Over 250,000 people in the US identify as a ‘fur’ – someone passionate about animal characters with human traits – yet the fandom remains marred by sensationalist headlines. But one insider is trying to change that, illuminating an inclusive community that just wants to have fun.
At conventions across America, thousands of people from all walks of life converge to celebrate a broad but oddly specific interest. They wear custom-made badges and fursuits that project a chosen animal identity: foxes and deers and every manner of mythical hybrid. It makes for a parade of colour that spills in all sorts of directions. There are panels to attend and workshops to take part in; some come for the art, others just want to party.
To outsiders, this can all seem a bit sordid. Mainstream media has consistently portrayed the fur community as fetishistic – a weird, kinky world where people watch cartoon porn and have sex in large, elaborate animal costumes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, ‘furs’ tend to be secretive and wary of attention. There are so many facets to the subculture that any one strand could easily be distorted or sensationalised.
Joe Strike, a writer from New York, is on a mission to clear up the misconceptions. Having spent nearly 30 years in “America’s most misunderstood subculture”, his new book Furry Nation documents the history, growth and everyday reality of an unconventional community.
“There is enough [sex] in the fandom that if people look for that, they can explore it,” he says. “But to exclude the rest of the fandom – that does bother me a lot.”
The term ‘furry’ – first coined at a sci-fi convention back in 1980 – is simply defined as an enthusiast for animal characters with human traits: the kind we typically see in cartoons, comic books and video games from a young age. But what separates this fandom from others is that furs create their own heroes – weaving them into stories, role play and artwork.
That’s how Joe got started. Growing up in Brooklyn, he’d often be transfixed by the animal-centric comic books he’d read in his parents’ candy store and the Loony Tunes cartoons he’d watch at home.
“For whatever reason, those really spoke to me,” says the 68-year-old. “There was a sense of liberation and anarchy…” He pauses, clearly wary of his next words. “This is where it gets a little ambiguous and I really have to watch my step, because this is the cliché people have of the fandom – but I found those characters attractive. I don’t want to say I found Pepe Le Pew attractive but I admired his confidence and… oh, I’ll say it: I did find him attractive. He seemed like an actual being and not just a drawing.”
But it wasn’t until much later that Joe realised he wasn’t alone. One day in 1988, he received an envelope with an unsolicited invitation to a ‘furry party’. It featured an illustration of human-like animals getting festive alongside directions to a sci-fi convention in Philadelphia. Joe instantly felt like he’d found his ideal peer group.
We have a hardwired instinct to identify with animals, Joe says, but most people have no idea how widespread that affinity is until it connects them with others. That’s why, as the internet took off in the 1990s, so too did furry fandom.
Being a fur manifests in different ways for different people, from art and animation to creative writing and costuming. The heart of that practice is an imagined identity or ‘fursona’ – a character that combines animal and human characteristics. Whether it’s a giant badger or a hybrid dragon-wolf, Joe says the idea is to express an “inner, often truer” version of a person – though it sometimes “takes a while to find out who that really is”.
For years, Joe considered himself a big husky bear. Then he grew a beard, let his hair grow out and became a lion. He’d even stick circles of black electrical tape to the bottom of his shaggy brown socks and pretend they were paws. But in 1997, when it came time to create a badge – the primary way furs identify themselves at conventions – his true essence revealed itself as an alligator.
Joe has spent much of his career writing about animation and, over time, he developed a character of his own called Komos: a sinister komodo dragon who wears a dinner jacket and undertakes various missions on behalf of his sorceress, Circe.
He even adapted that idea into a comic book called Komos & Goldie with London writer and fellow fur Oliver Coombes. It was so much fun imagining those adventures that Joe finally decided to have a Komos fursuit made in 2016.
Only one in four furs actually own a suit, he explains. For the majority of the fandom, these elaborate costumes are seen as an unnecessary luxury – mostly because of the cost. (Joe admits to paying $2,100 for his, but prices can easily rocket up to tens of thousands.) Instead much of the community is happy to use online avatars and chat rooms, with many relying on virtual worlds like Second Life to help realise their fursonas.
“I become Komos when I put on the suit,” Joe explains, clarifying that while the alligator is still his fursona and ‘spirit animal’, Komos is the character he embodies in costume form. “He is totally self-confident and looks down on people – and that is not me – honestly not,” he adds, matter-of-factly. “I enjoy being human but when I put that suit on, it’s a sense of liberation from all of that. I can act all sinister and domineering and dangerous. It’s like what actors do. For a lot of them, it’s just the pleasure of stepping outside themselves.”
Furry Nation devotes an entire chapter to the movement’s kinkier side – otherwise known as ‘yiff’ – but explains that most of the hot stuff is observed through furry art, rather than in real life. Joe believes that the number of people who use fursonas to act out their sexuality is quite tiny. “My best guesstimate is perhaps 5 to 10 per cent of them are willing to put their fursuits at sticky risk,” he writes in the book, “a total of, at most, perhaps 2.5 per cent of the entire fandom.”
Although Komos & Goldie is an ‘adults only’ comic that sees the dragon paired up with a reincarnated Celtic sex-goddess, Joe insists that the character does nothing for him sexually. “I certainly wouldn’t abuse Komos that way; he’d never stand for it,” he says. “It’s far sexier simply being him and tapping into his commanding personality – and a lot of people he meets feel the same way.”
In reality, the furry fandom appeals to such a broad spectrum of people that it’s hard to generalise. Around 75 per cent of furs are under the age of 25, according to Fur Science! – a five-year study of the international community – and 72 per cent are men. Their professions – while mostly within the tech and art worlds – can vary just as much.
In recent years the fandom has developed a right-wing offshoot (alt-furs, like the alt-right, are rising in prominence), but they remain a minority that feels at odds with the subculture’s principles of inclusivity. The community as a whole encourages an open-minded, progressive kind of politics and is particularly accepting of gender nonconforming.
“I don’t think there’s any love lost for furs who treat others as lesser than themselves,” says Joe. “That said, I’ve yet to see any organised opposition to alt-furs or the ‘Furry Raiders’ who wear red armbands with a paw print replacing the swastika. I’m not sure whether these characters truly believe what they claim to be professing or are just trolling the furry community for laughs.”
For Joe, there’s a big difference between a fur hobbyist and someone who embraces it as a lifestyle. The sense of kinship among the latter category can be so strong that furs often couple up with fellow furs regardless of sexual orientation. He had little experience of LGBT people before joining the community, for instance, yet found himself falling in love with a guy called Marc (whose fursona is a bear called Furio but fursuits as Walrus Royce).
Together there’s nothing to keep secret, no fear of offending others – they can be whoever and whatever they want. All that’s left, Joe says, is for people outside of the community to follow suit.
“I would like to see [furry fandom be] accepted as much as any kind of subculture,” Joe adds. “Five years ago, you would not have found this much acceptance of people identifying with a gender different to the one they were born with. And when people put on these suits, they become a personality that happens to be of a different species to the one they were born in.
“It’s probably a few centuries away, but who’s to say there won’t be a way to switch species some day? I personally feel 100 per cent human, but I wouldn’t mind taking a vacation as an animal – and I guess that’s what I do when I become Komos.”
Furry Nation is published by Cleis Press.
Follow Dominique Sisley on Twitter.