Austen Crowder has been a furry for 14 years. This memoir appears in her short story collection A Fuzzy Place: Short Stories from a Life Shaped by Furry Subculture. Austen is also the author of Bait and Switch.
It took Kara eight years to turn into a kitty and two years to die.
Kara is me – at least, an idealized me. This is what furries do, right? Create a persona and project ourselves and our story onto them. Let’s just say that Kara was a normal human student at a Liberal Arts College. There she turned into a five-foot-nine cat: white fur, pink nose, gorgeous yellow eyes that glittered in darkness. She fought adversity to learn how to be comfortable with her new form until, finally, the world rewarded her with acceptance. Parades, homecomings, and pats on the back surrounded her as she learned that being a cat was actually pretty cool.
I’d usually cook up some half-assed explanation of how Kara came to exist – magic, genes, interdimensional shifts, virtual reality, fables – but I won’t. Not today. You see, Kara doesn’t exist. Kara is a lie. Kara has always been and always will be a lie. A veil between me and honest, exposed, vulnerable storytelling. I’ve told Kara’s story so many times that the formula feels comfortable, like well-worn socks or my favorite shirt.
Kara was just a thin veil to protect myself from the truth of my life: a way to experiment with not-me before being not-me was okay to consider. Her ears catch imaginary sounds and the tug she feels at her tail comes from imaginary hands. Her life is carefully constructed to tell a single narrative: person A realizes they are no longer person A, learns how to be person B, and through some macguffin skips over all the heartache and pain of realization to become B. Great for stories, not so great in implementation.
Let me tell you the truth about Kara and I.
I bought my first fursuit in 2003, just before my first furry convention. It came from a local costume designer that did work for community theaters; this was before the fursuit market exploded onto the scene. I walked out of Costumes by Margie wearing a baseball cap fitted with two long, brown rabbit ears. The designer had run coat hanger wire through the ears so they’d stay upright, and when I put them on I could feel them catching wind like two sails. Goosebumps surged down my neck.
I remember driving home with a herniated disk in my back, the pain almost unbearable, but the motivation of having that suit was more than enough to keep me upright, mile after mile, in hopes that it might fill up a hole in my life that needed filled.
You see, I had spent the past six years imagining myself as anything but myself. Story after story told the same tale: Kara realizes she’s a kitty, becomes a kitty, and lives with the consequences of becoming a kitty. Sometimes Kara was a wrestler turned into a squirrel. Sometimes Kara was a bunny finding his way to nonviolence. Sometimes Kara was even a boy turning into a girl, though those stories were always, always hidden at the bottom of the pile, heaped on with shame and misogyny.
I was on the preschool playground when I first realized the difference between boys and girls. A group of girls were bouncing around on balls with little pommels to hold onto. I joined them. They looked at me like I had shot a puppy. They got off their balls and made their way to the jungle gym and when I got up to follow they just screeched about cooties and, giggling, left me bouncing on my ball. The boys all gathered around a dirt clearing and a basketball hoop. They shoved at each other, fought to see who was top dog. Always one-upping. Always finding the weak link. I knew my place and it wasn’t with them, but my place kept running away and I couldn’t understand why. The ball kept me bouncing up and down, up and down. I closed my eyes and imagined myself like a kangaroo, bouncing up and down on long feet. Soon I’d have to get up and learn to play basketball with the boys but for now I was just alone with my thoughts, away from the echo of laughter and cootie shots and boys who knew something was wrong with the kid who tried to play with the girls all the time—
For my first convention I wore the rabbit costume all weekend. It was a partial costume: rabbit sleeves, rabbit booties, ears, and a facial prosthetic blended into my own face with makeup. I ate in it, partied in it, trolled the convention floor with it. I remember walking out into the crisp Chicago air, wind whipping through my rabbit ears, surrounded by new friends who I’d only ever met behind the keys of a chatroom. I kept thinking to myself, “This is it. This is what was missing from my life.” Over and over again it rang, mantra-like, as I hoped the weekend would drag on into endless eternities. Home. I had found home and comfort in this hotel: a place where I could be myself.
At the end of the day, though, the makeup had to come off and there I was, visibly myself again. Globs of spirit gum would stick to the whiskers of my beard for days after the cons and I’d pick at them, lost in memories of that grand escape. Becoming Kara, even if only for a moment, was just that powerful.
The problem was that Kara was never enough. When the daydreams wore thin I turned to stories. When the stories didn’t sate me it was on to the costumes. From costumes, novels; from novels, entire imagined worlds where escapism gave way to starved, desperate wish fulfillment. Nothing kept the hunger at bay. I wanted to live Kara’s life. With every story I clawed deeper, hoping to find something more, some untamed forest that would sustain me.
Here Kara would discover the uncaring nature of the world. She would discover a compulsion to groom herself at awkward moments, or a group would rise up to protest her existence. Maybe she would grow tired of feeling different and would try going back to being anything but a cat. She’d hide the ears, tuck the tail into a pant leg. Anything to put the genie back into the bottle.
I dated the same girl in high school for four years. Her family owned a nice farmhouse on the edge of our small down. Her parents were pretty great about leaving us to our devices. I remember coming over after a wrestling meet one weekend with my gym bag full of girl clothing and holding it up to her, sheepish, my face flushed, eyes diverted to the ground. “It’s weird,” I said. “It’s just really really weird but I keep having dreams and I can’t make them stop and I just need some help. Please.” I said it to her. I can’t believe I said it to her. She tried to be cool and take this in tow but I could see it, bubbling beneath the surface. Her discomfort. Her revulsion. Our relationship was over but I couldn’t even see it beneath the joy of finally feeling like I looked pretty. Right, even, but that didn’t make sense at all—
I got angry. I wrote gut-punching stories where I tore apart the illusion. Kara couldn’t ever be happy as a cat. Kara could never find peace. I tore and tore and ripped at the fantasies until they reeked of anger. I put guns to Karas’ heads. I dragged them through all the hells I could imagine. I hoped to any god who would listen that the Karas would fail, leaving me contented and able to put away this silly little itch I had for running around dressed up like a rabbit with a bunch of people I knew from the internet.
Still the ending was always the same: Karas became what they were supposed to be. No matter how much hell I tried to rain down on their heads, the Karas always found a way. That frustrated me most of all: even in the confines of my own imagination these rabbits and foxes and sqiurrels and cats somehow came out okay. I was trying to tell myself something that even I couldn’t listen to.
Furry cons grew and changed. Instead of a space where I could kill my identity it became a place with friends, memories, communities. I did panels on writing. Kara moved into allegory: stuffy tales full of meaning and pomp that come along with spending thousands of dollars to study stuffy tales full of meaning and pomp. Destroyed relationships became gut-wrenching confessionals. Tragedies turned into slices of life. I met queer people. Year by year I worked toward a full-cover on the sexual orientation bingo board: women, men, trans, cis, the whole nine. Always searching, and always uncomfortable.
I felt like I had to keep writing about Kara. The suits and the role play came and went but Kara was always there: the itch I couldn’t scratch. Kara’s stories became boring. Her stories moved toward acceptance and affirmation. There I was again, shouting at myself. Story after story where Kara begged me to let go, relax.
I spent four years at an all male college the same way a mannequin would spend a summer in a display window. Happy-looking, with all the accoutrements of a college guy, but I was listless. Lost. The rabbit suit now had a sequel and a new partner; the three of them lived by a small gym bag of women’s clothing that I only dragged out when roommates were gone. I was ashamed; I was hurting. I felt like I was slowly descending into a unique madness that would end with discovery, disgust, disowning.
Still, Kara was there. Happy despite all the battles I tossed her way.
I am wearing a skirt at a convention. It’s hard to believe but the little skirt swooshes and swishes around my legs and there it is again: I’m out in public wearing a skirt. Nobody stares – stranger things happen at these cons. The convention hall buzzes to life with a laser show, a DJ, the sweaty sway of bodies moving to the beat. I’m tipsy-going-on-drunk and there is this cute guy I just met laying on the ground before me. I straddle him. We kiss – for some reason it feels right, despite the fact that my girlfriend is there, watching, demanding I get it out of my system. Deep down I know the boy isn’t what I want: it’s what he promises. I am wearing a skirt and straddling him and giggling and acting sheepish like a good little girl and goddamnit I feel *right* here like this. My mind races. Terror grips at me with one hand: joy with the other. I feel conformed. I feel terrified. But I take him by the hand and we disappear into a nameless hallway and disappear into a room together.
I stopped wearing the rabbit suit all the time. I’d still bring it to conventions but putting it on felt like a duty, not a joy. People liked the look. I hated spending the time to apply the makeup. Still Sly rabbit had to show up at a convention and I did my duty to make that happen. The problem was that Sly Rabbit had ceased being enough to scratch the itch. Close, sure. But even with the rabbit suit and the ears I felt the costume, not the change. I was still me, and that annoyed me more than anything.
I started teaching. It was not exactly my shining moment. Teaching turned me into a nervous, twitchy husk; and I’m pretty sure that in deciding to take that job I put the educational lives of 120 impressionable kids at risk. I went to work and failed. I came home, graded papers, and was told by my superiors that I failed. Everything sucked. Even Kara seemed to fade as my life was slowly enveloped in a never-ending torrent of badly-plagiarized papers, parent calls, and kids who insisted on pushing every raw, exposed nerve they could find on their teacher, Mister Austin Crowder.
Weekly nervous breakdowns were the rule, not the exception. It’s no wonder I was shown the door after a single year, which left me with three months to figure out where to go next. I picked at stories and tried to find a way to move forward but I kept coming back to Kara. Kara becomes a bunny and becomes happy. Kara is actually a good teacher despite the fact that she’s a bunny. Kara was everything I wasn’t; everything I wanted to be.
Kara ran through fantasylands. Kara grew and changed. Her stories became more personal. Kara started turning into a girl. Kara, nee Karl, becomes a girl and learns to live happily. Karl turns into a cartoon hedgehog girl. Karl turns into Kara, the vixen. Kara is trans. Kara is trans. Kara. Is. Trans.
Then it came to me – I wanted to be Kara. I was unemployed, unsure of what I needed to do with my future, but there it was. Kara.
With each passing story Kara became less and less about being a bunny or a fox and more about being female. Not a bunny, or a squirrel, or any of the things with ears, tails, wings, scales, or other sorts of imaginary appendages I’d seen at a dozen different conventions. I wanted to be that girl. Kara. The girl who was changed in my stories, faced adversity, and came around to her happily ever after.
For the first time in my life I knew what I wanted. It burned in my chest. It terrified me to the point where I would freeze at random moments. I despaired. I raged. I knew it was impossible, but Kara kept beckoning.
I’m laying on the cold concrete of the basement of my girlfriend’s new house. Earlier I tried to strangle myself and I’m just so angry about it that I’m doing something, anything to burn off steam. I’m on the ground, exhausted after endless push-ups to run down the energy, when I find the box cutter. Its blade dances across my wrist, back and forth, and I realize there and then that this is it. This is how I die. The blood will flow to a drain under my chin as I scrape, going ever deeper, and then Kara is falling, falling, deep enough to fill the gaps between me and eternal darkness.
Something broke in me. I didn’t care what others thought. I went out dressed and realized that getting stared at wasn’t as horrible as I thought. All those years writing about Kara, the weirdo who stood out in every crowd, I feared being her. Being out. Being different. But here I was, sashaying through theaters and bars in women’s clothing, feeling like a completely refreshed person, and nobody seemed to care.
I don’t know. Maybe Kara prepped me. Maybe writing so many stories about her helped prepare me for social alienation and scowling looks I got while I stumbled through the rough, rough first steps of my own transformation. What matters is that wanting to be Kara taught me how to embrace myself. I spent years writing about characters only to realize that I’d been writing about myself the entire time. Every Kara had a simple message to me: despite what I thought, I wasn’t me.
The stories were never about Kara. Kara was a flashpoint: a particular moment of my future, crystalized in a thousand stories about an identity I hadn’t quite come to understand. Kara was the force that kept me going. Once I passed the threshold she couldn’t stay with me.
You see, Kara couldn’t grow. Austin grew. Oh, dear god did Austin ever grow! She earned the “e” the judge put into her name through an endless parade of arguments with friends, hard work, and the overwhelming fear that things could come crashing down if even one thing went sour. Austen moved to the big city and discovered she was a lesbian. She met an amazing woman and some amazing friends and started writing stories with characters who weren’t Kara, and for the longest time Austen felt like she was cheating, somehow, on the character that had plagued her for so many years.
Kara’s story dies when Austin disappears. Kara is just a woman who learns to be okay with being a kitty. That’s all Kara can ever be for me: a metaphor for change I needed to make in my own life. A security blanket that outlived its usefulness.
One door closes and another opens. I don’t know what is behind it. But what matters is this: I have written Kara’s story for eight years, and two years ago I decided to live it. When I did I killed off Kara forever.
My name is Austen, and this is my furry story.