standard sexual norms furry offers are in many cases a healthy alternative to mainstream sexuality, which may I remind you is exploitative, abusive, non-loving and cold, especially toward women and gay and transgender people.  There has always been and always will be an internal dialog within the fandom about restraint and consent, about appropriate physical boundaries with costumed folks.  Some pine for an imaginary time before the fandom was tainted by sex, and that’s their prerogative.  But furry sexual culture goes through many of the same ordeals as the wider world.  We hunt out abusers and try to ostracize them, because we want friends and strangers to be safe.  And yet some look the other way when the accused is sufficiently popular.  We try and keep our spaces, online and at conventions, safe and comfortable for transgender and queer folk as furry sexual openness and imagination are not a panacea against harmful mainstream ideas about them.  And yet some are married to treating trans people as objects.  We ask ourselves, all the time, what are sensible parameters for erotic content in our drawings, stories, animations, or are there any?  We’re working on it.  We are tolerant and free, sometimes that is better than the fallen world, other times it is not.  Individually, furry sexuality has been a good thing in my life, though my individual experience isn’t a challenge to or a dismissal of those who have been done poorly by an environment of often unchecked and unexamined horniness.

When I met my wife at a convention in Atlanta, I had already known her online and thought that I might have feelings for her.  I was with my non-furry now-ex-boyfriend at the time, so she and I friends.  Only just friends.  At a later convention in Pittsburgh, we were by chance in the same hotel room alone, and my feelings began to take a definite shape.  There were sparks in the tummy and butterflies in the air.  I couldn’t even keep my metaphors straight.  What does one do in such a situation?  Well, nothing.  This ain’t the movies.

We remained friends, and after my relationship reached its end and I had to move out, she offered her couch until I got back on my feet.  This was a terrible situation!  Being a guest in her house, feeling how I felt about her, would have been a creepy and unfair situation.  So I declined and moved across the country, only to move all the way back two months later, after confessing my feelings in good faith.  We were both waiting for the other to say the thing, the funny thing.  “It seems the unlikeliest thing in the world, but I like you this much.”  That’s the short story.  I love her and respect her and we “get” each other and we’re married and we draw cartoons and watch Fleischer shorts and Tom and Jerry and are best friends.  That’s just a little bit of what furry is to me.

We’re ridiculous, but we have our dignity.  I don’t like what you have to say about us, and I don’t want your sympathy if it means having to assimilate to please you.  I don’t even like damned grumpy cat. The poor creature was named after an ableist slur and her owners ripped off Kate Beaton’s punchline for merchandising.  That’s contrary to furry values, man.  The chance of an outsider cracking our community in a meaningful way is vanishingly slim.  So let us write about our own damned culture, please, and stay out of Malibu, Lebowski.  You employ your imagination only in further stigmatizing us, therefore you are exiled from the furpile, forbidden from our dens, the fuck out of here with your stale memetic condescension.  Furry will be fine.

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