Eileen Stahl: Furries have feelings, too

BY EILEEN STAHL

Published January 20, 2009

As students at a progressive University, most of us take pride in our so-called tolerance. We’re happy to tell you that we respect you no matter what your sexual orientation, race or religious beliefs may be. Yet many of us still shun “that weird kid” — you know, the socially awkward person that’s hovered around since middle school. It may not seem like much at the time, but enough shunning can push someone over the psychological edge.

Given the lovely, intelligent and overwhelmingly modest social butterfly I am now, it may surprise you to learn that I was once “that kid.” Never knowing when to keep my trap shut, I elected to do most of my socializing on the Internet. It was there that I ran into a number of bizarre groups who had made the same decision. Many of their members were adults, and the majority were far worse off than me.

One of the most prevalent of these groups is the furries. You may have heard of them — these are the people who identify as animals more than humans— think Disney’s Robin Hood or Sonic the Hedgehog — and create vast online communities. They create anthropomorphic characters known as “fursonas” to represent themselves, which they draw pictures of, write fiction about, and role play. Most of this stuff is so heavily sexualized it stops being creepy and becomes hilarious.

Oddly enough, though, that part doesn’t bother me much. Sure, being turned on by Chip and Dale is a little weird, but a lot of people have strange fetishes. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, it doesn’t matter whether you masturbate to porn or erotic depictions of refrigerators. That’s tolerance.

But red flags start going up when one realizes the phenomenon isn’t isolated. There’s been surprisingly little research done on the furry population, but I estimate there might be upwards of 100,000. On the popular art website deviantart.com, for example, 85,776 results come up for “furry,” and that’s only when restricting it to the special anthropomorphic section. A "furry convention” in Pittsburgh boasted over 3,000 attendees, and only the most committed furries go to conventions.

It’s because of the Internet that groups like this can form. People have a desire for comfort, and online, it’s easy to find people who can relate to your experiences and tell you you’re okay. The problem is, that sometimes you’re not, and people who have been hurt enough can come to believe just about anything.

For example, furries who call themselves “Otherkin” take it a step further and purport to be fantastical creatures, claiming they’ve always felt “different” from humans. They’re reincarnations of faeries, unicorns, elves, and especially dragons. To their credit, Otherkin are aware that what they believe in might be hard for others to swallow. Their response is that as long as you can behave as a functional member of society, it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a human or a creature from another planet.

Again: I agree, but in reality, Otherkin are overwhelmingly not functional. I’ll be the first to admit that they’re usually kind and intelligent people. However, they’re psychologically unhealthy; the majority are socially awkward and have cripplingly low self-esteem from being ostracized for years. Their forums are filled with topics such as “What’s wrong with me?” and “Serious Depression — Life-threatening.” The Otherkin FAQ has a section describing the longing to return to a special “home” where they feel accepted. It’s been reported that suicide is disturbingly common in the “dragon community.”

These groups are coming onto the media radar and are usually a subject of ridicule, but I think we should have more compassion. These people need someone to talk to. They don’t become shunned because they’re furries, but become furries because they’re shunned. These are people who have given up on ever fitting in with humans and have joined a fantasy reality online that only reinforces their isolation. While they claim this coping mechanism is keeping them “more sane,” in the end it prevents true healing. The only way to recover from low self-esteem — like I did — is to come to love yourself and everything that comes with it.

Enough ostracizing can cause the lifetime psychological damage you see in 40-year-old guys who believe they’re something called “star dragons.” So while you don’t have to be best buddies with the weird kid, please show him or her some respect — lest you unleash their inner beast.

Eileen Stahl can be reached at efstahl@umich.edu.