Thursday, April 3, 2008

Hell Hath No Furries

originally published in the Hartford Advocate November 1, 2007

Hell Hath No Furries

For some people, dressing up like a stuffed animal is more than just a hobby. It's a way of life. Our reporter attends the 2007 Furries convention.

By Jennifer Abel

When I said I'd be going to a Furry convention incognito as a black cat, the response was almost unanimous: what the hell's a Furry?

What fun to answer. Furries, I explained, are like transvestites with an added twist: instead of claiming to be a woman trapped in a man's body, they say they're animals in human bodies. And wear animal outfits called "fursuits," similar to the costumes worn by cartoon characters at theme parks only with openings in sexually strategic places.

"How do you know all this?" came the next question, which I answered with links to sources ranging from "those crazy Americans" British documentaries to a 2001 Vanity Fair piece that still inspires growls among Furries — who say the portrayals of bestiality, animal-suited sex and a near-complete lack of social skills in the article — misrepresents Furrydom as a whole.

At any rate, when I learned there'd be a Halloween convention called FurFright at Waterbury's Grand Hotel I immediately e-mailed a request for a press pass, and got a polite-yet-firm response discussing their strict no-media policy (common among Furry gatherings, I learned, since the Vanity Fair story).

Thus I went undercover, after visiting a Halloween store to buy a belled collar, velvet cat ears and a nice piece of tail (30 inches, if you think length matters).

The best-known fan conventions, or cons, are probably the Star Trek gatherings where aficionados pay good money to wear Vulcan ears, discuss Federation arcana and rub shoulders with actors from the show.

Furrydom got its start at sci-fi and comic cons featuring art displays of human-animal or human-alien hybrids. (Think of all those sexy aliens from Stars Trek and Wars who look exactly like hot women wearing body paint and forehead prosthetics.)

Broadly, "Furry" refers to any fan of anthropomorphic-animal art or literature. Furrydom broke out of the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto and became its own subculture in the '90s, when the Internet made it easy for people with diverse interests to find each other.

FurFright was harder to get into than any sci-fi or comic con I've seen. Con admission's usually easy: fork over your entrance fee and get a badge. The Furries demanded photo ID. You also had to fill out an electronic form with your name, age and address, and choose from a list of available species; I picked "Feline/Cat."

The man at the registration desk looked suspiciously at my driver's license. Glanced at his computer. Back at the license. Now at me. Did that e-mail put my name on a media blackball list?

Then I remembered. "The change-of-address sticker's on the back," I said of my license. "And my hair's black because I was still Goth then."

He laughed and held the license next to my face. "I guess it does look like you."

How disheartening.

But despite the difficulty getting in, the convention looked much like any other: people in street clothes, folks in full costume, and others in everyday garb with a con accessory or two: no superhero capes, but plenty of animal tails poking out from shirt bottoms.

The day's first discussion panel, advertised as an "icebreaker," was moderated by a man in his 40s who wore jeans and a Trix Rabbit shirt, and called himself Wally Wabbit. There were also three men who self-identified as a Skunk, Coyote and Dog. Coyote wore jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of his namesake, a tail and paw-shaped bedroom slippers. Everyone else wore street clothes. (By dint of my ears and tail, I looked more animalistic than half the people there.)

Skunk, a nice-looking man somewhere in his 30s, introduced himself as a computer engineer from the Boston area. Coyote had another technical job. Both recognized me as someone who'd never been to a Furry convention before.

That's another difference between a Furry con and its sci-fi/fantasy predecessors: the majority of the Furries knew each other, either from earlier cons or Internet chat rooms. Walk through a sci-fi or comic con and you'll get no shortage of party invitations to check out some space-opera bootleg or a copy of the latest anime craze. I found no open invitations from strangers among the Furries.

The dealers' room, another convention staple, had a strict no-photographs rule, likely due to the original artwork for sale within. Most showed human bodies with animal heads and tails, usually in everyday human situations.

A few dealers had albums with adults-only warnings on the covers. The animal-accented human bodies inside were nude, posing alone or in softcore situations with others. (There's no apparent bias against interspecies coupling in Furrydom.)

Still, the adult stuff was rare and hidden from view. Everything else was child-safe: animal T-shirts, high-quality plush dolls and cartoons of the sort you find in kids' books. By fan-convention standards, it was all pretty tame.

Beside the dealers' and panel rooms, most convention space focused on social activities: group-action video games and Dance Dance Revolution machines, or tables for card and board games. Another room showed animal-themed movies like Chicken Run all day.

Outside the dealers' room I ran into Coyote, who invited me to join a group of fursuiters for dinner at a nearby buffet.

"I'm not a fursuiter," I said.

"Yes, you are," he replied, pointing to my ears and tail. I smiled and agreed to meet him later.

Earlier, I'd noticed a room labeled "Headless Lounge, for fursuiters, performers and staff only." Once I knew I qualified as a fursuiter, I went in for a look.

And left almost immediately. The room was far too cold for anyone in street clothes. Multiple fans spinning full blast amplified the already-high air conditioning, and enormous tubs of ice and chilled drinks covered the tables. People in fursuits with the heads off reclined on the floor. The Headless Lounge was a cooldown room, protecting people in heavy fursuits from dehydration or heatstroke.

When a few dozen of us met in the lobby for dinner, those of us with cars were asked to give rides to those without. I drove Skunk and his friend Monkey (in full-human garb) to a nearby buffet.

Monkey, a college student, mentioned his concern over the next big Furry con: it was scheduled for when he'd be at home, so he needed an excuse to give his parents.

"Your parents don't know?" I asked.

"No. They wouldn't approve."

"I don't see why. I've seen much weirder stuff at sci-fi and comic cons than anything here."

"Media sensationalism," Skunk said. "When the media does a story about Fur fandom, they pick the weirdest, most extreme people and say we're all like that."

No comment from me. I later asked him what the real, non-sensational face of Furry fandom looks like.

"It all varies," he said. "Some people just like anthropomorphic art. As for people relating to animals, it ranges from 'I think they're cool' to 'I have traits in common, like I'm quiet as a mouse,' to 'Yes, I am a wolf in a human body and I must run free with my furry brothers!'"

I laughed. "Still beats being a Klingon. So what makes you a skunk?"

"I like the striking colors ... and I was a maladjusted kid. When a skunk walks into the room, everybody leaves."

After dinner the con was more crowded, and lots of full-fursuiters milled about. Over the low murmur of voices I heard the constant click of cameras: Fursuiters showing off their costumes and posing for pictures.

Skunk suggested I attend the "Friday Furpocalypse" which, despite its ominous name, consisted of organized games ranging from relay races to Furry-themed versions of game shows. During the "Furry Match Game," a man wearing a hunter costume and carrying a giant plush carrot walked in, stalked by a terrifying mutant rabbit with enormous fangs and oversized claws.

Children's cartoons, Red Cross fundraisers, team sports and adult content kept discreetly out of sight. How wholesome.

Every half-hour I went to the bathroom to take notes in a private stall, and at 9 p.m. wrote: "May as well have gone to a Catholic school Halloween party. The dance starts in half an hour. Maybe something will happen there."

When I heard the strains of "Hungry Like The Wolf" emanating from the ballroom, I walked in to see a little toddler girl dancing with someone in a bunny suit. A minute later the girl abandoned the bunny to pull a cartoon fox onto the dance floor. She got more excited each time a new animal entered the room (good thing the mutant rabbit had left).

One man leaning against the wall surveyed the scene with a proud expression. "She's definitely my daughter," he smiled at me. "Look how much fun she's having."

"Of course," I said. "She's in a roomful of giant stuffed animals all come to life and dancing with her."

"You know," her father said reflectively, "I haven't been to a con since Anthrocon [another Furry gathering] a few years ago. These are the only people I trust. There's definitely a friendly vibe here."

There was. But what about the sex vibes I'd hoped to find? If I'd peeked behind every hotel-room door I probably would've found something, but that's true at any gathering of hundreds of people far from home. The Furry convention wasn't a sex thing but the exact opposite: an innocent world of children's-book animals, where a 3-year-old can roam with impunity and a maladjusted kid can enter the room with nobody leaving.

In 2002 a sociologist named David Rust published "The Sociology of Furry Fandom," based on surveys he'd taken in the late '90s. Rust noted that Furries tend to have a higher percentage of homosexuals than the regular population, but the "perception that Furries tend to be sexually overt and promiscuous" is "skewed."

And while the Furries obviously have a shared interest in anthropomorphic themes, their defining characteristics found by Rust were "a higher tolerance (than within mainstream culture) for displays of affection or friendliness" and for "variety in sexual orientation and activity."

Still, none of that sexual openness was visible to me. At 11:30 p.m. I attended an adults-only panel called "Safety Furst." Was this, then, where the infamous Furry sleaze was to be found? Maybe a lesson on how to do bunnysuit bondage without suffocating your partner?

Nope. Same safe-sex/anti-STD lecture you can find in any middle school.