The day I grew a tail

orestes_furries

Anonymous creator, found here on Flickr

Some time ago I posted about furries, and my first rather nervous foray into their world. Looking back at it I can see similarities with the motivations behind the steampunk culture I explored in my most popular post. I can also see similarities with brony culture, which I’ll go into in a little more detail below.

Since that post I’ve been spending more time around my local furries, and gradually I think I’m starting to understand some of the subtleties a bit more. I’m beginning to get why quite so many furries are gay or bisexual men and what the draw of “fursuiting” is, and it ties in to some themes I’ve noticed in steampunk and other subcultures as well.

There’s the more shallow point that furry fandom provides a kind of gay scene for people whose personalities don’t suit the fashion-conscious, be-cool-or-be-nobody culture of the club “scene”. A gay scene for the geeky, the daft, and those who don’t care about cool. I’ve met several furries who got into it that way, and I think it’s great. I’ve seen firsthand in the last few years how hard it is as a gay man to find community.

It’s a great way of staying warm, too. As I write this I’m sitting at my computer bundled up in a vast white fluffy robe; our boiler’s broken down, and quite frankly this evening I’m envying all the more sensible mammals their lovely coats of insulating fur. My druid suit has gaps at the neck and cuff ends – in winter I can see exactly why wearing a full-body suit of artificial fur might be a delight.

But that doesn’t explain why furries will do exactly the same thing in the middle of August, including wearing mascot-style fursuit heads built from cast resin, upholstery foam and similar not particularly breathable materials. (Computer fans are often installed in the heads to help ventilate them). And it doesn’t explain why some furries miss their suits so much they yearn for furmeets and a chance to put them on. That, in particular, speaks of a fursuit being more than just a costume, and that makes my cultural-commentator antennae spread out like rat whiskers at the first whiff of roast chicken.

By OwlLovingApril on FLickr.

By OwlLovingApril on Flickr.

This is where the tie to steampunk comes in. I’ve found over time, as I read more steampunk literature and explored more of the culture, that I’ve moved away from it; I simply felt it was irrelevant, not “going” anywhere. I can see where steampunk’s original basis, in highly skilled makers and their interesting inventions, is a very meaningful step in a world torn between the need to reuse, reduce and think of the planetary future and the siren call of the capitalist status quo. It’s creative thinking and creative use of materials, and that’s a massive rebellion against capitalist newthink. But the pop-culture aspect of steampunk is shackled by its own tendency to self-parody – in particular, written steampunk fiction really doesn’t feel relevant or deep. Perhaps the best current steampunk writer out there is China Mieville, and who would really call his work steampunk? It’s as if something loses its steampunk nature when it expands far enough to make contact with the culture of today. Old-school steampunks complain about much the same thing; the loss of  the genuinely progressive maker culture in favour of everyone-can-play-along populism. Pretend Victorians rather than an alchemy between the breathtaking ingenuity of the Victorian era and the tools our modern lives offer us today. I think I agree.

So, certainly for me and I think for a lot of others too, a subculture has to have some broader, deeper relevance to stay current and to really shape people’s lives. It has to go above and beyond mere entertainment. I’ve already mentioned the  fact that many fursuits are “more than a costume”; that told me there’s some connection there I might be able to find. Unlike the populist brand of steampunk, furry culture appears to actually have some deeper relevance, and moreover it’s a relevance that enough people feel to make a thriving subculture out of their shared rebellion.

In all honesty, my own transness has in part been what’s helped me figure out what that is.

I transitioned late. I was 31 when I figured out my gender, and will be 37 far sooner than I’d like. That meant that I spent three decades living, more or less contentedly, with the rules and norms our society imposes for women. Some trans men come out of that experience fiercely feminist; I didn’t. I came out with a very deep and hard to articulate anger about exactly how little attention is being paid to what extant gender norms do to men, and how narcissistic feminist campaigning can be.

dash_believe

Photo by Clintjcl on Flickr

Now before I get shouted down as a clueless privilege case, let me give you some specific examples. Now that I’m a man, I can no longer behave in several ways that were perfectly OK when I was a woman. When was the last time you saw one of those twenty-several-year-old girls who acts like a little kid – squealing, sitting on her boyfriend’s lap, giggling, wearing cutesy clothes like hoodies with animal ears. Can you even remember? Would you have noticed it at all? You see, acting like that is normal for an adult woman.

Now, what would you think if you saw a man doing the same? At the last furry meet I went to, there were some very old-fashioned looks being thrown at me on two occasions – one where I was snuggled up against a male friend trying to warm up, having failed to bring a coat, and two when a third member joined the pile of me and a a different friend, in the attempt to get revenge on friend no. 2 for having repeatedly slapped his bum. I giggled like the slightly squashed idiot I was and generally made a fuss at the top of my lungs, which were a bit hoarse from the cider and shouting by that point, and that sort of shameless fun was far too much for the rugby-shirt bloke at the next table. The look on his face was one that’s very familiar – get your gay out of my space. Disgust, bluntly.

Ironically, rugby shirt guy had no problem at all with me parking myself on the arm of the sofa and returning my friend’s gift of several thrown business cards by stuffing them one at a time into the band that holds his dreads back. But then that’s self-assertion, or aggression if you choose to see it that way, and our society has no problem with that at all – not from a man. We laud it, in fact. Affection and the relaxation of personal space between guys, on the other hand? Must be something dirty about that. Get it away.

Oh yes, that’s another thing about having transitioned – people respect my personal space now. I don’t find women crowding me all the time, which I always did before. But in that personal space, I must remain an island entire unto myself, or attract censure. Or sniggering, depending on the gender of the person I’m being affectionate with. Touch, when you’re a man, is either violent or sexual to everyone else, regardless of what it actually means to you. Dreadlock friend, who’s cis but very gender-enlightened, was asking me what I thought was so bad about gender norms for men; he couldn’t disagree with that point when I made it.

Which probably goes a long way to explaining why I can’t smile at little kids now. The kids look terrified, and the mums look at me like I’m a convicted paedophile. Women can be as gooey as they like with youngsters. As a man I am a symbol of stern maturity; no baby cuddles for me.

Furries, incidentally, are wildly popular with kids of every age. People in full fursuits often get stopped and asked for photos with children. The kids themselves often think it’s beyond awesome. Look at this little guy.

beanz

Photo by Fox Paws, featuring Beanz

Inside that suit, incidentally, is the same friend I was trying to warm myself up on, and getting dirty looks for doing so. Judging books by their covers? Surely not. Which brings me on to a second point: costumes have power.

V for Vendetta is possibly the best example I can think of; V’s mask is a symbol of the thinking behind it, which spreads throughout a society, virally. A big, cartoony animal head isn’t a statement of political radicalism, but in a way it’s a statement of something else equally radical. It’s a statement that the person inside the suit is not dangerous. That they’re affectionate, silly, fun, unthreatening, OK to be around children.

All those things you’re not allowed to be when you’re a man.

So I think there you have your answer as to why so many furries are gay and bi men. In touch with their emotional selves and feelings, forced by discovering their own sexuality to do the kind of deep thinking that the normals never have to do, these are men who are aware of how much the norms restrict them, and want a way to express the forbidden joy.

fursuiters

Photo by Tim Brockley on Flickr

Personally I think it’s sick that being nice should be taboo in our world for men. And yet at the same time I can’t pretend it’s not real: I’m starting to feel those strictures myself, the longer I spend living as a man. My friends are all having babies; I never get asked if I want to hold them. My partners are the same gender as me; if I hold their hands in the street now I get stared at or looked away from. Before I transitioned, I’d get smiles.

That’s where the bronies come in too. This article is great – and it makes exactly the same point I do. Bronies are cute. Unthreatening. This is men invading the world of “things for girls” and behaving in ways that are culturally reserved “for girls”. And they’re getting treated with just as much suspicion as women who wore trousers did in the old days. It’s got to be perversion, hasn’t it? It can’t be, you know, real. They’re men.

Seriously? In 2014? Has feminism achieved anything at all that benefits men? Is this really gender equality?

Yes, OK, there are kinky furries on the Internet who like having sex in their fursuits and they give the sane ones a bad name. There are therians, or otherkin, who have animal identities dissimilar to their bodies the same way trans people have a gender different to their bodies (and with the same vast range of degrees of dysphoria, from “OK, I have a phantom tail but that’s fine” to “I can’t live with myself unless I change my name to Arkazius Foxwolf for all to see”). You can accept therians as they are or you can analyse their animal identities in terms of coping mechanisms – see above under “animals are allowed to do things people aren’t” –  but then the same arguments have been made about transgenderism, and that turned out to be observable on brain scans in the end. Nobody knows whether people with animal identities may not share a similar quirk in some way.

For me, I’m not in the strict sense a “real” furry. I don’t have a phantom tail and after my damn transition I have no desire to go through more name-change-related muckery. I do, however, get frustrated with reality in all its “polite” two-faced fakery; I’m happy to know where I fit in the hierarchy  and I don’t particularly mind the guy at the top acting like he knows he’s the one in charge. Especially not if he’s proved he deserves to be there. (You’ll note this is not the same as supporting Number 10).

So the fursona I picked out for myself is a wolf. I like wolves; they’re wild but not without a sense of loyalty, predatory and dangerous in the wrong context yet vital in a healthy ecosystem. I see similarities to my own personality in them. One of the few pieces of art I have any real spiritual response to is a painting of a wolf.

playful_wolves

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr

So that’s it. That’s what the relevance of furry is. It helps men express something they have within them, but aren’t allowed to show the rest of the time: innocence. It’s a rebellion against the popular image of men. And if that’s what it is, then its existence has some very sad comments to make on what our popular image of men really is.

And me? Well, I’m a special case. Thirty years a woman, six years a man; I’ve seen both sides. I went through the stage of revelling in my masculinity, finally being the sexual force to be reckoned with I’d always dreamed of; and now I’m seeing how that same thing boxes me in. I detest being told, by implicit assumption, that I’m a violent, hypersexualised ass.

The name I picked out for my wolf-self is Gabriel. You decide.

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