Furries: Will Misunderstood Subculture Ever Go Mainstream? - Rolling Stone
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Will Furries Ever Go Mainstream?

At Midwest FurFest, people donning human-size animal costumes came together for an inclusive, uplifting convention. But will their community ever be widely accepted? And is that even what they want?

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“In photo-shoot six, we’ll have everyone who wears scales on the outside,” the announcer drones over a microphone, as dozens of six-foot alligators, snakes, lizards, and other assorted reptiles scramble to pose for a group photo. Some take a final sip from their water bottles, a friend or partner patiently holding their jaws wide open for them; others extricate themselves from hugs with cats or rabbits or birds. I have seen Planet Earth enough times to know that in the animal kingdom, such creatures would be considered prey; but here, in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Grand Ballroom, neither natural law nor David Attenborough’s narration applies.

“If you identify as a species that hasn’t been called yet, not to worry,” the announcer adds before calling up otters, then wildcats and sabers. On the floor, about three dozen foxes lie on top of each other in a “fur pile,” orange-and-white limbs and bellies knotted together on the ground.

Such public displays of interspecies affection are the currency of MidWest FurFest, an annual convention in Rosemont, Illinois, just a few minutes outside Chicago. Midwest FurFest, or MFF for short, is in its 20th year and offers a wide range of events, including informational panels, photo shoots, talent performances, and a breakdancing competition. It is one of the world’s largest conventions aimed at furries, a highly stigmatized, oft-misunderstood subculture comprised of people who have an affinity for anthropomorphized animals.

The mainstream media has historically painted furries as sex-crazed, socially maladjusted freaks who enjoy rubbing up against each other in giant bunny costumes. This is essentially false. Like most subcultures, the furry fandom is a largely internet-driven phenomenon, providing a label for a pre-existing feeling that has always lived, dormant and unnamed, inside a select number of people. While there is a contingent of furries who do derive sexual pleasure from the subculture, the fanbase is much more broad than that.

Maybe you really liked drawing wolves during eighth-grade homeroom. Maybe you’ve always felt an inexplicable affinity with Tony the Tiger. Maybe you’ve long thought it would be rad to buy a $10,000 curvy hippo costume and enter a breakdancing competition. If you fall into any of these categories, then furries are your kind of people, and FurFest the place to unleash the human-size sergal (a fictional rabbit/shark/wolf amalgam) within. As the voice-over to an intro presentation for FurFest sonorously boomed over a dubstep beat, “You know you are more than a human.… Now you are the beast that slept inside your mind.”

MFF is widely touted as the biggest furry con in the world, and its attendance has increased exponentially in recent years: While the con saw only about 1,000 attendees in 2005, it reported more than 10,900 guests in 2018, and Matt Berger, media-relations lead for MFF, estimates that 12,000 were in attendance this year. That’s in part due to the increasing number of younger children and their families who are gravitating to furry culture — during my time at Midwest FurFest, I saw children as young as seven attending dance competitions and meet-and-greets accompanied by their parents, having stumbled on the fandom via YouTube or TikTok.

In so keeping with its increasingly family-friendly image, the fandom has become intent on promoting itself as a beacon of acceptance and inclusivity, and MFF is no exception. As a fox named Tiller told me upon check-in, “Everyone here is welcome — except Nazis.” This message was particularly salient this year, after far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopolous made some highly public threats last September to gate-crash the convention. (Despite his posting a photo from check-in on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Berger and MFF attendees said that as far as they know, he did not make good on his threat.)

There were no Nazis at FurFest, as far as I could tell, but there was a lot of hugging and dancing and body odor and potential copyright-infringement claims (including multiple not-so-thinly veiled renderings of characters from the Nickelodeon series Paw Patrol). The people I spoke with ranged widely in terms of age, education level, and socioeconomic background: There were investment bankers; video-retail salespeople; graduate students; animators; software engineers; marketing specialists; veterinary techs; and airline pilots (who, I was told by more than one person, are overrepresented in the fandom, possibly having been inspired by the bear Baloo in the 1990s cartoon series Talespin). Far from the mainstream depiction of the fandom as a sex-crazed monolith, the furries I met really had only a handful of traits in common: They were largely white, LGBTQ, and almost without exception, friendly and sincere, nearly to a fault.

December 4th, 2019 - Rosemont, IL - Midwest Furr Fest at Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Furrfest dance party at Midwest Furr Fest

A dance party at Midwest FurFest. Photograph by Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

At its most fundamental level, the concept of anthropomorphized creatures has its tentacles deep in history, further back than furry cons or anime or even a certain relentlessly chipper, shirtless cartoon mouse. One of the oldest known works of art, the Paleolithic Löwenmensch sculpture, depicts a human with the head of a lion; the ancient Egyptians also worshipped half-man, half-animal deities; and Aesop’s fables feature a panoply of animal characters imbued with human traits, from cunning to pride to sloth (the three-toed version of which derives its name from the term for laziness).

In this sense, furries are “both one of the oldest fandoms and a relatively modern one as well,” says Alex Tang, an artist and designer who is also currently working on a book about the history of convention culture. But the furry fandom as we know it has its roots in the early-to-mid-1980s, when a group of sci-fi con attendees who bonded over anthropomorphic animals organized room parties devoted to their mutual interest before splintering off to form their own event.

The advent of the internet — specifically furry-related message boards and IRC channels — brought more furs together. “Before, people came across the fandom via things like Disney cartoons, and it was a type of media you could consume, versus one you could participate in,” says Hookaloof, 24, a bear. “Now if you like a piece of art someone has done, you can speak to them, see how they act. It’s easier to form an emotional connection to a piece of content, whereas before it was more passive.”

In the broader landscape of fan culture, furries are relatively unique: while Star Trek and Star Wars and brony (the term for male My Little Pony fans) cons are united by specific franchises or characters, that is not the case for furries, who largely devise their own characters, called fursonas. “Being a furry isn’t about being a fan of a person or a group of people,” says Berger, the media-relations lead for MFF. “We’re fans of each other here.”

Furries are also unique in that they all approach the fandom from different vantage points. While some enjoy dressing up as their fursonas, others prefer making or consuming animal-inspired fan art, while others still simply enjoy the camaraderie inherent in the community. The only uniting characteristic of furries is that “you need to really like animals. That’s basically it,” says Laurie, 38, a librarian with a passing facial and auditory resemblance to a young Elizabeth Warren. “You can just like to pet cats and be a furry. You can like to draw and make money and go to the Dealers’ Den [the artists’ marketplace] and be a furry. It’s all good.”

Laurie has been attending MFF for the past 10 years. She always felt an innate connection to animals: She grew up reading Black Beauty, pretending to be a horse during recess. But she is somewhat unique in the fandom in that she doesn’t have a typical “fursona,” arguably the most crucial first step into furry culture. Your fursona can be any one animal or combination thereof; it’s not uncommon to see aquatic characters with fur, or mammals with wings, or bear/dog/cat/dragon hybrids. But newcomers are encouraged to be something other than a wolf or a dog or a fox, by far the most popular animals within the fandom, and to hew to a certain type of internal logic that makes sense to you, if not to anyone else.

That character should also be imbued with a personality, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical your own. “You adopt a character who personifies the traits you want,” says Phantom, a 32-year-old purple fox with multicolored racing stripes, who out of fursuit, is a small, self-effacing software engineer. “At first it was supposed to be a character who’s braver and more appealing than I am in my human self, but after some time it becomes more like you, or more like a friend.”

Developing a fursona usually starts with creating or commissioning art of your character. If you can’t draw, you can hire an amateur artist on Twitter to sketch a rendering for as little as $10 to $20; more established artists can cost upwards of a few hundred or even thousands. From there, you can hire a designer to create a fursuit for your character, or to buy a pre-existing fursuit online. From what I saw, however, only about a third of the MFF attendees were in full costume, in part because fursuits are prohibitively expensive, with many costing thousands of dollars. “There was one from my manufacturer that went up for auction for $17,000,” an Akita named Slate told me. “I bought a 1978 Corvette for that amount of money.” (He paid $6,000 for his.)

9829 - December 4th, 2019 - Rosemont, IL - Midwest Furr Fest at Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Furries gathering for a group photoshoot within their own specie categories.

Rabbit-inclined furries pose for a photo at the Midwest FurFest. The community prides itself on being a safe place for people with special needs. Photograph by Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

It’s also because learning how to navigate the world in a suit is, in itself, a challenge. Because the suits heat up extremely quickly, it is not uncommon for furries at cons to pass out from heat stroke or alcohol poisoning or a combination thereof; it is not unheard of for ER techs in these situations to cut the suit off, essentially a furry’s worst nightmare. Eating, drinking, and seeing in costume are also difficult: Bumping into other furs is likely, while bumping into small children is near-inevitable. “Imagine putting on three different pairs of sunglasses,” a husky said onstage at an Intro to FurFest panel. “That’s what walking around in a fursuit is like.” Later, I confirm this firsthand when someone offers to let me try on their Akita fursuit head, which feels like being encased inside a fluffy 75-pound weight. (It is accurate, though perhaps uncharitable, to note that it also does not smell great.)

For furries who can afford fursuits, however, those suits often serve a very specific function, particularly if they are one of a not-insignificant number of furries that “skews more neurodiverse,” as Laurie puts it. Many furries have special needs, such as anxiety or an autism-spectrum diagnosis, and struggle to interact with others during their daily lives; for those people, donning a fursuit can be nothing short of a social balm. “My interaction with people was always awkward and I didn’t know how to make conversation,” says Vanilla, 23, a lavender husky with autism. “But with animals, you don’t have to put up a front or anything like that.” Appearing in fursuit takes the pressure off her to interact with people verbally, which can be difficult for people with autism: “People don’t go, ‘Oh, she’s awkward,’ but ‘Oh, she’s cute!’ ”

Or, to quote a gray-haired woman at the autism panel: “For three days I am not autistic. For three days I am a giant anthropormorphic version of the Titanic, and I’m just being a big dork.”

As the staffer told me on my first day, furries are not Nazis, but that is not the same thing as saying that no Nazis are furries. There is a small yet highly vocal contingent of far-right furries (who organized under the hashtag #AltFurry) who have attempted to gate-crash other conventions, including Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Fur Con in 2016, prompting a counterprotest marked by the Dead Kennedy-esque catchphrase “Nazi furs fuck off.” “They show up for the sole purpose of getting dressed up and getting kicked out,” says Artemis Wishfoot, 27, a six-and-a-half-foot collie and prominent YouTuber. One of them showed up one year dressed in full World War I German soldier regalia, “so he didn’t even get it right,” he says.

It is perhaps the existence of this subgroup that initially prompted Milo Yiannopolous, a professional far-right troll, to believe that he would have a captive audience at Midwest FurFest. Last September, Yiannopolous — who had seen his audience dramatically fall after he was deplatformed on virtually all social media — posted that he would be attending FurFest. Though he made a cursory stab at claiming genuine interest in the community, even adopting a snow leopard fursona, his announcement prompted tremendous backlash.

That backlash was arguably exacerbated by Midwest FurFest’s response to Yiannopolous’s attendance. Though the board rescinded his registration two days after he posted he would be attending on Telegram, some furries told me at the time they considered the response too slow, and that Yiannopolous should not have been allowed to register to begin with. Indeed, Berger said in December that Yiannopolous was banned largely for pragmatic reasons, not ideological ones. “As a nonprofit we can’t take a political stance either way,” he says. “Fundamentally for us, based on other things that we had seen in media, he would have required an additional amount of security that we just couldn’t bear the burden for.”

Such bad press, however, has not nearly been as detrimental to the fandom as the widespread perception that furries, for lack of a better term, fuck. This perception has been bolstered by media portrayals on shows like CSI and 30 Rock, in which one of Tina Fey’s prospective suitors informs her, to her horror, that the fandom’s term for intercourse is “yiffing”; for what it’s worth, I did not hear this term once at the con, though I did see two Akitas vaping while playing patty-cake, which was arguably more disturbing.

December 4th, 2019 - Rosemont, IL - Midwest Furr Fest at Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Furrfest dance party at Midwest Furr Fest

Furries throw a dance party at Midwest FurFest. Photograph by Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

As Tang points out, within the context of fandom culture as a whole, furries tend to get something of a bum rap in this regard. “Anime cons and comic cons sell NSFW porn comics and body pillows,” he says, referring first to life-size pillows with characters painted on them. “Yet it’s only the furries that are labeled as adult.” Furries themselves are prone to vociferously insisting that there is absolutely nothing inherently sexual about the fandom, and those who claim otherwise are misinformed bigots. “As easy as it is to generalize that it’s just a sex thing, I find it’s a minority and a very vocal one at that,” says Wishfoot, who has polled the community on this question. He found that 60% of furries did not find it sexual at all, with the remaining 40% largely restricting themselves to enjoying NSFW furry art, rather than actually having sex in fursuit. “A lot of people have sexual interest without there being sexual action,” he says.

But saying that the furry fandom is not sexual at all is like saying that people who smoke weed only do so for purely therapeutic reasons: While it’s true for a large number of people, it hardly applies to all of them. There is a substantial contingent of furries attending such after-hours events as kink workshops and latex parties. “I think kink and furry are two separate things, but they do tend to overlap,” says Stormi, a veterinary tech who teaches kink and consent workshops with her partner at the con. (It should, however, be noted that actually having sex in fursuit is relatively rare: “I already have a hard enough time cleaning my fursuit as is,” Stormi’s partner Toby told me.)

The sexual elements of the fandom are not exactly a secret. Much of the artwork in the Dealers’ Den, the section of the con that sells art and merchandise, is implicitly sexualized, if not overtly pornographic. (Interestingly, the vast majority of this art depicts a thinly disguised version of Nick Wilde, the anthropomorphized fox voiced by Jason Bateman in the 2016 Disney movie Zootopia, the Citizen Kane of the furry fandom.) Adult vendors such as Bad Dragon, which manufactures dragon dildos, also tend to outsell many of the other more family-friendly vendors at the con. “Is there a contingent that [incorporates the fandom into their sex lives]? Obviously, based on sales, based on lots of things, yes,” says Berger. “I think the approach that we have is that it is a part of the community, but it is not necessarily fair to say it is representative of the community.”

The fact that a disproportionate number of furries self-identify as LGBTQ allows for more sexual experimentation and openness than there may be in fandoms that skew less so, such as, say, the anime fandom. One 2012 survey found that less than 30 percent of furries identified as straight, compared with roughly 96 percent of the general population; in so keeping, I heard someone playfully bellow the phrase “get your heterosexuality away from me” within minutes of being at the convention.

“There are people who use being a furry as a way to explore gender and sexuality,” says Laurie. “For people who don’t want to admit they are experimenting, or they are not in a position where they can change their physical self for whatever reason, they can go online and make this character. And if you’re gonna switch something like gender, why not be a unicorn?”

The misconception that the fandom is purely sexualized probably stems from similar misconceptions and stereotypes associated with LGBTQ people in general. But some LGBTQ furries say that they’re attracted to the community precisely because they consider it a space where gender and sexuality are not paramount. “In my experience, the minute you say you are gay, you are Gay with a capital G. Your sexuality becomes the focus of who you are,” says Ragabash, 34, a coyote. “And that falls away here because we’re dressing up like big fluffy animals and having fun.”

Historically, there has been some tension between those on the NSFW and SFW sides of the fandom. The early 2000s saw the formation of a small subgroup fiercely devoted to reducing what it viewed as “perversion” within the community; while this group, known as “burned furs,” is now relatively small, there is a not-insubstantial number of furries who share this overall goal.

December 4th, 2019 - Rosemont, IL - Midwest Furr Fest at Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Furrie takes a rest in the hotel lobby

A furry takes a rest in the hotel lobby. Photograph by Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

One of them, a bespectacled wolf named Lazer, grew up in Florida in a devoutly religious family. Initially, he and his family told me as they ate veggie wraps outside the Hyatt ballroom, they were resistant to his joining the fandom, due to their concerns with how he could reconcile it with his faith. “My first mistake was looking it up on Wikipedia and learning about the sexual attraction and deviant side of it,” his mother Jolie said. After praying on it and discussing it in therapy, Lazer decided to jump into the fandom snout-first, though he says he is still uncomfortable with the preponderance of LGBTQ people within the fandom and what he says is his “biblical” view of homosexuality. “I keep thinking, ‘I have to bring my light into darker places,’ ” he says, seemingly finding no inconsistency between this view and the fact that society, as a whole, is not exactly tolerant of adults dressing as multicolored canines.

Throughout FurFest, even if I didn’t explicitly ask this question, the undercurrent of the conversation was always: Will furries ever go mainstream? Some of the attendees at MFF, particularly those who have been in the fandom for a long time, believed this was in part happening already, as evidenced by the influx of kids with their parents at the con. “I never told my parents I was a furry. I wouldn’t dream of being 15 and bringing my parents here,” says Laurie. “But I’m seeing more here — they’ve got the glazed parent look in their eyes, but at least they’re here.”

The popularity of events like ComicCon may also be contributing to this trend. “Ever since Iron Man came out [in 2008] there’s been a shift where geek culture is becoming more and more accepted and mainstream,” Tang says. Even so, says Laurie, while it’s more acceptable to tell people you’re going to a comic con or a sci-fi con, that still doesn’t apply to furry cons. “The assumption would be [if I told anyone] that I’m a crazy sex person,” she says. The mainstreaming of any subculture is contingent on the sanitization of its grittier side, and if the furry fandom has any hope of finding cultural acceptance, it could only be after it has been thoroughly scrubbed of its sexualized elements, even if they aren’t front and center in the culture.

I think about this later that evening, when I attend a latex photo shoot and meet Omni, a tulip-pink rubber pig with enormous breasts, comically oversized buttocks, and no apparent holes in her suit for speaking or eating or breathing; the only indication that she was anything other than a six-foot-tall kinky porcine goddess was a flash of hairy ankle above her Sperry loafers. It was 11 p.m., well within the confines of the after-dark hours for the convention, when Omni could roam (or, more accurately, squeak) through the halls without attracting notice of terrified parents or judgmental Christian dragons. It occurred to me that someday there may be a version of Midwest FurFest where sexy, terrifying latex pigs weren’t allowed to roam the corridors of the Hyatt at 11 p.m., or even at all. And even though I am neither kinky nor a furry, I was surprised to find that the prospect of this reality made me sad.

December 4th, 2019 - Rosemont, IL - Midwest Furr Fest at Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. 'Fur pile' on the convention floor

A ‘fur pile’ on the convention floor. Photograph by Lyndon French for Rolling Stone

The final night of Midwest FurFest, before a group of hungover furries decamped in the lobby of the Hyatt, drinking iced coffee and nodding by way of greeting instead of the customary hug, I went to a furry rave. I saw a fox covered in Christmas lights slow-dancing with a raccoon. I saw a rainbow-striped zebra with a blond ponytail. I saw a skunk in an Adidas backpack press up against a gray and purple rat. And I saw a “cat … fish … tiger … something … I don’t know what I am,” as a tiny girl with giant paws and giant pupils told me before darting away.

Other than the girl, who was very clearly on ecstasy, no one was doing anything outside the realm of propriety; the average middle school dance would have made for a far more lurid scene. Yet when I posted a video of the rave on Instagram, it was immediately flagged and barred from being shared, for violating its guidelines against inappropriate content. That night, in scrolling through my feed, I saw more misogynistic posts from college Instagram meme pages and photos of emaciated teen influencers in bikinis than I could count; yet somehow the social media powers that be had deemed a video of a thick hippo dancing with a tiger too offensive for the platform.

So maybe the question isn’t whether we’ll ever accept furries; maybe the question is why they would ever want our acceptance to begin with, when they could exist happily at the FurFest rave, the rats grinding with the skunks, the foxes cuddling with the wolves, the rubber-pig latex goddesses doing whatever they do with other consenting rubber-pig latex goddesses, bringing their own light to dark places, living as the beasts inside their minds, judged by no one but their own half-man, half-animal, all-forgiving gods.

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