A few years ago, a middle–aged man I’ll call Gary approached Sofawolf Press’s booth at a comic convention with the question, “So what’s this all about?” All of us working the table were accustomed to being de facto ambassadors for the furry fandom at these non–furry conventions, so I told him about the books and comics we had and a little about the fandom. He broke in to ask if I remembered a comic called “Hepcats” that had appeared more than a decade before. “They were people, but they were animals,” he said excitedly. “I thought that was really neat.”
I did remember “Hepcats,” and Gary and I talked for an hour about the books and the fandom. He seemed interested, but then when we wound up, he said, “Well, thanks for talking to me for so long,” and walked away without buying anything.
There was a little disappointment, as there always is when someone seems interested but doesn’t buy your books, but I still valued that hour and his interest in finding out more about furry fandom. The community of people who are fans of anthropomorphic animals (“furries” can refer either to the fans or the anthros) often find their fandom hard to explain, but we don’t shy away from the chance to do so. We’re not fans of a particular movie, TV show, book, or video game, though we may have come to the fandom through Looney Tunes, The Lion King, Starfox, Redwall, or Pokémon. We’re fans of an aesthetic, a style, a way of looking at people and telling stories.
We also like to imagine ourselves within that aesthetic. Nearly everyone has an avatar of some animal (natural, mythological, or hybrid) and a name specific to the community. Go to any convention and you’ll see most attendees walking around with a drawn badge that identifies their species and name. Some people only have one; some people have many. You might think of furry fandom as a massively multiplayer shared world in which all the players are continuously adding to that world.
I’ve written about how the adoption of a fantasy character helps people explore aspects of themselves that they might find difficult to do elsewhere (a NSFW comic in Erika Moen’s Oh Joy Sex Toy). Making up an avatar for yourself—something that is “you” but also not you—allows you to include aspects you value or that you aspire to, or that you might be trying out. There’s a wide range of animals, real and mythical, with cultural associations that let people know what kind of person your character is. Foxes are clever, tigers are strong and solitary, coyotes are tricksters, dragons are smart and cocky, and so on. And you can express different aspects of yourself, too; you might be a wolf because you enjoy family and socializing, but have a snow leopard character for when you want to be alone.
At conventions, these characters are visible out on the surface and populate a shared world in the truest sense of the word. About a quarter of the fandom owns at least one costume (a “fursuit” in fandom parlance), supporting a small industry of costume–makers who can create a unique costume to the specifications of the commissioner. And people inhabit those costumes for a variety of reasons. I have a couple friends who perform regularly outside conventions in costumes and love to bring their characters to life at events, getting people to interact with them in character; like an actor assuming various roles, their thrill comes from making other people believe in their fuzzy characters. I have a good friend who was always shy around people, but who created a confident character and through interacting in costume has gained a lot more confidence in his social interactions. I have a couple friends who would never dance in public, but who put on costumes and cut loose on the dance floor—and they’re by no means bad dancers.
And there are lots of things to do in costume at conventions: There’s a parade and usually a photo shoot (with friendly competition between conventions to get the largest number of costumes into one picture); there are variety shows and dance competitions; the evening dances are all open to costumers; and there are almost always people wandering around in costume in all the convention areas. From something as simple as greeting people in a lobby to executing complicated dances (this is an amazing example—I only discovered the dance competitions a few years ago, another instance of how this fandom continues to surprise and delight me), you’ll find people who have spent years perfecting the art of performance.
One of the most fun parts of furry conventions for me is the exuberance and openness everywhere around. SF convention–goers will be familiar with the feeling of being yourself at conventions in ways that you can’t in other places. I’ve brought a number of people to their first furry conventions, and they never fail to comment on how friendly and open everyone is. Stop any person in or out of costume and ask them about the fandom, or about their character or costume or badge, and you’ll get a story. Tell them it’s your first furry convention and they’ll explain more, and often offer to guide you around or answer more of your questions. It’s like being a tourist in a town that all the inhabitants are proud of and anxious for you to have a good experience in.
Last year [in 2015], a newcomer wrote about his experience going to a furry convention to make fun of it and coming out having a good time. This is a theme you’ll find repeated over and over in blog posts by non–furries going to furry conventions. It’s something that has been true about the fandom for all twenty–five of the years I’ve been part of it, and is one of my very favorite things about this community.
Another is the creativity with which we build up the trappings of this shared world. The dealer’s den and artist’s alley at conventions are full of artists offering commissions or prints, and the art shows at even moderately–sized furry conventions pull in thousands of dollars. There are some fantastic artists in the fandom making gallery–quality art, and the fans appreciate the quality for sure, but the biggest reason artists thrive in this fandom is that they illustrate the worlds we imagine our characters in and make them real. A good portion of the art created in this fandom is personal commissions, and you can ask any artist for a story of handing a piece of art to someone and watching their face light up at the realization of their character. Many fans have sketchbooks filled with drawings, often of their character, that they pass around and show off with pride.
Nearest to my heart, the writing scene has really come on in the last decade. Furry is such a visually–oriented fandom that while there have always been stories, the publishing market lagged behind the visual arts and costuming significantly. But there are several small presses that publish to the fandom now (Sofawolf and FurPlanet are the most prominent—disclaimer: I have done work for and been published by both), and a vast number of people self–publishing either as e–books or on one of the sites devoted to member creativity. There aren’t as many regular pro ’zines as you see in SF/F fandom, but our fandom is producing anthologies at an amazing rate. We’ve got a writers’ association and two literary awards, patterned after the Hugos and the Nebulas, and this year we’re having our first residential writing workshop.
Some of the stories in our community are furry only because we love seeing those characters. But many people use the idea of a society of animal people to explore social issues like class, prejudice, religion, and identity in ways that might be more difficult with human protagonists. One series takes place in a world where civilized domestic dog people have colonized lands of native wild animal people, with a lot of difficult colonial issues addressed. I’ve written many stories about gay men coming to terms with their sexuality. If I wrote about a contemporary human, I’d have to assign him an ethnicity, a geography, and a culture that might not fit all of my readership. But any gay young man can imagine himself as an otter trying to figure out why he’s attracted to other boys, and indeed many of my readers come from diverse backgrounds all over the world.
Furry fandom even has a growing music community. It’s hard to define what “furry music” is, but for the time being people seem happy with “music made by furry fans,” and the fandom loves to support its own in any creative endeavor. There are concerts at most of the major conventions, albums for sale, and a podcast devoted to showing off new artists (the podcast, Fuzzy Notes!, is currently on hiatus but due to resume in 2016).
Fans’ generosity extends beyond the bounds of their fandom, too. Furry conventions regularly raise money for charities, most often those dedicated to helping animals in need. Those donations have steadily climbed as the fandom has grown, averaging about US$200,000 total over the last few years.
As in SF/F fandom, the experienced artists, writers, costumers, and musicians are delighted to share tips with aspiring creators, but the way in which they share is a little different. At SF/F conventions, panels are a marketplace of ideas: Headology and Boffo: Character and Cunning on the Discworld; Hard SF Movies: Rare But Not Extinct; Afrofuturism in Comics and Science Fiction; The Ties Between Romance, SF, and Fantasy (all panels from Sasquan). At furry conventions, the ideas are the characters and creations, and they are exchanged out in the public crowds, in the dealers dens, at the art shows, and at costume events. Convention panels are largely aimed at those starting out in a craft: First Time Fursuiting; Art 1–oh–something; Plot and Structure (all panels from Anthrocon, the largest furry–only convention as of 2015).
If those sound like panels for a younger set, that’s not totally wrong. Furry is a young fandom in a couple senses of the word. In the past few years, people have begun to document its history from the mid–80s to now. Comparisons have been drawn between furry fandom now and the SF/F community of the fifties as far as the size of the market and the general view of the outside world towards it. But it’s also a young fandom in that the median age of furry fans is around 20–21 years. That makes for an exciting atmosphere with seemingly unlimited reserves of hope for the future, and the future of furry fandom looks pretty bright to me. From a single yearly convention in the early 90s that topped out around 1250 people, the fandom now supports over fifty conventions worldwide each year, and a 1250–person convention wouldn’t even crack the top ten.*
What is slightly amazing to me is that twenty years later, I can walk into a convention hall in Melbourne, Berlin, Hinckley (UK), Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Jose, Minneapolis, Seattle, or Reno and find the same excitement and welcoming atmosphere that I found in Orange County back in 1993 at the first furry convention I ever attended. The fandom isn’t without its share of dramas, of course, but most people have not let that get in the way of what we’re all here for: to make our contributions to this fuzzy animal–populated world we’re all creating together.
I did see Gary again, by the way, at a furry convention. He came up to the table and said that after our conversation he’d looked into the fandom some more and was really enjoying the convention. Still later in the year, at another furry gathering, Gary approached me, and the change in his demeanor from the cautious, reserved guy at the comic convention was astounding. He was smiling ear–to–ear, fairly vibrating with joy as he told me about the fursuit he’d bought. “At the time,” he said, “I called it the biggest non–essential purchase I’d ever made. After a week, I stopped saying the ‘non–essential’ part.” Buying the costume and finding his character had opened up a world to him that he’d never dreamed of, freeing him to be more joyful, more outgoing, more himself. He’d even “come out” as furry to his kid, who was supportive and came along to some of the conventions with him.
Gary still comes to many conventions and local gatherings, probably more than I do, to be honest. We always say hi and hug whenever we meet, and I’ve never seen him without that huge smile on his face. I’ll tell you now that I have no idea what his actual real name is. I only know him by his character name, the one he picked in the fandom, and his character’s species. And every time I see him, and many others, I think about the transformations I’ve seen in people, and I’m dizzyingly proud of our fandom.
*Note: If you’re reading this in the US, Europe, or Australia, chances are there’s a convention not too far from you on this list. If you’re curious, I encourage you to go check it out. Most conventions have a public space (like the hotel lobby) where attendees hang out and you don’t need to pay to enter. You can see some of the costumes, talk to the fans, and experience a convention firsthand. They’re fun, and despite appearances, we don’t bite.
© 2016 by Kyell Gold