George Squares was faced with a dilemma last New Year's Eve. He was enjoying the company of friends when someone made a disparaging comment about furries. He decided to step out of the furry closet and speak up, to correct his friend.
It caused a minor kerfuffle but ultimately things went well. He found himself, a few months later, as a guest speaker at a BDSM club, introducing furries to an interested audience. He then wrote about that experience for [adjective][species].
George is a good ambassador. He was able to correct some negative furry stereotypes, and give a good impression of furry to a wider audience. It's better for him because he doesn't need to hide his furry identity among his friends, and better for furry in general.
Outing one's self as a furry, as George did, comes with some risk. You risk being associated with negative stereotypes about furry, and you risk being targeted by people who are anti-furry. Both happened to George, although happily those problems blew over fairly quickly.
These risks mean that many furs choose to keep their identity private*. Rather than stick their head above the parapet and risk outcast or ridicule, people tend to edit out furry elements of their lives. They might say to coworkers: "I'm taking a short holiday to Pittsburgh this summer."
*Another reason to not be openly furry: it's not relevant in many situations.
There is nothing wrong with this choice. It's just a question of the balance between risk and reward. Personally, I work in one of those super-conservative old-white-men industries, and so I stay in the furry closet in that environment. (Being gay is controversial enough. I've had coworkers refuse to talk to me once they found out.) On the other hand, I'm open about my furriness to a few close friends.
There is a tendency for people of any minority to stay closeted if they can manage it, simply because of the unknown personal risks involved. And of course people are free to decide what is best for themselves. However there is an unfortunate outcome, one that applies to many minorities, not just furry. It's JM's Law:
The most visible members of a minority are rarely the best ambassadors.
There are several reasons why someone might be more open about their status as a minority. These include:
- They are deeply involved with a subculture, so hiding it isn't really tenable.
- They are less concerned about the reaction of others.
- They are less self-aware, and so may not realize they have outed themselves.
None of these are bad reasons. Many of my favourite people probably fit into one or more of those categories.
An example of someone who fits into all three of these categories is Furboy Zero, a fur profiled in the Houston Press back in 2003. Furboy's profile is not a negative one, but it's telling that the journalist chooses to open the story with anti-social behaviour (howling at the moon) and a mention of antipsychotic drugs. The story is ostensibly about the inclusiveness and value of the furry community, but the theme is the usual "look at these weirdos who don't fit in".
Furboy, at 17 years old, comes across as a kid who is doing a pretty good job of dealing with a series of horrific bullying incidents at school. He would be about 30 years old now—I wasn't able to find him leading up this article—but I would guess that furry has continued to be a safe haven and positive influence on his life. Furboy (at 17) probably couldn't choose to hide his furriness, and unfortunately his Houston Press profile reinforces the stereotype that furries are unsocial. The masses of furries who aren't howling at the moon, aren't threatening to urinate on bullies, or aren't suffering Tourette's-like symptoms aren't the most visible. And so Furboy becomes an unwitting furry ambassador.
There are good reasons to celebrate openness, furry or not. The choice to be open is fundamentally a personal freedom, and the expectation or social pressure to stay closeted is negative. Yet those open, visible members of a minority—like Furboy—do not always make good ambassadors. In an ideal world, nobody would choose to hide furriness, or anything else outside the mainstream. But we don't live in an ideal world.
Minority groups tend to be invisible. Every person is assumed to be "normal", unless proven otherwise. When a new person joins a group, that person is assumed to adhere to the norms of the group, and so their mere presence reinforces those norms even though they may be yet to share any information. It's a perfectly natural process, but an insidious one that reinforces the marginalization of minority groups.
Consider the example of my friend visiting a new doctor, "I saw Dr Smith today". I might naturally ask "how was he?", making the assumption that the doctor is male, because most doctors are male. I have, unwittingly, reinforced the idea that women aren't doctors, because my friend won't necessarily correct me. Sometimes they will simply ignore my assumption, leaving me with the mental image of (another) male doctor. (It's not only women that can be marginalized this way—consider the example of a male nurse—but it is usually women.)
It's not just gender of course. I have lost track of the number of people at work who have asked me about my "wife". This leaves me with a choice. I will usually correct a peer or underling, and usually say nothing to a superior or a client (because I don't want to potentially introduce tension to the relationship). By failing to correct people, I am reinforcing the idea that gay people aren't present in [super-conservative old-white-man industry].
For another example, imagine a typical furry. He will be male, because male is the most common furry gender. But what is the most common furry sexual orientation? Most people would probably say "gay" or "bi", however that's wrong - furries are most likely to be heterosexual. The preponderance of men means that most furry relationships are gay, which makes gay furries more visible. The effect is that straight furries are often invisible.
Homosexuality was a largely invisible minority in the late 20th century, becoming more visible (give or take, at least in the western world) in the years and decades following the Stonewall riots. The existence of visible gay bars and pride parades helped erase the perception that homosexuality was a mental illness. However the overtly sexual nature of these events meant that homosexuality became associated with sexual deviance, acceptable but not "normal".
There has been a seachange in attitudes towards homosexuality since then. Research has shown this has been largely due to "cohort replacement", meaning that people started to see homosexuals as part of their day-to-day social groups. People with homosexual friends or colleagues are much more likely, for example, to support equal marriage.
Essentially, people discovered that they knew (previously invisible) homosexuals. Those homosexuals who took the risk to be open about their sexuality acted as ambassadors, and the risks associated with being open became smaller as homosexuality became more visible, and more normal. Homosexuality nowadays is relatively uncontroversial, and a similar seachange seems to be underway for trans people. Ambassadors such as Caitlyn Jenner provide a non-confrontational mainstream counterexample to the stereotype that to be trans is to something other than "normal".
(Not everyone agrees with this. Many people disagree with my suggestion that Jenner is a positive example, or that the admittance of homosexual relationships into the mainstream is a good thing.
A simple version of the argument is that normalization of LGBTQ people comes at the cost of the radical aspects of queer culture:
"Minimizing gayness has been the linchpin of assimilation, the central tactic in obtaining access to conservative institutions like military service and marriage."
- from Slate
The full argument is more nuanced that I give credit for here. Read the article.)
The seachange in public attitudes towards homosexuality is an example of "in-group favouritism". In-group favouritism is a human social phenomenon where members of one's social network receive preferential treatment compared to outsiders. Put simply, people discovered that some of their friends are gay.
(For those interested in reading more about in-group favouritsm, there is a terrific essay by Dr Stephen Reysen in Furries Among Us that looks at the social psychology behind the furry in-group. You can read the [adjective][species] review of Furries Among Us here.)
The trick to being a good ambassador then, is to present a conservative version of yourself, something firmly within the mainstream. This will help you be accepted as part of the "in-group", and therefore you will be treated with kindness and respect. That will probably mean withholding aspects that are less "normal".
I am aware that this suggestion can sound a bit two-faced and self-negating. Ideally we would all express ourselves in whatever way works for us, in all circumstances. Rather than looking at it those negative terms, I prefer to think of it more as "gaming" the psychology of human society. Benevolent manipulation, if you like.
As an example of this, I'd like to compare two of my favourite authors, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Christopher Isherwood. Both write from a personal, observational perspective. Knausgaard is straight; Isherwood is gay.
Knausgaard feels there is a masculinity crisis in modern society. He feels that men are less able to be free about their interests, and are being forced into genderless collaborative roles that don't allow for full masculine expression. Knausgaard has no real interest in child-rearing and would prefer to be an old-school isolated breadwinner, but feels that he must engage with gender equality norms for fear of being considered misogynistic. As he explores this idea, he writes vividly, and very personally, about his emotional, romantic, and sex life.
Knausgaard makes a good argument, and My Struggle is a terrific read, should you have the stomach for six volumes of Scandinavian navel-gazing. But he doesn't know how good he has it: on one hand he is complaining about how gender norms constrain his self-expression, on the other hand he is able to explore gender and sex with a freedom that is only available to heterosexual men.
In the literary world, being male is "normal", and so Knausgaard's works are considered mainstream. A female version of the same book, with the same honesty, would be branded "feminist", and would be marketed to a niche audience, if at all. Knausgaard's success, the success that allows him to observe the limits of his gender in the 21st century, is ironically predicated on the fact that he is male. He should, as the kids say, check his privilege.
Isherwood is similarly observational. ("I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.") His status as a gay man in the mid-20th century means that he cannot be open or direct about his romantic or sex life. So he weakly implies gay relationships in his books, and obvious as they are in hindsight they were not recognised at the time. He was accepted into the mainstream and hailed as one of the great writers of his generation.
Isherwood's approach is self-limiting, but necessary. If he had gone the full Knausgaard, his works would either never have been published, or marginalized as a curiosity. He would have been best known for the sexual content of his work. His decision to present his work such that it was seen as mainstream (or "normal"), was a compromise. In my opinion that compromise was a worthy one.
Isherwood is a good ambassador for gay men. His books provided a non-confrontational introduction to the emotional life of a gay man, something that was in short supply in the mid 20th century.
Similarly, George Squares is a good ambassador to furry. He outed himself as a furry in a moderate way, and downplayed any controversial or radical aspects of our community. Once he was accepted into the in-group as a furry, he was able to give a fuller picture. (This included a good-natured discussion on the relative merits of human versus animal penises in furry pornography.)
Like George, a good furry ambassador is one who—initially at least—presents a counterpoint to negative stereotypes. This will create non-furry advocates who will go on to correct and inform others, as undoubtedly those who attended George's talk have done. Even better, those advocates will come across as unusually trustworthy, because they cannot be assumed to be acting in their own self-interest.
A non-confrontational image for furry has a cumulative effect. Good ambassadors are role models for other furries who may be considering being open, which may reduce some of the fear associated with outing one's self. They can also show new furries that our community is not something to be feared, and that they can identify as a furry without having to identify with some of the more extreme stereotypes.
Coming out as a furry does hold some personal risk, in at least some situations. That risk should always inform the decision to be open or closeted. But the benefits to the furry community should be considered as well. Open furries are our ambassadors: they help define who we are.