One of my college friends transitioned from male to female a couple years ago. One of the things she told me as she was in the midst of her transition was that when someone called her “she,” it gave her a good feeling, a little thrill. Among the many small and large details she shared of her transition, this one stood out to me, and through it I got a much better feeling of what she was going through.
Transition is a process (loosely speaking, and with the disclaimer that this is my understanding from the words of others) of asserting your external identity to match your internal one. But our external identity is not only defined by us; it’s confirmed and reinforced by the people around us, in intentional and unintentional interactions. We have only a limited amount of control over those interactions, and that feels really untenable. We can tell people what pronouns to use, how to affirm our identity, and so on, but ultimately (as we have seen in countless examples over the last few years), it’s up to those people whether to follow our wishes or not. So any example of someone affirming your new identity, especially unsolicited, feels very good.
The reason this detail stuck out to me is that I could identify with it. I’m not transgender, but that same feeling of having an internal identity somewhat at odds with what is presented to the world, is at the core of many in the furry community.
Let me hasten to say that I don’t mean to compare the experience of coming out as transgender to that of being furry. Transgender people face a great many more challenges; gender identity is so ingrained in our culture that it’s difficult just to get people to consider that someone’s gender identity might be different from the gender they were assigned at birth, and gender plays a role in so many parts of our culture that it’s impossible to avoid. The reason I used this example is that people who are aware of the struggle of being transgender understand the idea and the feeling of someone’s gender identity being affirmed by outside society, and I wanted to use that particular aspect of being trans to highlight something that most outsiders don’t understand about furries.
An outsider’s view of furries, as presented by the media, often focuses on people who dress up in costumes, or the activities in the fandom–artwork, writing, charity. By so doing, they miss the point of what the furry community is about for many of its members. When I was asked to describe the furry fandom to someone outside of it who was curious about it, their first question was, “Why is your avatar that of the animal?” (referring to my Twitter icon, one of many illustrations of my red fox fursona).
I hadn’t thought before that what we consider a basic cornerstone of our fandom could be so mysterious to an outsider. Of *course* we use our fursonas as avatars. That’s how we represent ourselves to others in our community. But it’s deeper than that: that’s how we represent ourselves to ourselves.
For some people, I think, choosing an avatar upon entering the fandom is a little like picking teams in laser tag: you run for whatever color your friends are. But for many of us, the species of our fursona matters deeply. Animals are imbued with a good deal of meaning through our culture, from Aesop’s Fables through Le Roman de Renard and countless Disney movies, and most people know a few basic facts about a lot of animals. It’s not hard to find an animal you identify with; even people outside the fandom can come up with an answer if asked, “What kind of animal would you be?” (Try it. You’ll get some amusing answers.)
In fact, I use that question to explain the furry fandom to outsiders sometimes. I’ll ask them, wait for the answer, and then tell them, “Furries are just people who have thought about that question a lot.”
We think about that and we share those thoughts with each other. And here maybe you’ll see what we have in common with my friend from the beginning of this post. I think that if I were an animal, I’d be a fox. There are a number of reasons for that: as a kid, I was never physically adept, but I got by on my wits–these are cultural stereotypes of foxes. I’ve been uprooted and uprooted myself a bunch of times, and always adapted to new surroundings–and the red fox is the most adaptable of carnivores, successful on multiple continents. Foxes in mythology are crafty but often not malicious, an ethos I identify with.
So this image of myself as a fox isn’t just picking a mascot for my life. It’s tied up in how I view myself as a person and how I want to be viewed by others. And when my friends and other furries say, “Hey, fox,” to me, I get that little thrill of affirmation that other people recognize the identity I’ve chosen and acknowledge it.
Several of my friends have told me privately that they feel the same way. I once made an impression on a friend who is a husky by telling her, “You *are* a husky,” so much so that she wrote about that small moment in her recap of the convention. And this, I think, is the part of the furry fandom that so many in the media miss, that so many outsiders don’t see. We don’t pick our animal avatars just for fun; we don’t wear expensive costumes because we like dressing up. We wear badges at conventions with illustrations of our fursonas or characters we relate to; we get costumes made of them; all of this is so that we can represent to the world this internal identity that is so important to us. Why it’s important is a whole other matter, maybe as impenetrable to outsiders as an unfamiliar gender identity or cultural identity. But the why shouldn’t matter as much as the fact that it *is* important.