Boys, Girls, and the In-Betweens

For many, perhaps most, it’s easy to envision furry as being made up in large part of gay males.  Some evidence bears this out, even; results from the Furry Survey suggests that a majority of furry is indeed male, though the sexual orientation side of things suggests a different story, which is still, of course, far and above what’s considered standard in western society.  The point of interest comes in the way gender and sexuality are explored strictly within the context of furry, whether through art or through text, particularly on the Internet.

I, admittedly, grew into the fandom with a similar mindset, expecting that it would be a warm and welcoming place for a young gay (as I identified at the time; things have since shifted) man, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.  There was a very welcoming, bordering on celebratory, attitude towards non-heterosexual orientations, and there was certainly no shortage of guys around to fit into that niche.  I came from a pretty standard family as far as gay kids from upper-middle class liberal America go, and even I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of acceptance and testosterone flowing around within the fandom.  It definitely fit in well with my burgeoning sexuality, in that I had a lot of supportive people surrounding me and, to put it bluntly, a lot of choices for the targets of my affection.  Even today, I’m surprised at how large a part sexual orientation plays in those that I meet, to an embarrassing point, in some.

More surprising than the gay men, however, was the women I met.  Specifically, the discrepancies in gender ratios online versus that which I heard about and encountered at conventions, meets, and in person in general.  This wasn’t some sort of taboo phenomenon, either.  Some openly joked about how males on MUCKs were males, and females on MUCKs were probably males too.  Others who were a different gender online from in person treated it as an open secret and joked about it often.  Even those who didn’t joke about it weren’t coy about differentiating between player and character when talking online.

I’m sure that there as many, if not more, reasons for someone to have a character of a different gender from their player online as their are people who actually do that.  In fact, there almost certainly are a good deal more reasons for someone to do that than there are people who do that, just due to the fact that people change over time.

Here now, I’ve been playing coy, and that’s probably not a good thing for writers to do.  I know that this is the case because, in eleven years of being around within the fandom now, I’ve done my own fair share of playing around with gender and talking with those who do similar online, and I think I definitively state that there are several reasons for doing so.  They can be divided into needs and wants: those things that are biological or psychological imperatives and those things that are more desires than must haves.

Topping the list of wants is likely the desire for heterosexual interaction – not necessarily just in the realm of sex, either.  In a predominately male social group where sexual orientation is divided up fairly evenly, people have found a way to increase the amount of females available for this interaction through role play and art.  When it comes to sex on the Internet, it’s then easier for people to find partners even if they’re playing the female role in the act. This has surely led to more than a few instances of relationships that have started based on this interaction and then failed due to that not actually being the case in real life.

Along with this is the same concept of exploration that is almost stereotypical in society at large, where gender and sexual orientation are balanced differently.  Some players who identify as primarily homosexual may spend sometime playing with or as female characters as a means of experimenting more with a new experience.  For some, it’s simply testing the waters, for others more of a kink type thing, something to indulge in that’s not quite the norm.  In line with that, the Internet has certainly engendered increased sexual liberation, and some may find themselves exploring broader and broader areas of interest as time goes on, and playing as a female character may just be another way to branch out and have fun.

This ties a little into the separation between character and self.  In these instances, the female character’s player likely retains a fairly solid sense of male gender, as opposed to the instance where the difference between player and character sex is driven more by a need. The net has definitely brought around several benefits, and the layer of anonymity inherent in interactions provides a unique outlet for gender dysphoria; that is, some will undoubtedly play characters of a different gender from themselves because that gender will more closely match the gender that they feel.

As a bit of an aside, it should be noted that there’s a difference between gender and sex, in this context.  Sex is fairly easily defined as the biological make-up of the body, whether male, female, or intersex.  Gender is a little tougher to pin down.  It can be seen as a psychological thing, as in whether or not one feels comfortable or not (dysphoric) with one’s given sex.  It can also be taken in a sociological context, as several feelings in regard to gender have to do with how one is perceived by others and what societal roles they fit into.  While western society is heteronormative, gender can, like sexual orientation, be interpreted as a continuous scale from one extreme (totally masculine) to the other (totally feminine), meaning that these perceptions and roles can apply to portions of a person’s life rather than simply the entirety.

Gender identity is always a sticky issue to get around, as it doesn’t have quite the recognition that sexual orientation has, and thus has less support behind it, both from medicine and psychology, as well as society at large.  Many don’t understand the issues surrounding gender, and it’s difficult to comprehend what exactly is involved when gender and sex don’t match up.  Despite my own experiences with being in a relationship with a transgender person, I didn’t quite understand things until only rather recently.

The reason I’m writing about this at all, and still having a hard time not being coy or dancing around the issue is that it’s difficult for me to speak about openly.  That I have any problems at all with my own gender identity was very difficult for me to admit to myself and is harder still to admit to anyone else.  This is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone besides my partner and one or two close friends, actually, and it worries me that I’m doing so in so public a fashion, but it is pertinent.  As with sexual orientation and coming out, it’s the type of thing one fears losing friends and family over, and with myself, it led to a period of depression earlier this year lasting several weeks.

The reason I even bring it up, though, is simply to make the point even more clear on the importance of gender within furry, the fandom which is so welcoming of those within it that the answers pertaining to sexual orientation in the furry survey suggest a truly equal distribution of the sexual orientation spectrum (this in comparison to the oft-quoted 10% thrown around in reference to homosexuality in western civilization at large).  The fact that one can create a character with which they strongly identify in terms of gender and sex online can be an important psychological outlet.  I can say first-hand that the discomfort felt during sex when one’s gender and sex don’t line up is intense and, when your sexual partner is your significant other, deeply upsetting.

Interactions online blur the line between the two socially accepted genders even further, as it introduces the possibility of playing out roles that even more closely match one’s gender than society – or biology, for that matter – will allow.  To pull some examples from recent art that’s been floating around, if one identifies as mostly masculine with some female attributes, one’s character could be a mostly male hermaphrodite, or, if even less masculinity feels right, a (and I feel the need to prefix this with my personal dislike of the term) ‘cunt-boy’.  The whole spectrum of gender can be expressed in your character with that layer of anonymity the Internet provides, including even lack of gender or inherently hermaphroditic species such as chakats.

The whole idea of mixed genders within the fandom wasn’t something that I ran into until I had been exploring furry for a few years.  I didn’t really understand them or people’s reaction to them for quite a while.  The whole concept seems to be fairly divisive, with people taking either a firm stance against or for the whole concept.  On one hand, I’ve heard mixed genders of different sorts described positively as “more fun, since you can stack them so many ways” and negatively as “guys just wanting to play with boobs and dick at the same time”.  I certainly can’t speak for everyone involved and don’t care to try and change anyone’s mind, but my own opinion is decidedly positive: if the character fits the gender, excellent!  If it really is just about sex and playing Tetris with warm bodies, well, sex is good too.

Furry is very much a sexual subculture, when taken as a whole (though not perhaps as much as people think).  It’s not surprising, then, that gender plays so large a role within the fandom, both online and off.  It is an integral part of sexuality.  If the fandom is so sexually liberal as compared to the world it inhabits, yet is a subset of that world, it really makes me wonder how much of this is going on within humanity as a whole.  Are we all so evenly distributed in terms of sexual orientation, and the bipolarity of western society just prevents that from being expressed?  Are issues of gender versus sex more prevalent than it appears?  And, with a few exceptions, are we really as on our own as it seems when it comes to mixing biological sex in one body?  Hardly questions for a dumb blog on furries to answer, but interesting all the same.

About Makyo

Makyo spends her time as a frumpy snow leopard, usually, but she's all over the map. She's been around furry since about 2000 under a variety of names. She writes, programs, and screws around with music.

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4 thoughts on “Boys, Girls, and the In-Betweens

  1. Are we really as on our own as it seems? No.

    Does that matter, for most people? I’m not certain.

    Gender and I have a tricky relationship. I’ve described myself as trans before, and it’s not something I put a whole lot of effort into hiding. It may not be strictly accurate; mostly, I have no real use for gender and unless pressed, I don’t think of myself in gendered terms. My avatar is biologically female, and I am not. My avatar, of course, is also a Border collie, and a schoolteacher.

    (I’m not either one of those things)

    In either case, many of my friends are trans, as is my SO, and I’m well close enough to it to know that the term “LGBT” is a misnomer, because there’s no way in hell you could put a big enough asterisk after “T.” It’s something we feel the need to add, as a sop to inclusivity, but the cold reality is that many people, and even many LGBpersons, don’t take kindly to people messing with normative gender behavior. “Genderqueer” is still treated as an edge case.

    This is true inside the fandom as well. The fandom is less outwardly cisgendered than the ‘real world,’ maybe because hermaphroditism is so popular, but there’s still a lot of pressure to conform, particularly on the female side. You don’t see a lot of dykes in furry. It’s also true that there is a stigma associated with transgendered roleplaying, especially of the MtF variety. There’s the sense that it is inherently dishonest, and, as you put it, born from a desire for heterosexual companionship.

    You see the same arguments being made about homosexuality in the fandom — that is, that the lack of opportunities for heterosexual relationships makes people seek out other options. “Prison gay,” I think is the term. I don’t like this concept. I’d suggest two things:

    Firstly — gender is clinal. There are concepts, occupations, self-descriptions, behaviors, appearances, and so on that are heavily gendered in one direction or another, it’s true. There are almost definitely people who are exactly at one polar end or another. Most of us, however, are not. Most of us may enjoy wearing skirts (gendered female) but also following baseball (gendered male). We may be mathematicians (gendered male) but also enjoy Hugh Grant movies (gendered female).

    Of course, it may be that you look at those and think (correctly) that there is nothing essentially male or female about these activities. That’s true, but then, nearly everything that we think of as “gendered,” despite occasional reductivist attempts to paint it as biologically grounded, is fundamentally cultural. There’s no reason why little boys shouldn’t enjoy playing dress-up with dolls, nor little girls shouldn’t enjoy playing army.

    There are precious few “gendered” activities that are essential in character. Producing sperm, for example. But if your game of army (D&D clique, muscle car appreciation, necktie, etc.) hinges on the production of sperm, allow me to suggest that you’re probably doing it wrong. And if you’re looking at skirts or pantyhose, and the sales clerk wants to know how these articles will assist you in delivering live young, you may want to find a different store.

    So in a practical sense, people live in the in-betweens. Most times, we don’t think about it. Most times, even, we don’t care to separate ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ as separate elements. SoFurry uses the same database column to describe ‘gender’ in one place and ‘sex’ in another. I pointed out that this renders myself, and every other transperson who wishes to use the site, incapable of answering this question truthfully; I was told to do whatever seemed most appropriate.

    Secondly, Internet avatars are complex phenomena. The sociologist Erving Goffman postulated that human interaction can be divided into “stages.” The “front stage” is where we carry out our everyday performances — how we talk, how we act, what power dynamics we seek out. Anybody in retail understands this, but front stage scripting — trying to find a way to present ourselves — is an omnipresent activity. By contrast, the backstage is relatively freer — it’s where we can deconstruct our personas, and act more informal. This is a cline, too — but think about how differently you and your coworkers behave in the breakroom.

    The Internet is frequently viewed as largely backstage in scope. One of my old colleagues, though, has argued cogently that it’s actually disruptive to that sense of a continuum. It’s constructed, like the frontstage, but it’s (potentially) free of preexisting mores and structures, like the backstage. We can therefore create new avatars freely, but invest in them as though they were genuine and fundamentally part of our personalities.

    This entails making explicit choices about how, and what, to say about ourselves: name, age, sex, gender, location. Few people, even in fantastic settings like furry fandom, create avatars that are completely distinct from their real-life selves. But these little differences are key, and I suspect perhaps they also don’t realize that the choices they make are even more visible than those in the real world: because there’s nothing else to nuance them with, we have to take the avatar at face value.

    So I’m not sure how many of these gender-bending choices are fully conscious of the entire context beneath it all.

    Anyway, to toss some numbers into the fray. In the Furry Survey, I ask about sex and gender as separate questions. I also ask people how commonly they roleplay as a character of the opposite biological sex.

    Biological males, gendered male: 2746
    Biological males, gendered female: 84
    Biological females, gendered male: 82
    Biological females, gendered female: 630

    It may immediately strike you that, conventional wisdom aside, if you meet any random transgendered individual in the fandom they are exactly as likely to be male as to be female. And biological females are substantially more likely to be transgendered than biological males.

    Interestingly, very few people copped to having a fandom avatar as their primary furry persona that was of a different gender than their biological sex — 95 biological males and 58 biological females. Which means that, proportionally, biological females are still more likely to do this then biological males. (The numbers are 70 and 52, respectively, for people who are gendered male or female, irrespective of their sex).

    Fundamentally, and without any real support, I generally believe that the furry fandom is more or less identical to the real world, in terms of sexuality and, therefore, gender. We’re just more honest about it — at least in private.


    1. The greatest thing about the Internet that I have found thus far is the sharing of information, so let me thank you, first and foremost, for being not only the first commenter, but, on all of the little sites I’ve toyed with, likely the most cogent and informative. “Cline” may now be my new favorite word.

      There are posts in the docket that address some of the interesting sociological points you’ve brought up, such as the difference between the player and the character or avatar, as well as the additional layers embedded in our quirky modes of online communication. Specific to this post, though, it’s interesting to hear that several of the same heteronormative behaviors visible in western society are also there within the fandom, but couched in our own unique way.

      As mentioned before, when I was going through high school, I attended a support group of sorts for teens figuring out both sexual orientation and gender identity. One of the facilitators there gave a good talk about the clinal aspects of gender. As someone who went through partial transition and stopped because they didn’t identify as male, they ran into troubles with just about every paper form they filled out that asked for gender in a strictly binary way. With paper forms, they could draw in a square and write in ‘other’ or whatever they wished, but there’s not really much of a choice on most online forms. I’ve made the decision in my work to store gender as a text and make use of some UI tricks to get around that: on a character description site I provide male, female, and other options in the gender drop down, and choosing other makes the text field that stores the actual response visible to the user for editing. This helps keep data mostly normalized but allows for a more personalized experience for the user, especially helpful in a subculture that is rather more open about things than not.

      There’s more in your reply that I’d like to respond to more directly, but I hesitate to do so with so much of what you touched on being the primary subject of future posts. Also, I’ll need some time to digest it all this evening when I’m not at work. Thanks again for your reply, and I hope to see you around here more in the future!


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