Cons & PCD: You Can’t Go Home Again

Chicago’s Midwest FurFest took place last weekend. It’s our second-biggest convention (larger than California’s Further Confusion, smaller than Pittsburg’s Anthrocon), with around 3200 attendees in 2012. I’ve never been to Midwest FurFest but many of my friends have, and by all accounts it’s one of the best-organized and most enjoyable conventions.

Last weekend my Twitter feed was filled with those enjoying the convention, easily identifiable by the #mwff hashtag. From many miles away, I vicariously observed a fursuit parade, mutual friends meeting for the first time, a hotel evacuation, and any number of social antics.

Searching for all those on Twitter using #mwff, I watched many furries – largely strangers – explore the convention. I saw expressions of furriness, geekiness, drunkenness, flirtatiousness, and happiness. It was like peering into an alternate reality, one filled with good-natured animal people.

Furry conventions have a culture of their own. The culture is especially strong within those conventions that are able to monopolize an entire hotel or convention centre. When you pull into the carpark or walk through the front doors of such a convention, you enter a different world. It’s a lot like visiting a foreign country.

Arriving at a furry convention can be disorienting. There is a lot of information to assimilate: a different culture, an unfamiliar geography, and new rules. (Where do I check in? Do I need to wear my badge? How do I get to my room? Are my friends here?) It takes some time to adjust to these surroundings, which might be as little as a few minutes (for a seasoned convention-goer) or many hours (for the unsuspecting newbie).

This feeling of disorientation also occurs when you arrive in a foreign country: it’s known as information overload. The human brain does a great job of identifying important signals – human faces, voices, road signs – amongst the noise of the world. When walking into a new environment, such as a furry convention, it’s difficult to determine what is relevant – and so our brain tries to manage more information. The extra demand on our unconscious brain comes at the cost of conscious brain power, reducing our ability to make decisions or think logically.

Information overload can make us feel disconnected from our surroundings. We become less mindful, and we may feel like we are observing ourselves from a distance. This disconnection combined with reduced cognisance creates confusion. This is why furries tend to aimlessly mill around the front entrance on opening day, and why many retailers think a ‘greeter’ provides a positive focus for a new customer who might otherwise be hesitant.

We, hopefully, adjust fairly quickly. In a particularly unfamiliar environment – perhaps your first visit to a furry convention or your first time in a new country – this adjustment can be a slow process. The safety of a hotel room can often be a relief, and courage can be required to open the door and try again.

Once we adjust to the new environment, we tend to accept otherwise novel experiences as a ‘new normal’. At a convention, the new culture is a mix of the exotic and the familiar.

A furry convention is neither high-culture nor low-culture, although there are elements of both. Avant-garde art sits next to pornography; philosophical discussions compete for time with drinking games; ruminations on sexual politics give way to lists of the sexiest football team mascots. The tone is not exactly lowbrow, but it’s not exactly transcendent either.

More tangibly: furry friendships tend to be quite tactile, so there is a lot of interpersonal physical contact, most obviously when fursuiters are around. Friendly (platonic) physical contact at a furry convention might, outside of the convention doors, be perceived as sexual. The physical closeness seen at conventions seems to be tied into a kind of physical exuberance as well, and it’s easy to guess that this is because touching and being touched makes us happy.

There is also a kind of collective delusion at furry conventions, where we tend to treat each other as if we were really our animal-person avatar. Our conbadges supply the picture and name of our alter-ego, and we tend to accept these as true. There is even a tendency for convention-goers to organize by species, and there are many versions of a [species]-only room party. It’s tempting to regard this as trivial, but I think this reinforcement of our furry identity helps us relax the masks that hide our furriness in day-to-day life.

Finally, the outward traits of furries as a collective are on display, for good or for bad. We are very male-dominated (about 80%) and we are largely non-heterosexual (about 65%). We’re also techy, fussy, sexy, obstinate, poorly dressed, and unathletic.

This all requires adjustment, and it’s not always conducive to relaxation and enjoyment.

The cultural differences are not the only challenge. Conventions are, fundamentally, a social environment. It’s important to either have plenty of friends or have the opportunity to meet new people (perhaps by attending a [species]-only room party). Without a large social group, a convention can be a very lonely place. Much like a visit to a foreign country, if you can’t engage with the local culture on some level, your only other option is to retreat to your hotel room. And when that door closes, you find yourself wondering why on earth you came here in the first place. It’s not nice to feel out of place in a situation you’ve spent a lot of time and money to put yourself in.

For those that thrive in the convention environment, it can provide an immersive counterpoint to the real world. The convention culture is one in which we can relax and feel liberated from stifling social norms. Like an overseas holiday, we can temporarily disregard our responsibilities and failures in the real world. However, when the convention is over, we must cross the border and readjust. This can be disorienting, a phenomenon known among travellers as ‘re-entry shock’.

The real world can feel unfamiliar when we return. Compared to a furry convention, the culture can feel restrictive and faintly ludicrous. We may find ourselves feeling slightly disconnected as we leave, just as we did on arrival.

The phrase “you can’t go home again” refers to the feeling experienced by someone from a country town, who returns home after living in a city for a while. The person who grew up in the country town is different from the person who returns: the reality of rural life jars with the rose-tinted glow of nostalgia.

If we find comfort in the culture of a furry convention – the tactile friendships, the connection with our furry self, the acceptance, tolerance, exuberance – we might be unwilling to readily reintegrate into the real world. We may feel some resentment toward society’s norms, even though we had accepted these before the furry convention. It can take time to overcome post-con depression. We have changed. You can’t go home again.

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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11 thoughts on “Cons & PCD: You Can’t Go Home Again

  1. This sums it up very well towards the end of how I always feel with the con-crud. That bit of adjusting away form a world of openness, welcoming, and friendship. Slowly rolling myself back up into the shell and having to process life at a regular guarded method. The sensation of all those friends I’ve known online for years. Finally had time to meet, built super strong friendships fast only to loose them so soon back to the internet.

    And that awkward first week back where I stand by the elevator with out pushing the button because i’m so used to large crowds waiting for them.

    1. It’s an important skill to be able to wear an appropriate mask in many social situations. But it doesn’t make it any less jarring after you’ve been free to let it slip and just be a furry for a few days.

  2. I was able to attend Midwest Furfest myself for the first time, and it was also my first furry con. It was a very entertaining time, but everything that happened was exactly as you said in your article JM: mentally taxing on my unconscious. I also struggled a bit with loneliness at the con. I am a strange character; I tend to make friends in real life more than on the Internet, but since furries are rather few and far between in wisconsin ( or just too busy with real life to hang out with often ), I made very few connections before MFF. Hopefully that will change a great deal in between now and next year’s con. :3
    Oh, and by the way, we aren’t all un-athletic. I found myself doing cartwheels, handstands and roundoffs one night with another person in fursuit, and it was a riot.

    1. We most definitely not all unathletic, or any of the other traits I listed. I know of professional sportpeople who are furries. But that’s my impression of the group, as a collective.

      Like you, I prefer to socialize with people offline. It took me a few tries before I started to feel comfortable at conventions, and a lonely experience is more common that people will tend to openly admit. But once you’ve made enough personal connections, they’re amazing.

      1. I was amused by the “dress poorly” comment. Yeah, it doesn’t look like a yuppie-guppie singles bar or a convention of Mormon missionaries, but if you compare the furry con participants to the attendees at a rock concert or athletic event, I don’t think we dress any more “poorly” than they do.

          1. I rather prefer the ones where the wolf is dressed as a Native American shaman, myself. But howling wolf images are “fashion” among furries. Look at it that way and they’re “well dressed” in fact.

  3. That’s why I go to Lunacon every year. It feels like coming home after a long journey. It may be small and sadly getting smaller, but it’s my first con and the one I know the best. Even GrangeCon – which I help run and founded! – doesn’t feel quite as much like my place and where I ought to be than Lunacon.
    Out of my cons, Lunacon’s home, GrangeCon is home away from home, I-CON is the job I wish I didn’t have to do, WorldCons are the exotic foreign place full of strange and conflicting ideas and the furry cons tend to be the excitingly strange and yet somewhat familiar country that is like mine but just different enough to be fun.

  4. I pretty much agree with this analysis. As seems to happen (perhaps too often) I have something to add, though. It is important to remember that if we find furry society more ideal than the wider society into which we must integrate ourselves in order to live, then we can and perhaps should try to change the wider society to meet our expectations.

    This may seem both absurd and impossible, but if you look at the gains made by GLBT or feminist advocacy groups in the last 30 years you can readily see that social change is not only possible but can be accelerated by judicious pressures applied in the right places.

    The looser tolerances, more affectionate and caring elements of furry social interaction could become part of daily life if we start bringing them there and standing up for them. This involves both open sharing (as opposed to the closeted embarrassment of some furries) and more effort to be acceptable to general society rather than letting ourselves look like the oversexed weirdos that some media sources have tried to make us out to be.

    This very tactic worked well for gay marriage advocates in the US during this election cycle. Where prior elections saw gay marriage rights squashed in nearly every instance where they appeared on the ballot, this time they succeeded. In fact, some jurisdictions (most notably Maine) have done a flip-flop and reversed the prior negative stance. The reason seems to be a concerted effort to show that GLBT people are really just like everyone else, rather than the strident “it’s our right to be as different as we choose” stance that had been taken in the past. It’s a result of “coming out” so that your neighbors and friends who have known you for years realize that you were gay (or, in this case furry) all along and they liked you perfectly well. It disarms the fear of the alien that the right wing politicians have been trying to use to their own advantage, and produces a backlash against the negativism of the past. This could work for furries just as it has worked for other minorities, allowing more complete integration and acceptance in daily life, so that every day is a little furmeet as we recognize ourselves and each other openly.

    I’m not being a starry eyed idealist here. Furries have spent too long looking upon ourselves as pariahs. There is no reason for this, unless we continue to force ourselves into that mold.

    1. I totally agree. There’s a phrase I’ve used a few times here on [a][s] – that the most visible members of a minority are rarely the best ambassadors – which I think is in the same spirit. I wheel out this phrase again in next Monday’s article too (assuming I get my editing done in time), which looks at, among other things, how furry has improved at presenting its public image in recent years.

      There is merit in ‘coming out’, because it provides a positive counter-example to negative stereotypes. As pointed out in Slate after the election: knowing a gay person makes you 65 percent more likely to support same-sex marriage—and having a conversation with that gay person about marriage raises the figure to 80 percent (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2012/11/gay_marriage_in_maryland_and_maine_the_inside_strategy.single.html).

      I’d certainly agree that it’s worthwhile being open about your membership in any minority, including furry, even at some potential personal cost, because of the broader positive benefit.

  5. JM, you’ve managed to summarise and articulate some of the feelings I felt when I attended my first furry con this year (Eurofurence, 1500-strong). Having no idea what to expect, I’ll never forget how completely overwhelmed and dazed I was, from the moment I approached the hotel with dozens of other furs and suiters hanging outside, to going in to the lobby and seeing even more people and then trying to check in and find my way around. I’d never felt that way in my life before, it was being in an alternate reality, where nothing made sense and everyone and everything was strange and unknown. Being there and not knowing a single person was both daunting and exciting at the same time. Like you, I’m much more social in person than I am online, where most furry friendships and relationships are formed, so I don’t know many people. I was really lucky to meet a couple of awesome folks from the UK on my first night who took me in and let me hang with them, so I wasn’t all that lonely. I can certainly see how one could find it lonely though when everybody has their own little group and is consumed by their own affairs. Anyway, the con was fantastic and organisation of it was very professional. I didn’t get much out of the panels and structured events, but as a social experience it was one of the most awesome, unique things I’ve ever done. Looking forward to Furdu, CF and MFF next year!

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