Gender: Furry II (Now With More Scales)

Guest post by V, who’s gone through a variety of names that people found hard to pronounce and eventually settled for simple. V is a dragonish critter who’s been floating around the outskirts of furry since the early 00’s. They’ve written previously about species identity as lizardywizard, and can currently be found on Mastodon, as, and Twitter as magnetongue.

I’ve read a lot (a lot!) of great writing on gender here at [a][s], and Makyo’s recent post “Gender: Furry” was no exception. I must admit, however, that I clicked on the title expecting, hoping for—and yet, deep down, knowing I probably wouldn’t find—something different.

See, as much as [a][s] is a site that dares to go deep into questions of gender, sexuality, and how those things are expressed in the playground of liminal, hot-swappable identity that is furry, there are surprisingly few writings on species as identity.

Therians and otherkin are more common in furry than we seem—when mentioning I’m a therian at furmeets or in chats, I always get at least one person per gathering who admits “Me too”. It’s obvious in hindsight that if anywhere would be a natural fit for such people, of course it would be furry, where we live out a startlingly profound yet largely unspoken agreement: to set aside our human personas completely among our friends, even when not roleplaying. Think about it for a moment. While there’s no requirement in furry to portray yourself as your character, wouldn’t a furry who used a human name and avatar for all their interactions seem weirdly out of place? The default, the expected, is that we uphold the masquerade. Through fursuits, avatars, usernames and conbadges, we ensure that our friends in the community know us primarily for our fursonas, not our physical forms.

Yet despite the obvious overlap, the topic by and large remains the elephant (or wolf, or cougar) in the room that is furry, just as furry seems to be a verboten subject in therian communities. Somewhere down the line, we mutually agreed to ignore each other’s existences.

I’ve got some theories on why, but those will come a little later. First, my story.

I was in college when I first discovered what “transgender” meant.

It wasn’t that I’d been shielded from the world as such: I had a liberal upbringing as a homeschooled child who, unlike the typical American picture of homeschooling, was allowed to research freely into whatever topics took my fancy. It just so happened that those topics were largely “animals” and “science”, and as these were the days before home internet was common, that meant I spent my days with nature encyclopedias and biology books—neither of which (back then, at least) said anything about gender identity.

I do remember using a pencil to black out the “fe” in “female” in an article about frogs, leaving the text, nonsensically, describing the behaviours of the “male and male”. As a child on the autistic spectrum who was particularly picky about words, I told myself I just didn’t like the aesthetics of the word “female”.

I often blacked out the word “human”, too.

But: college. It was then that I first stumbled, in my searching for anime- and manga-themed content, upon the writings of Jennifer Diane Reitz, probably best known (if at all) among furries for the long-running webcomic Unicorn Jelly. The comic was okay, but I was much more interested in the more personal writings of the author, who described in great detail her wrestling with an identity crisis of which I had never heard, but which I instantly found compelling.

It seemed to start out simple—a preference for, and fascination with, “girl” toys over “boy” ones—but by the onset of male puberty she was tormented to the point that, despite the pain and expense of surgery, the isolation of starting anew, and derision and abuse from almost all who knew her (Reitz was born in 1959, among the early modern pioneers of the transgender movement), she set out in pursuit of a remote, precarious and at times impossible-seeming goal: to live life as a woman, despite being born “as a man”.

I read and re-read the story countless times. I put it down to curiosity—here was something I had never before encountered, an incredible story of bravery and triumph—but my innermost self was unconvinced. I didn’t usually get invested in human interest stories, after all; I wasn’t much interested in humans. I preferred to read about animals, or to immerse myself in stories of fantasy creatures. What was the big deal about one kind of human turning into another kind of human? It was cool, but not my thing. And yet here I was, feeling that on some level this story represented me, knowing in some deep-down way that I, too, felt alienated by the body I wore. Despite the clear hardships she faced, I felt that I, too, would willingly subject myself to them in order to achieve what she had: a sense of peace, when she looked in the mirror, at her body’s alignment with her soul.

Over the next several years, and through the encouragement of the internet, I found myself veering first towards a non-binary identity (or “androgynous”, as we thought of it back then), then a male one, before finally settling somewhere between the two. I went back and forth on the topic of hormones, eventually deciding they weren’t for me, but in 2010 I went ahead with top surgery.

It increased my sense of comfort with my body immensely, and I’ve never regretted it. I wish I’d done it sooner. But as I looked further down the paths that were open to me for bodily change, I felt a dissatisfaction that I couldn’t shake. Asking myself what kind of body I wanted, I realised I didn’t want to be a human man, or a human woman, or even something that was both or neither (though lacking visible sexual characteristics sounded nice).

I didn’t want to be a human anything at all.

Not in the sense of not wanting to exist. But in the sense of wanting, desiring features that weren’t human. The human face, with its flatness, its square, bovine front teeth, felt wrong. Flesh felt wrong, this exposed pink-beige wrinkly stuff. Feet, legs, stance: all wrong. Objectively, wasn’t just about anything more beautiful than a human? Even a chimpanzee had variety, its face contrasting flesh and fur, tan and black, light and dark. The human body was utterly bland, boring. Couldn’t I be colourful? And what was with this unwieldy walking-upright thing?

Some of you might be thinking that the fandom had conditioned me to feel this way, that a diet of too much furry erotica had hijacked my natural appreciation for humanity. In truth, I was and am pretty much asexual, and I can look back throughout my whole life and see that even at an early age, these feelings were present. I always preferred animal toys over human ones, always rooted for the dragon or monster instead of the human protagonist. I loved dinosaurs, as many kids did, but I didn’t develop the obsession with facts and species names that marks most childrens’ love for dinos: instead I fixated on oddly specific things like whether the shape of their snouts felt “right” to me, by some strange internal compass that was apparently measuring these things. My fantasy worlds were never populated with humans, and when I found stories with entirely alien casts I jumped for joy, especially if they delved deep into the society and culture of those other species. I absorbed those cultures into my mental worlds and longed to make them my own. I longed, impossibly, for a social and bodily niche that didn’t exist: something not quite animal, something with a complex culture, but not human either.

Not to get too philosophical about the cause of this—I’m fairly agnostic on why I am this way, I only know that I am—but even now I’m still discovering little ways in which my early self-perceptions match the outside world. A few years back, on a recommendation, I picked up the book Raptor Red by paleontologist Robert T. Bakker: a fascinating exploration of his theories about dinosaurs, told from the (imaginary) perspective of a female Utahraptor. I had a breakthrough moment when I noticed the protagonist instinctively identified herself, and potential mates, by the colour of their snouts: Red Snouts like herself were viable mates, while Yellow Snouts were the outsiders. It reminded me exactly of the way that I did, and still do, categorise dinosaurs as looking “right” or “wrong” by their snout shapes. Even if written by an expert, Raptor Red is speculative fiction, but it’s an odd little coincidence.

We can argue proof and evidence all day and ultimately come to no satisfactory conclusion. The only hard fact I have is that this is my experience, and has been my experience since I was young.

No matter what I told myself, I was never quite able to shake it. I tried everything, from telling myself “this is ridiculous” (which of course never works) to fursuits, body paint, even running quadruped along the beach (“it’s the new exercise craze!”). I’ve listened to hypnosis recordings to try to conjure, even fleetingly, the feeling of being in a reptilian body. I’ve seriously considered body modification a la Stalking Cat, whose death touched me greatly: we never met, but he was one of the few people in furry who I felt would have truly understood where I was coming from. I’ve hoped, wished, dreamed and prayed, but in the end, nothing has brought me close to that state that I seek.

After 34 years, I’ve found the feeling comes and goes, and in better times I can accept that if I’m meant to transform, it probably won’t be in this lifetime. Right now I’m in the part of the story where the dragon lives as human for a while, and I’ve more or less made peace with that, though some part of me is still holding out for a virtual-reality miracle.

Still, as someone who is both transgender and, as I’ve occasionally referred to it in understanding company, transspecies, I can definitively say which bothers me more. There are a bunch of things I could change about this human body to make it more androgynous, but I don’t feel they’re worth the effort or expense. But give me the opportunity to become just a little more reptilian, and I’ll be looking for a place to sign before the words are out of your mouth.

I’m not “supposed” to say that. Ask a room full of furries what “TF” means and you’ll find at least one enthusiast; but for all that countless man-, woman-, tod- and vixen-hours have been devoted to portraying the moment when we finally slip off our human masks and become the creature we see inside, we rarely talk about it as a serious want or even need, at least for a minority in the fandom.

Perhaps it’s that masquerade again: just as a fish doesn’t notice the water it’s swimming in, maybe we’ve successfully immersed ourselves in the theatre of furry identity such that questioning it seems to break the magic. Of course I’m a dragon; of course she’s a fox. What else would we be? To probe too deeply into the meta-question of why we chose this is to remind ourselves of the very thing many of us, therian or not, are here to escape: the gap between who we are and who we want to be.

Perhaps it’s discomfort with what seems, to most rational-minded adults, to be a strange and frightening delusion. To not probe the masquerade is to not have to sit too deeply with the question the outside world often throws at us: isn’t there something unhealthy about choosing to spend so much of our time, money and social lives on the pretense that we’re animals? When faced with this question, we often retreat into our well-worn excuses. “It’s just a hobby”; “it’s just roleplaying”. But do those words really describe the extent to which, for many of us, this masquerade is our lives? Are we afraid of looking at the “extreme” cases of species identity because of what we fear they might say about us?

Perhaps we simply don’t think it’s worth it. To look to the professional world for a diagnosis of “species identity disorder”, per Gerbasi, would be sticking our heads above the parapet to be shot at by any number of trolls. For most people, the risks are too great, the possible rewards too remote. Even in the therian community, I seem to be in the minority when I say that my identity has caused me clinical levels of pain, that I’ve sought therapy for it on more than one occasion. If you’ve found comfortable ways to live with it, then why draw more attention to an already maligned group of people?

And of course it’s not just us we fear harming. People worry that talking about species longings as a genuine struggle for some might tar transgender people, by associating them and their struggles with “those crazy people who want to be animals”. As a trans person myself, I’ve gone back and forth on this a lot. I want to advocate for people with similar species feelings and hopefully, by talking about these experiences, make them feel less alone and that someone else is taking them seriously. And I can’t accept the conclusion that it harms people to talk about this, so we should never discuss it or study it. We may be few, but our feelings are still valid, and for some are lifelong. That shouldn’t just be discounted.

But I also understand that it’s not something that would be taken kindly if we were to go public with it. Although honestly I think few would listen—I don’t think the small subset of furries who could genuinely be said to suffer from “species identity disorder” is powerful enough to make anyone pay attention to us, let alone harm the much larger cause of transgender rights—I know that relating the trans rights movement, and the countless lives that have been lost or shortened in the continued fight for equality, to something that seems so flippant makes people wince. And of course I don’t mean to claim that as a group, we are in need of political protection.

My point is simply that, at least for a handful, it isn’t flippant. I know that can be hard to take at face value, but I’d like you to try. I’d like you to try to understand that when I sat for hours at that college computer, hanging on every word of Reitz’s story of transformation, I wasn’t mocking anyone or playing a game. I didn’t even know what I was feeling at first, why the realisation that maybe I too was trans felt incomplete, not like the life-affirming victory I had expected. I didn’t start going online, all those years ago, with the expectation that I’d ever find anyone like myself. And certainly, I’ve found few, even among furries. But we do exist, and now I know I’m not alone in these bizarre thoughts and feelings.

So, yes, my gender is “scaly”. Because the boxes “male”, “female” and “other” don’t mean that much to me, but this one does. Because the desire to be this has always been with me and always will be, no matter how silly it seems. Because it’s what I would transition to, if I could.

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4 thoughts on “Gender: Furry II (Now With More Scales)

  1. Thank you for this article! I too have been frustrated by the lack of conversation around this very subject, and likewise I’ve been worried about how talking about it might hurt the transgender community.

    The way that I interpret this desire to transform into something non-human is as a whole new (and as yet un-named) spectrum of queer identity; something unrelated to gender or sexuality (but potentially intersects with gender/sexuality). For me personally, I feel I sit on a much milder end of that spectrum. I don’t identify as an animal but I strongly project onto animals and anthro-animal characters. I’ve been projecting that way since I was a young child, and it stayed with me well into adulthood. The projection has been so core to my identity that I cannot simply explain it as just a hobby. The only way I can effectively describe it is queer.

    That said, I actually think you underestimate the backlash that this identity would create if it became public knowledge. It’s not just that it sounds flippant to compare it to the transgender struggle; the association of queerness and animals (or other non-human creatures) is exactly the kind of association that anti-LGBTQ people have been making for decades, such as with the argument that if gay people can get married, people will then want to marry their dogs. As a result, gay people are primed to treat that association with automatic fear and revulsion.

    And then on top of that, there’s Rachel Dolezal, who claims that she is a black woman in a white woman’s body. Her claim to be “trans-racial” has been used against the transgender community, with the argument that if she is delusional about her identity (which she is) then transgender people must be delusional about their identities as well. With Dolezal’s spectre lingering over the community, there will be no love for people claiming they identify as a non-human entity.

    With Donald Trump in the White House and LGBTQ people on the defensive in many countries, now would be a really bad time to introduce the idea of a new queer identity into the public sphere. I actually think it’s quite fortunate that most therians and otherkin have adopted religious/spiritual language to explain their identities, because that language is so incomprehensible to most people that the right-wing reactionaries don’t know how to create a compelling counter-narrative for it.

    Maybe after 2020, if the culture becomes more LGBTQ positive, then we can start to talk about the non-human identity in the public sphere. Alternatively, it might be helpful to suggest the ideas through coding and metaphor. I know there are already transformation stories on the market, but I don’t know if there are any with more explicit queer coding…

    1. I used to write a lot of those stories, although they’re gone from the internet now.

      I wrote them because I was dealing with a lot of these feelings myself, and I needed to talk about it and share it. I don’t know that it matters if it’s “a good time” or not. If someone’s in pain that needs to be addressed, the time is now.

      The comparison “why don’t we let people be dogs” and “why don’t we let people marry dogs” isn’t a good one. Phenotypical dogs can’t meaningfully consent to such a relationship, while therians aren’t asking to be accorded the legal status of phenotypical dogs. More than that, neither comparison is being made in good faith, which makes engaging with people who say such things futile.

      The better comparison is between “transgenderism being a slippery slope to therianism / otherkin” and “gay marriage being a slippery slope to polyamory.” This is because acceptance of one does, I feel, lead naturally into acceptance of the other. And I say that as both a trans woman otherkin, and one who is poly with several same-gender partners.

      The kind of person who questions their gender identity is also, quite often, the kind of person who asks if being human is a good fit. There’s also a lot of overlap with the autistic spectrum, I think, because there’s nothing like being non-neurotypical to make you feel like you’re a different species from everyone around you.

      1. I totally understand about wanting to talk about the issue right now. I realise I have the privilege to say “wait a while” because my experience is not painful and I do not have feelings of dysphoria. But I do appreciate that for other people like yourself there is a more pressing need to talk about it in order to find understanding and healing.

        That all said, I really hope you are prepared for the sheer strength of the blowback if you do manage to build public awareness for your identity. Ignoring bad faith actors who claim your identity is a kink/fetish/mental illness is fine when it’s a few random twitter trolls, but not so much when it’s Fox News and InfoWars broadcasting their own counter-narrative to millions of people for profit, which in turn encourages doxxing and harassment. When we’re talking about media platforms that big, we honestly have to engage with the false narratives in order to clarify who we are and stop the lies from spreading.

        This is made much harder when the President of the United States is known to religiously watch Fox & Friends and retweet their talking points to his audience on twitter. Imagine a Donald Trump tweet being the first time people hear about your identity. That’s the main reason I want to wait until after 2020. As unpopular as Trump is, it’s a sad fact that most people instinctively rely on public figures for guidance, and a lot of people will take Trump’s words at face value.

      2. Oh whoops, I actually just namedropped you below!

        Like I said, I’m sure you had valid reasons for taking them down, and I wouldn’t pressure you on that front. But I know they meant a lot to me personally, and I definitely think if you ever wanted to publish them, you could. There are many stories that are longer, more “epic”, but as far as quality goes I’ve rarely found anything that matched up. They’re among my treasured favourites.

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