Gender: Furry II (Now With More Scales)

12 Mar 2018 | Guest Poster

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.