There is a story my friend Daphny likes to tell. She calls it one of the worst experiences of her life. It involves shrooms, furries and intense paranoia.
The first time she told it to me was last summer, while laying on the grass in downtown Berkeley. For some reason, years ago, she thought it would be a good idea to do shrooms and go to Further Confusion—a furry convention.
Furries, for those that don't know, are a fandom that is interested in anthropomorphic animals—to put it broadly.
Only, Daphny doesn't have much experience with shrooms and eats way, way more than she should. She eats them until suddenly, boom—they hit her and she forgets the English language. At this point in the story, I sit up because it sounds completely ridiculous, but hey, I've also never done shrooms so I can't say either way.
So there she is, in the middle of the hotel near the convention, trying to recall how to communicate with people again when it starts coming back to her... but only V words. Volcano. Vacation. Voluptuous Vorpal. (Don't ask me.)
Then the novelty and joy of ‘relearning' language eventually fades away and she notices there is a fursuit parade happening around her—and this is when she becomes convinced the next ice age is coming, the next ice age is coming, oh god, that's why fursuiters fursuit, isn't it? And, oh fuck, she's not even wearing underwear and "isn't that like the opposite of a furry?" (This is shroom logic, mind.)
This is when her friends notice that she's getting quiet, and the silence makes them think that going to the party floor—a Further Confusion attraction—is a good idea. Except, the party floor convinces Daphny that the convention is actually a celebration for the apocalypse, what with the ice age coming and all. The furries are just being hedonists about their impending doom or something.
Imagine, if you will, music blaring, people drinking, having a good time... and somewhere in there, a woman looks mortified. Eventually Daphny pees herself mid-party—out of fear, maybe? Except, she thinks it's that her water has broken and she must've been pregnant with Freddy Krueger's spawn.
It's probably the most hilarious story I've ever heard, enough that I jokingly thought to myself, sure, I'd consider going to one of those conventions. Who knows what could happen?
A few months later, a mutual friend tweets at Daphny and me asking if we're going to Further Confusion this year. As much as my interest was piqued, I couldn't help but wonder why two people who aren't furries would want to go to such a thing. Wouldn't they not fit in? Wouldn't it be weird?
"Naw, they're really geeky and nerdy, they like crap like games and comics and anime and all that," Daphny assured me. "Also, why not?"
Good enough for me.
This is what I knew, or rather, this is what I thought I knew about furries before attending the convention. I'm sharing this because I think I'm not alone in my assumptions about furries, and because I think it's important to confront stereotypes even if they might not reflect well on us.
Furries wear suits, animal suits. The internet likes to make fun of them—and, by proxy, I did too sometimes. It's easy to make fun of something you don't know much about, eh?
There seems to be this conception of the furry as a highly erotic, sex-obsessed fandom. Like there's just gotta be something nefarious and kinky going on underneath all the cheery, cartoonish suits. I don't even know where this idea came from for me or why it felt so prominent, but everyone seems to have it.
Prior to the convention, as far as I knew, I'd never spoken to a furry in my life—much less discussed their sex lives. The only two people who might've qualified were a couple I knew in college; the girl liked to wear a tail or cat ears sometimes. There was this other girl who liked to draw animals all the time and I'm pretty sure I'd heard her ‘yiff' too.
To recap: I didn't know much of anything about furries. I didn't even know that they were actually a nerdy/geeky subculture until Daphny told me so, at which point the reason that furries became the butt of all jokes in gamer subculture specifically became clear.
Funny though. If gamer nerds are supposed to be the nerd group with some of the most trouble getting laid—that's the stereotype—making fun of a group that, as far as the cliche goes, never stops having kinky sex probably doesn't help ‘our cause.' It just makes us sound like virgin prudes.
Regardless, the point for me was to put aside whatever conception of furries I'd had in the past and go see what the ‘real story' was—talk to some people, see fursuiters in action.
Maybe the stereotypes weren't true. Maybe they were. I was gonna go see.
Getting To The Convention
What the hell do you pack for a furry convention?
I had no idea what to expect beyond the knowledge that doing shrooms at a furry con would probably result in the mirage of an apocalypse and my first-born.
I decided to pack as if I was going to any other convention—like PAX, maybe—and bring a laptop, a couple of changes of comfortable clothes, a handheld, good walking shoes, all my chargers, a camera, notebook for interviews, and plenty of pens.
Daphny and I meet up in Oakland. The plan is to take the train all the way to Fremont, and then board a bus onto San Jose—that's where the convention is. I joke around about finding shrooms because that'd make for a better story, and I even pulled out a Very Classy container of Baileys I brought along that I wanted to finish off/use for pre-game.
In reality though, I'm nervous.
First off, we have no hotel or even a concrete plan of where we're sleeping that weekend. Daphny reassures me it'll be fine, that she has plenty of friends in San Jose that'd let us crash but that we should look into making friends at the con and see if they'd be down to let us sleep . Chances are, we'd probably spend most of the night partying anyway, and all we need is a small sliver of floor to pass out on for a while. We could swing that, she says.
I'm not entirely convinced with this plan, but I go along anyway. I've been known to be too neurotic, and I've heard about how optimists typically have better luck because they're more likely to see opportunities where a pessimist wouldn't... or something like that.
Secondly and more importantly, there's something bothering me about terminology.
"So, um... I don't want to go over there and offend anyone and I know how much words matter, and I don't want it to seem like I'm some insensitive jerk reporter who is probably there to write something awful about the furries and..." I rambled as we sat on the bus.
"What? Wait, what?" Daphny asks me.
"OK so like... when I talk about furries, how do I refer to what they dress up like? I've noticed that I think about it as people ‘pretending' to be animals, but that sounds kind of wrong, like I'm belittling. Or even 'dress up as' sounds weird."
"Do you ‘pretend' to be your spirit animal? No, that wouldn't make sense, would it? If you're a furry you pick out a fursona—"
"—fursona?" I asked.
"Like a mascot or spirit animal you're manifesting physically, I guess. It's what people associate with. It's very personal. It's not a pretend thing, that's them, in a way."
It reminds me a little of the Persona games and how everyone has an arcana, though that probably has something to do with how similar the words ‘persona' and ‘fursona' are.
We start talking all about furries on the way to San Jose, eventually landing on the subject of otherkin—this smaller sect of the furry fandom that believe that their bodies do not match who/what they actually are, and 'who they actually are' tends to be a mythical creature. They might say that they're actually a dragon, as an example.
When people make fun of Tumblr denizens, otherkin are often brought up as this ridiculous group of people that encompass the worst Tumblr has to offer—social justice (they believe in ‘human privilege' and that the otherkin are highly oppressed), people pretending to be stuff they're not (close ties with role playing and fanfiction in this sense, also denigrated), and teenagers that are likely highly confused about their identity all in one package.
Daphny is not a fan.
"Tumblr is a bunch of confused teenagers and we like to pretend we don't all know what that's like or as if we haven't been through that ourselves," she said, "but the thing about otherkin is that they appropriate trans narrative. They claim to have dysphoria, and that their bodies don't match with who they think they are, but the stuff they think they are—dragons, mythical creatures, and so on—don't even exist."
This sounds wild to me, but if I know little about furries, I know even less about otherkin. And just when I start wondering if I'll meet any otherkin while at the con, the Baileys spills all over my change of clothes. Some even gets on my coat.
FurCon 2013, off to a great start.
The Klingon Party
San Jose is, to my surprise, pretty much dead. The convention is in the heart of downtown, and it's a Friday night, but I don't see a single person anywhere. What in the world? Where is everyone?
We get to the convention center and it takes us a while to see anyone in there, too. Eventually—aha!—a furry! We're in the right place.
We try to go register but registration is closed—this means no access to night events at the convention—but we decide to go to the party floor in one of the hotels. As far as we know, these don't require a convention pass. Hopefully we'd get to talk to some furries while there, maybe get buzzed, maybe have a good time.
Not having a hub to go leave our stuff in kind of sucks though. So there I am, in the middle of a Klingon party—the parties are all themed—with a big, Baileys-soaked backpack along with my laptop bag and, oh god, I don't really know how to interact with these people who I know almost nothing about and I feel kind of miserable and—it goes on and on.
I go onto the balcony to catch some air, musing that it would have been perfect for the con to coincide with a full moon. Missed opportunity! I stare out onto San Jose streets, the horizon draped with a foggy, kind of orange tinge.
Silicon Valley. Neat. Orderly. Not a single person out in the streets. You wouldn't think that a place like this would be home to a gathering of (supposed) debauchery, kink and literal party animals—but, here we are.
I notice that nobody at this party is wearing a fur suit, but then it kind of hits me that I've stupidly assumed that furries must wear their suits all the time, even in situations where it wouldn't make sense.
I go back inside and get in line to get a drink. The bartenders are Klingons, naturally. The guy has a giant scar on his face, and I have no idea if it's real or a part of the costume. I'm afraid to ask.
There are stacks of ‘Romulan ale' around me, and the TV in the corner flashes with all sorts of Star Trek geekery. There is a furry head at the top of the snack bar, which I find kind of morbid.
The drinks served at the party are named things like ‘Revenge' and ‘Honorable Death' and ‘Phaser Shot.' They're free, but you're encouraged to donate for charity and expected to be a good sport about it. If you get the honorable death drink, for instance, you need to regale the Klingon bartender with a tale of an honorable death.
My question turns out to be more Star Trek related (I think) and I'm initially refused a drink because I don't know what to respond to the reference.
"Stupid nerd call-outs," Daphny mutters under her breath. She answers for me, the drink gets passed on to her, and she gives it to me. Determined to be my, uh, Furry Sherpa, Daphny also pushes me into a crowd of people and starts small talk. I chug my drink because if I'm gonna do this I might as have a little liquid courage.
Meeting Ray and Cheese
Here I meet Ray and Cheese—both, I assume, are their fursona names. As the weekend goes on I learn few full names, few ‘real'—as in legal—names, but I do learn a whole lot of nicknames, fursona names, and sometimes I don't learn names at all.
Cheese is a short, pink-sweater wearing journalist who is very proud to be able to say she's written about rape while working for a Christian organization. Ray on the other hand is a tall, kind of intimidating-looking man who is wearing a football jersey and a do-rag, though I never ask him what he does for a living.
I don't know what I expect a furry to look like, but whatever it is, it doesn't match the people standing in front of me. I think they look normal, but then I wonder what that even means and if a furry is supposed to look ‘abnormal' or something.
Ray is mostly silent. When Cheese hears that I'm a journalist too, her eyes seem to spark and she tells me to ask her anything—that I shouldn't be afraid to offend her, because, for god's sake, she's written about rape or whatever.
I ask her about her suit—she has a suit right?—and she tells me that no, she didn't pick it. That's not how it works. She saw it in a store shop, about to get thrown out, and she just knew, then and there, that that was her. That'd be her fursona: a white tiger. It chose her.
At this point I notice how anxious I am about this whole thing—how to talk to a furry, how to refer to what they do without offense, but most importantly, how to broach the subject of sex. That's, uh, not something you just straight up ask someone about, right?
I mean, it's the stereotype, and it's what I figure a good deal of readers will be interested in knowing the Full ScoopTM on, but am I perhaps falling into a trap by wondering about it? What if there's way more to furries than sex—what if sex doesn't even factor in, really? Would it be insensitive to ask? How or what do I even ask on the subject? Oh, for fuck's sake.
Luckily, Cheese brings it up without my having to ask at all.
"You know, what's funny about furries—my husband studied this, he's researched it," she says, "is that by and large, they're bi, and large."
"Yeah, they can be kind of kinky sometimes, too. There's a good number of people in the fandom who like BDSM... I have a couple of chains on my ankles, for example... yeah, we're pretty open about it, it's wonderful.
"But it's not just that, it's about who is a part of the fandom, too. There are a fair number of trans people in the community, people of color, that sort of thing. We're very welcoming and friendly," she explains.
"I LOVE that about this community. Furries are the nicest nerds and geeks I've ever met," Daphny adds.
Only as Cheese leaves do I notice she was wearing a tail the entire time. From this point onward I notice that if someone isn't wearing a suit, I automatically check for a tail—which is to say, my eyes dart to the butt region. Hah, weird.
I get another drink. I come back and chat it up with Ray, who seems to be more comfortable in a one-on-one. He tells me the most amazing thing: he's come all the way from Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia!—to attend the convention.
He shows me a picture of his fursuit—it's a bright blue German Shepard with dreads. I ask him why a German Shepard or how he picked it, and he asks me to lift up his shirt. I'm... confused as to why he'd ask me to do this, and he shakes his head and turns around while taking his shirt off.
On his back is a tattoo of three paws. "This," he explains, "is for my dogs back home. One paw for each German Shepard."
He puts his shirt back on, and tells me that the fursuit is an amalgamation of all of his dogs: the nose belongs to one dog, the ears to another, and so on.
It was custom made, just for him. Some furries will buy something pre-made, but often they'll make it themselves, too. Many furries, I come to learn, are artistic and very DIY.
The Fantasy Party
The next party we go to is a fantasy party judging from the Dragon's Blood drink I order. This is where I see firsthand just how DIY the furry fandom can be. I meet a woman with a patchwork skirt that she made herself, for example. She tells me all about her art and the different stuff she makes.
I ask her if she makes a living off her art, and she laughs at the notion. Actually, she has a disability of some sort—she was vague on what kind—and the government supports her. She pulls out an art book to change the subject.
I flip through, and it's your standard furry fare: cartoonish, sometimes anime-looking animals looking all wide-eyed and whatever. As I go deeper into the notebook, though, the pictures start becoming more and more erotic—stuff like giraffes 69'ing each other, as an example.
"Giraffes are great, they're very flexible..." she says, "I can make anything. I can do all sorts of art. I can make you dresses and skirts and clothes, I can draw your fursona, I can make ceramic stuff—like maybe you want a piggy with the coinslot right in the asshole..." She goes on for a while, but I'm trying to make sense of what I'm looking at and what people like about it.
I decide that a lot of my lack of appreciation stems from baggage in art classes, where professors looked down on anime as this teenager phase that brought with it highly unrealistic, disproportionate aesthetics which wasn't Real Art. This makes me feel guilty, like I'm not really giving furry art—which, as far as I can tell, has a similar look—a fair shake.
Perhaps more interestingly I can't seem to unpack why looking at furries in suggestive poses makes me a tad uncomfortable, especially knowing that if it were humans, I'd think the exposed, erotic nature of these things would be rad.
The thinking being that we've normalized highly puritan sensibilities when it comes to sex, and that's often harmful when it comes to understanding or accepting our own sexuality. We don't talk about or address real and healthy desires that people feel, and even worse, we make them feel wrong for having them. Furries fit into that picture. I feel I should know better—considering the struggles queers still face what with people whispering about their sex lives—but no, not quite.
Unable to keep looking through the artbook, I give it back to her and walk toward Daphny, who is talking to a Christian man who tells us all about how important love is and that he feels this aura, a good aura, when it comes to furries—and that's why he's involved in the fandom. He makes it sound as if furries embody the warm, loving aspects of Christianity, the aspects that religions like to preach about but sometimes fail to embody.
Ultimately me and Daphny end up being kicked out of the party because some stupid teenagers sneaked in and caused a ruckus, causing security to do a shake-down of anyone that didn't have a badge. Turns out, you did need one to be in the party floor.
"I'm here for Kotaku, we're a video game site." I explain to the man standing between me and a press badge.
"Kotaku. It's a part of the Gawker network, like Gizmodo and Deadspin. Ever visit those?"
"...sure. Can I talk to your media guy?"
While I wait for the media guy, I start flipping through the registration materials. One of the flyers features a cat of some sort with tight briefs. The text boasts about his BIG PACKAGE.
This makes me wish I didn't dwell so long on the public image furries have versus the one they actively promote, because I can't tell if I'm justified in thinking about it. Maybe it's like confirmation bias, I see and notice exactly what I seek out.
I flip through the schedule, putting marks next to the panels and events that sound interesting. Here it becomes obvious to me that Further Confusion is much like any other nerdy convention—PAX, for example—only with even nicer people whose appearance didn't always scream NERD. Also, literal dick wolves.
I was surprised at how prevalent the punk aesthetic appeared. Others were more... daring in what they wore—or perhaps it's more accurate to say in what they didn't wear.
To list a few of the offerings on the schedule: There are video game and tabletop rooms, events planned around specific games—like Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 and Smash Bros, panels around My Little Pony, Pokemon furries, electronic music, science fiction, mobile gaming events, lolita events, plus a whole bunch of things I can't recall.
There's a lot of very furry-specific panels too, like guides on how to make your own suit or even veterinary experts talking about animal health. I wasn't too too interested in these, instead resolving to err toward events and panels that seemed familiar.
The first few panels we try are a bust (the gaming-related ones, actually) and we end up taking a nap in the back row of some astrophysicist's panel where we couldn't make heads or tails out of what was being said. We're there mostly to kill time before the big furry parade. It's exactly what it sounds like.
The Furry Parade
Instead of throwing words at you about what this looks like, here are some pictures of the standout things we saw either in the furry parade, or on our way to the furry parade. And by "standout" I may also mean "the pictures that managed to come out well."
Click to embiggen.
Sometimes, parts of the furry light up—eyes, paws/hooves, whiskers.
I have seen so. many. animals. Some weren't animals—some where more along the lines of cosplay. Realistically, though, the line between cosplay and furrydom is kind of thin, yeah? Especially if we're talking about furries based on stuff from popular media—like cartoons, TV shows, movies or comics.
Which is to say, there's also a ton of overlap with geeky subcultures over all. You name it, I probably saw it here. Homestuck. Marvel and DC characters. My Little Pony. Video games. Adventure Time (though, weirdly, only Finns—no Jakes!)
Daphny is incredibly excited at the whole thing—she just keeps saying she wants to hug the furries over and over again. And, admittedly, it's hard not to feel that way when the suits are all bright, cheerful and friendly. It reminds me a little of the shows we've all watched as kids, where there are puppets or people in costumes—especially since some fursuiters come up with entire skits and acts. It reminded me of Blues Clues and Sesame Street a little, actually.
How can you be cynical about that? Why would you want to be?
I attended a panel on Saturday that gave me some hard facts about furry culture. Here's the skinny.
It is, as Cheese suggested to me the day prior, a highly diverse fandom. Enough that there is some disagreement when it comes to defining what it takes to be a part of the group, which might normally be negative except not being able to agree keeps furrydom amorphous. Wide definitions means more people can be a part of the fandom.
Most furries, according to surveys shown at the panel, are male. Most seem to be in the 15-24 range and tend to be highly educated. Many are artists. An absurd amount of furries live in California.
Data suggests that the longer someone is in the fandom, the more likely it is that they'll reevaluate their sexuality. And, looking at the sexual orientations of furries, I was amazed by how stratified people were: 20% heterosexual, 10% bisexual, 10% homosexual. That doesn't add up to 100% because everyone else identifies as something in between these labels.
Why does this happen? This is just a theory, but, is it surprising that a subculture that is so open and welcoming results in people feeling comfortable enough to experiment and reassess their identity?
And finally—the sex thing. Don't think for a second that furries don't know what people think of them. When asked how important the sex aspect was to their participation or enjoyment of the fandom, most furries said that it wasn't very important. When asked how important they thought it was to other furries, most people said they thought it was kind of important. When asked how important they thought the public thought sex was to furries, furries would say it was very important.
These perceptions can't all possibly match, but one thing is for certain: they're fascinating.
And, just in case you're curious: the more popular animals tend to be foxes and wolves.
I kept wondering why most furry suits looked the way they do—bright, cartoonish, etc. Some of the answers I got:
"We're like adults that never stopped being children."
"It's a good way to ensure people can express themselves."
"Frankly, realistic furries would be terrifying. A REAL human-animal hybrid crosses into the uncanny valley. Keeping it stylized and more cartoonish keeps it approachable."
As for what the fandom is 'all about'? Depends on who you ask. Maybe it's friendship, or the friendliness. Maybe it's about sex. Maybe the person doesn't exactly consider themselves a part of the fandom.
To be clear: Pokemon furries are ‘Pokefurs,' and by far, the most popular Pokemon within the fandom is Lucario. I have no idea why.
The rest of the night is more of a blur: I stopped worrying so much about what I was going to write or how to interact with people. I stopped taking as many notes and pictures.
Attending the 'communist' and 'hella gay' parties. Vodka, vodka, vodka at the communist party, along with plenty of Russian uniforms. Girls with glow sticks between their breasts. People who looked like Skrillex. Balloons everywhere. People sitting on other people's laps.
Interviewing someone who demoed those cat ears that are controlled by brain waves. Trying to figure out how this person felt based entirely on where their ears were pointing. Deciding that was ridiculous because I have a hard enough time figuring people out based on facial expressions, nevermind ear orientation.
Interviewing other people I can't recall. Something about fashion shows. Something about shoes. Something about—
Deciding ‘fuck this' and going to the dance floor. Dubstep blaring, lights flashing, can't see Daphny. Not caring where Daphny is because this furry is teaching me how to krump. Skipping around the dance floor multiple times until I'm pulled into a volleyball match where we're using the Team Fortresss 2 Balloonicorn as the 'ball.'
Being reminded of the horrified soccer moms during the day, because FurCon took place at the same time as some volleyball tournament. I saw:
Kids on leashes.
Furries on leashes.
Furry kids on leashes dressed as Pikachu.
Daphny taking my press pass and going on stage to take better pictures. Daphny taking pictures of everyone getting down on the dancefloor. Daphny falling off the freaking stage and being snapped out of drunkeness a bit.
Leaving, finding an acquaintance of Daphny's randomly. Sober up, sober up, gotta sober up. Gotta be professional. We're doing an interview.
Our Transhuman Future
Egypt Urnash doesn't identify as a furry, not exactly. She's conflicted about it—in some ways, she's growing out of the fandom, in others, she is still a part of it. She shows me the tattoo across her back:
And reminds me that a furry could just be someone with a dragon tattoo. Everyone thinks you've got to wear a suit, but naw. Like I said, what it takes to be a part of the fandom can be amorphous.
Egypt is an illustrator who has worked with Spümcø—the people behind Ren and Stimpy. She got her start drawing with the furry fandom, because art is easier to approach there. We're hyper critical of human heads. We know what those are supposed to look like. Animals though? It's more lax. It's perfect for a starting artist, she said.
Beyond her career, the furry fandom is important to Egypt in that it helped her figure out her identity. It was through trying out different fursonas that she came to realize that she was actually trans—male to female (MTF).
"Furry is a safe space to experiment," she recalled, "You will see MTF, and they don't ‘pass' in real life but their (furry) friends don't give a fuck."
Not looking like who you really are is a familiar experience for those in the fandom, after all. Inevitably we begin talking about otherkin here, and unlike Daphny, Egypt feels sympathetic.
"We [trans folk] are the lucky ones, we can find ways to fix ourselves. 100 years ago a man or a woman couldn't do much about wanting to be something else. What about in the future, a transhuman future? Who is to say we won't have a future with malleable bodies?"
What if, in other words, the otherkin would be able to rectify their dysphoria? Wings and other such fantastical body parts aren't possible... now. Will we look back on otherkin and think differently of them in the future if/when malleable bodies are possible?
Crazy stuff, but she's right. What if?
And some final food for thought when it comes to being a furry:
"I don't want to say it's about sex," Egypt clarifies, "But I can't say it's not about sex. The thing to remember is that many of us are adults though. What's the big deal?"
It's 3PM. Daphny and I have slept in after trying to make the most of our last night at FurCon. We get our things, we leave the hotel.
"Next year," I decide, "Let's actually get a hotel room of our own instead of sleeping on the floor of a friend's room."
"And more importantly, I need to make a sexy Dr. Robotnik suit," Daphny declares.
And because I can't leave you without sharing this...
Photo credit: the initial photo in this article belongs to Eurobeat. The rest of the photographs are scenes from my personal experience on the slow floor.