5 Things I Learned Attending A Furry Convention
I recently checked into a hotel while two people in dog costumes nuzzled and pawed at each other behind me, because I had been invited to attend Fur-Eh, an Edmonton-based furry convention. In part because I am a hardworking writer, but mostly because I've heard these conventions are a great place to score drugs, I spent three days hanging with furries. Here's what I learned.
First Off, Here's What A Furry Convention Is
Depending on your level of internet literacy, you may have no idea what a furry is, or you may be reading this while dressed as a walrus-weasel hybrid. To make sure we're all on the same page, a furry convention is for fans of anthropomorphic animals and related media. Some people dress up with anything from a tail or some ears to a full fursuit.
There's more to it, but for now, think of it like Comic-Con, except everyone there got way more out of Zootopia than the rest of us. This particular convention was also Harry Potter-themed, presumably because they were otherwise in danger of being too cool. So after I was sorted into the copyright-dodging Dogwarts' house of Hisserin by the magical Sorting Randomizer, I hit the floor to represent my team of evil racists.
"Let's trust him to educate youth!"
A furry con is a cross between a family reunion, a professional conference, a rave, an unruly mob, and a pride parade (furries have a disproportionately large number of LGBTQ members). When you're part of a community that largely exists online, you have to cram a lot of real-life socializing and activity into a few days when the opportunity comes. Events ranged from a poutine social to board games to karaoke to BDSM tutorials to sessions on puppy play. Some people spend eight hours selling their creations, which could be anything from art to witchcraft supplies to tails, then dance and drink until 4:00 a.m. This is not an event where people get a lot of sleep.
It is the kind of event where you'll see a man have a polite and friendly conversation with a child who complimented his wolf suit, then later see him drunkenly pretending to hump an inflatable dolphin. You'll be offered lots of hugs from strangers, see big embraces between friends who haven't hung out since the last con, overhear a 1:00 am debate at the bar about where the line between anthropomorphic sex and bestiality is, meet people who introduce themselves as the "Screamer of Meows" and their partner as their mate, witness active and occasionally filthy Telegram chats, and watch groups of people frequently start chants and howls. It is both laidback and relentlessly manic. No one is going to judge you for who you are, but they'll probably offer you glow sticks and weed.
Everyone I spoke to was friendly and happy to talk, occasionally well beyond the point where they should have picked up on my hints that I wasn't feeling a 10-minute conversation about passport stamps. Everyone was willing to tell me all about themselves when asked, and then they would ask about me with complete sincerity.
When they learned I wasn't a furry, they invariably reacted with a comment like "Oh no, I hope this isn't too weird for you!" It wasn't -- it's an experience that quickly becomes mundane, and I soon thought nothing of the fact that I was talking to a man dressed as a reindeer in a gimp suit. But it's not surprising that they were worried, because ...
The Media Has Not Been Kind To Furries
Several panels I attended featured complaints about how the media portrays furries. That's not unreasonable. Not long ago, furries were portrayed almost exclusively as bizarre sexual deviants. There was a CSI episode about skeevy costumed orgies, and a 1,000 Ways To Die segment about a totally-real-no-I-swear story of a man encountering a furry orgy in the woods, then getting mauled to death after trying to fuck a real bear. Here's an MTV documentary that focuses on sex, a Savage Love column that thinks the fandom is all about sex, and a Vanity Fair article that focuses on sex in which the author congratulates himself on not fleeing the convention in horror. At a certain point, a fascination with the sex lives of strangers says more about the people doing the gawking.
It's not clear where that hypersexual reputation came from -- we don't accuse baseball fans of wanting head from the Phillie Phanatic -- but I overheard talk of dick pics being shared and saw artists advertising the availability of "NSFW art," so that element does exist. After buying 14 pieces of that art, I attended Furry Psychology, held by a doctor of social psychology who studies the community. He pointed out that while many furries do consume furry pornography, there's no particular preference for it, nor is there any data that supports it being a fetish. The vast majority of people get into the fandom for non-sexual reasons. Furries have sex drives, like Game Of Thrones fans or people who have the misfortune of being really into The Bachelor, but sex is not an inherent part of the experience.
This is the doctor.
Only about 21 percent of Fur-Eh attendants even wore fursuits in 2016, and of those, the percentage that has what I was without prompting told are called "strategically placed holes" is vanishingly small. But it's hard to scare people into freaking out about the kids these days with dry statistics, which led to a lot of people telling me, again unprompted, that "it's not a sex thing" in a tone that was half laughing it off and half worried that I was going to denounce them as perverts.
Media coverage has improved recently, and the negative portrayals seem to have died down, if only because the novelty has worn off and everyone realized that CSI was terrible. But furries are still cautious, and it's certainly still common for them to be portrayed as lonely misfits and weirdos.
In a panel I attended about the experience of wearing a fursuit, people shared stories about getting harassed in public. Later, the host talked about the comical awkwardness of explaining it to his mom, part of the general concern over how (and if) to tell family and colleagues. The latter was especially problematic, because if your boss thinks you like to fuck llamas in hotel rooms on the weekend, you might not be his first choice for a promotion. As one person later told me:
"I try to keep it really under wraps. 'I'm just going to Pittsburgh to hang out with friends.' I don't like living a lie, but I don't want to have to explain it to some people, especially in a professional environment. There's definitely some stereotypes, that's it's just a sex thing. I just like art and my friends. I don't want people to have that idea about me."
The panel had a pretty casual dress code.
It turns out that if you portray thousands of people as pathetic perverts for a couple of decades, they will both be annoyed and ironically lean into it. Lots of people I talked to took pains to emphasize that they were normal (and I overheard a few making the same promise to their pizza delivery guys), but I also overheard furries bragging about freaking out hotel staff and people on the street. Furries do believe that there's a bias against them, and are often hesitant to talk about the fandom, but if people are going to judge them, then they might as well get a laugh out of it.
To be fair, this guy does look like he's going to steal your soul.
That stigma is unfortunate, in part because it's dickish and lazy, but also because it's concealing better stories. In that same panel, a middle-aged man in dragon PJs told us about work he had done with a children's hospital. He remembered visiting one terminally ill patient in costume, and saw him cheer up and be a kid again for a bit. He later got a letter from the hospital telling him that the kid had drawn pictures of the visit and couldn't stop talking about it. He died not long after. That's more interesting than laughing at someone for wearing dragon PJs in public, but here we are.
So Here's What The Appeal Is
So if the internet and CSI lied to you, what is the appeal? Where do you even draw the line between a furry and someone who just digs the Kung Fu Panda Cinematic Universe? Well, generally a person's fursona -- whether that's a $3,000 suit or a simple sketch -- -- represents their idealized self. They're not just pretending to be a deer; they're pretending to a deer who's more confident and outgoing and fun to be around than they feel they are in reality. Certain traits are also associated with certain animals, and people usually try to pick an animal that they feel matches them. One guy told me a story about a drunken escapade with friends and added, "You know us dogs, always causing trouble when we're in packs." And if that all sounds like a dangerous fantasy, remember that that's the exact same reason we create video game characters and identify with movie heroes. Here's what one fursuitter said about what her fursona means to her:
"She's an arctic fox hybrid with a wolf. She's basically me. The wolf part is very quiet and spiritual, and the fox part is very playful. As long as I've been in this thing, I'm like 'I'm a canine.' I love them, I feel playful like them ... it's just fun."
That effect was obvious at the convention. I met people outside of their suits who were a little shy or awkward, only to find them tearing up the dance floor or holding court in costume. As one fursuiter told me, "It's hard to be embarrassed when no one can see your face." And as my fox-wolf friend said:
"There's just something about putting a mask on. When you're just 'normal,' you're kind of exposed, people can judge how you look, you're supposed to act a 'proper' way. But when you put on a costume, you can embody a character. If I went around hugging everybody and flopping around, people would be like 'What's wrong with her?' But if the suit is on, it's cute, people love it, they take pictures, everyone wants hugs, you become popular and adorable."
She got interested in Lion King fan art when she was 14, and eventually discovered the furry fandom. That's a common path in a community that skews young -- teenagers develop an interest in something animal-related, think that they're weird, then discover that they're not. As she put it, "It's always funny, everyone who starts out as a furry thinks that they're the only one in the world. But they're not."
The creative element was also brought up constantly. The rules of Star Trek or Zelda already exist, and you can't completely overwrite them without getting shoved to the fringes of the fandom. You also can't legally sell Star Trek art, no matter how much you insist to Paramount that Spock impregnating Kirk is a beautiful expression of the show's themes. But there are no real rules in the furry fandom, so you can create whatever you want. Artists, in turn, told me that they found it validating to bring a person's creation to life, because while that mosquito wearing parachute pants may look odd to you, to someone else, it's an extension of who they are.
Like any fantasy, this is all healthy right up until it's not. And like any interest, the furry community has some people who are using it to avoid reality. Generally, however, research says that furries don't let fandom get in the way of their lives, and for many, the fandom is a valuable source of support.
Psychology aside, a convention is still a party. And on that note ...
A Furry Convention Is Inevitably Full Of Shenanigans
While I was unfortunately too tied up too attend the bondage panel (nice one, Mark!), there was still a lot going on. There was no shortage of alcohol being carried into the hotel, and several rooms were hosting parties, although I was turned away from the sexy underwear party, just like in high school.
There was a dance competition, and watching a tiger belly dance and a ... whatever this is perform to Fergie's "M.I.L.F. $" is a spectacle you're not going to see elsewhere.
There were also general dances that were weird, in that they still cared about "Who Let the Dogs Out" in 2017 ...
... and a fursuit parade through the parking lot, to the bafflement of anyone driving by:
Because of the con's theme, there was also a furry quidditch game -- a phrase whose mere existence has prompted a thousand angry rants about millennials. Real-life quidditch is roughly a combination between dodgeball, handball, and the challenge of not feeling like an imbecile while running around with a fake broom between your legs -- that last one being a skill I failed to acquire.
While most people played down to the stereotype of flailing nerds, the guy wearing the full fursuit pulled the equivalent of LeBron dunking on children by almost singlehandedly winning a game, although unlike LeBron, he then had to run inside to chug several liters of water, because it turns out that hot, stifling fursuits don't make for the best athletic gear. I was drafted into the next game, and in a highlight unlikely to make SportsCenter, was almost immediately slammed into the pavement by an overzealous man wearing a tail who apparently had a lot of high school gym class issues to work through.
Then someone leaned out of his window, shouted that we were all "fucking nerds," and flipped us off -- none of which are issues that Harry Potter had to put up with.
Then he vanished in a puff of irony.
That sums up what it's like to try to capture the magic of Harry Potter in the harsh reality of a slightly run-down hotel. Further ruining the magic were all the "students" I saw in robes getting drunk and smoking weed, although I guess even Harry and friends needed to unwind somehow. But that's actually fitting. Despite the stereotype of furries as weirdo obsessives, few people were taking it too seriously. Which means ...
In The End, It's Really Nothing That Remarkable
Hundreds of people sitting around a hotel in fursuits winning points for their fictional magic houses is silly right up until everyone involved collectively agrees that it isn't. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to agree that a conference room with hideous carpet is a Great Hall, but if everyone else is rolling with it, then you start to as well. I joined several loud chants in support of my pro-genocide house, an action which helped propel us to a dead-last finish but was fun nevertheless.
It's generally poor writing to tell people that a story isn't actually all that interesting, but that's the case here. There are no orgies or hordes of unhygienic people who believe that they have the souls of polar bears and are being oppressed by humanity. The reality of any subculture is rarely as interesting as the myths that are spread about them, and furries never really got the chance to establish their own myths.
Like any fandom, furries are not without issues. I heard complaints about immature drama, bullying, and the treatment of women in a mostly male fanbase, among other concerns. But furries are, in general, as happy and satisfied as anyone, and a convention boils down to a bunch of friends having fun and blowing off steam. If you think that's weird, literally all you have to do is ignore it.
I'm not planning to attend another furry convention anytime soon. But there was something sweet about being at this one and seeing a big fox sitting with his arm around a middle-aged woman, then seeing them holding hands when he was out of his suit and realizing that there was a real person behind that love. Despite its flaws, that's ultimately what the furry community seems to be about.
Fuck quidditch, though.
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