When I say that there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for The Verge, I mean it. And if you were to ask me for proof, I need only utter one word: Anthrocon.
If you’ve been mercifully cut off from the more absurd aspects of internet culture since, well, the dawn of the world wide web, you might wonder what Anthrocon is exactly. First, you have to be acquainted with furry fandom. A “furry,” in their lingo, is an anthropomorphic animal: Bugs Bunny, for example. He contains the characteristics of a rabbit — the tail, the ears, the buck teeth — as well as those of a human. He walks upright, and he presumably has vocal cords that allow him to speak English. Kids love this shit. And sometimes kids grow into adults that love this shit, as well. And some of them don’t just love the funny animals, as they’re known. They want to become funny animals, and they purchase several-thousand-dollar fursuits to make their transformation into an anthropomorphic beast feel a little more real. These people, the fans of funny half-human / half-animals who spend so much time buying comics, creating artwork, and developing full-scale animal personas, or “fursonas,” are known as furries. Their biggest in real life meet and greet is Anthrocon, which takes place annually in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
I arrived at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Friday, June 15 of this year with a camera and a notebook. The notebook struck some of my fellow attendees as odd: this scene is notoriously paranoid about journalists. And for good reason: the very first media coverage of furry fandom consisted of things like an MTV documentary about fursuit sex fetishists and a predictably hilarious episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation called “Fur and Loathing.” If the notebook was odd for some, the camera wasn’t a problem at all. Everyone there loved having their pictures taken. By one estimate, there were perhaps 5,000 furries at the event, with possibly 1,000 of those marching in a fursuit parade on Saturday afternoon. The sheer amount of fake fur onsite was mind boggling.
Dr. Samuel Conway, PhD is a chemist who is known in Furry circles as Uncle Kage, the Chairman of Anthrocon, Inc. When I inquired about a last minute press pass, he politely explained that I could come in the morning before the event and talk for a few minutes; I couldn’t make that work with my schedule (I needed to catch up on Verge-related business before the long weekend) so I decided I would just arrive the night of the event and purchase a $60 ticket like everybody else.
It just walked right up to me, the bow-tied beast, and gave me a big bear hug
The inside of the convention center has the curved roof and naked support beam look that one associates with airplane hangars, and the color scheme employed by the architects — grey on grey — didn’t make the main room any less depressing. At the very least, someone could have run a vacuum over the industrial carpeting in the hallway.
The main room was outfitted with folding tables, where vendors sold everything from commissioned artwork (“Can you draw me as a skunk with a skateboard and a long furry tail and human breasts? And maybe I stand upright like a human and I have a guitar strapped to my back?”) to role playing game supplies, comic books, chain mail bras and corsets for the ladies, fox ears, and squirrel tails. The crowd seemed especially diverse: it was easy to find all your various races, sexual orientations, and genders — including a fair amount of transgender furries. It certainly seemed like a place where everyone was welcome, and it was here that I first began to understand the charm of the Furry lifestyle.
And then it hit me: well, more accurately, it hugged me. A large — well, I’m not sure what it was, exactly. I have passed the photo around to a few people: Was it a fox? A gopher? What’s with the blue ears and purple bow tie? It just walked right up to me, the bow-tied beast, and gave me a big bear hug.
The thing with the fursuits, and especially the masks, is that every one is a little different — but very few allow the wearer to express themselves in any meaningful way while engaging in conversation. There are few if any facial expressions available, for instance, and talking is a chore. This means that the fursuiter is left to resort to sweeping, comical gestures and hollow-eyed stares if it wishes to communicate at all. It’s really quite unsettling — almost violent, the effect of a huge masked creature bumrushing you and imposing its blank-eyed embrace.
My first attempt at integrating into furry society ending in failure after about ten minutes, I went to The Saloon on Liberty Avenue to regroup.
There was once a fanzine with the improbable name of Yarf! The Journal of Applied Anthropomorphics. In the February 2, 1999 issue you’ll find an article written by Fred Patten called "A Chronology Of Furry Fandom." According to Patten, it was at a science fiction convention in 1980 that furry fandom got its start. Up until this point, it’s safe to say that most portrayals of anthropomorphic animals had been the typical "funny animals," the mainstay of comics and cartoons that Disney owes its existence to.
An appearance at the NorEasCon II World Science Fiction Convention in Boston by comic book artist Steve Gallacci led, according to Patten, to a discussion of the artist’s planned "SF comic-art serial about bioengineered animal soldiers in a space war." The informal "Gallacci group," as became known, would meet at sci-fi conventions and "discuss anthropomorphics in SF, comic art, and animation, and to show off each others' sketchbook art and draw in each others' sketchbooks, from 1980 until about 1985."
Furry fandom might have remained in this state if it hadn’t coincided with the invention of the internet
At Anthrocon I spoke with Eric Risher, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Ohio, about the role the internet plays in furry.
“The internet’s pretty critical when it comes to the perpetuation of furry as a fandom, as a ‘movement,’ so to speak,” Risher said. “I think that furry would exist without the internet ... But in terms of being a community, [the internet] allowed people to connect with one another and realize, ‘oh, hey, I have this common interest’ with someone who lives across the country.”
Furry fandom could have, and did, exist without the internet, but the evolution to “Furry” (with a capital “F”), a full-fledged (if minor) subculture, only happened because of the internet.
“Anything that you find” in mainstream society, Risher told me, “you see reflected in Furry.” There are Furry comic books, social networking sites, authors, and artists working in every medium.
I noted that the scene seems pretty young, and Risher agreed.
"My initial impression," he said, "was that it was a younger community, I would say late teens, early twenties. And for the most part, I think that’s pretty much held true with my expectations. But it’s also very different depending upon what region you’re in. I grew up in northeast Ohio, and I started becoming involved in the community around 18 to 20-ish, and I was the youngest in the community by one or two years. But then I moved to Dayton, Ohio for school, and I was the youngest by five or six years. A lot of people were in their upper 20s or early 30s, and a couple people were even in their 60s, in that area. It’s sort of all over the place, really."
Risher was at Anthrocon filming for his documentary, Through Fox’s Eyes. When asked if Furry was predominantly a younger crowd, he referred me to the work of Kathleen C. Gerbasi’s International Anthropomorphic Research Project. Dr. Gerbasi is a social psychologist and anthrozoologist at Niagara County Community College in New York. In addition to one paper published in Society and Animals (“Furries from A to Z” [PDF]) in 2008, she says that her team has “a couple articles under review.”
A look at the data shows that most attendees of Furry conventions tend to be in their late teens and twenties, with roughly 75 percent of attendees under the age of 30.
In an email she also noted that the data is “somewhat skewed due to ethics regulations of studying minors (we cannot survey people under age 18).”
Data aside, as far as I could see, the crowd at Anthrocon seemed to be pretty young. Then again, who knew what exactly was going on beneath those fursuits.
“Anthrocon has possibly the most draconian, the strictest standards of conduct of any fan convention out there,” says Uncle Kage near the conclusion of a documentary called Furries: An Inside Look. This was not a good sign. I’m not exactly saying that I wanted to see a furry orgy break out in the stairwell adjacent to the Spirit of Pittsburgh room of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, but if it did it would certainly be interesting, from a journalistic standpoint.
On Friday night, I ended up at an Anthrocon-sponsored “rave” with Katie Notopoulos, an editor at Buzzfeed and one-time contributor to The Verge. The lighting was raised a bit more than you’d expect, and the air conditioning was cranked up, to account for the limited visibility and the heat of the fursuits. The music came from the most rave-ified corners of pop, things like remixes of “Gimme All Your Luvin’” by Madonna, whatever that big song is by LMFAO, and plenty of J-Pop.
For the overwhelming majority (something like 80 percent) of Anthrocon attendees that don’t sport fursuits, the dress is still rather festive. Lots of costumes: Princess Mononoke (well, some anime princess), steampunks, and a small group of young dudes dressed up as German army soldiers from World War II, whose armaments included plastic guns with bright orange tips on the barrel. Science fiction fans have always loved getting together and dressing up, but the kids with the gimp masks, the militaria, and the Trenchcoat Mafia schtick really drove home how this was a young crowd, with a very short cultural memory.
After gooning around for a night and a day, it became apparent that while the Anthrocon organizers played the role of the punitive super-ego (“draconian,” in the words of Uncle Kage), there was a raging id onsite as well. Nearly every artist’s table in the main room contained, alongside the artwork on display, a black three-ring binder identified as containing illustrations for “mature” buyers. The sheer amount of pornographic anthropomorphic comic books and illustrations suggested that indeed this was a part of the subculture, even if everyone remained tight lipped, for fear of creating another round of sensational stories in the mainstream press.
For non-furries, access to this world was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain
Katie had a theory: the reason that the furry rave was so tame was because all of the party animals, so to speak, were out at places that served alcohol. Or they were in secret hotel rooms indulging in some sort of strange ritualized “yiffing,” or fursuit sex.
One thing was obvious: for non-furries, access to this world was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. We even tried working with a friend of Katie’s, a Furry informant of sorts who wishes to be identified only by her Twitter ID, @catluvr420. She had seen a thing or two in Anthrocons past. After making a few phone calls and talking to a few people that she knew, @catluvr420 eventually found some “action,” but unfortunately it was strictly fursuits only.
Although there is clearly a sexual dimension to Furry, it’s probably best that we let it remain behind locked doors. Perhaps even now, somewhere on the eleventh floor of the Omni William Penn hotel there is a flat panel TV turned up to full volume, where the Cartoon Network barely drowns out the muffled screams of anthropomorphs and the mute slap of fake fur upon fake fur.
Photo Credit: Katie Notopoulos
At first, what I perceived to be the frivolous nature of Furry really turned me off. Grown men in fursuits, gesturing frantically! Women dressed as cartoon humanimals with impossible fantasy proportions! The whole thing seemed undignified, and not a little childish. But on Saturday morning, as I walked down William Penn Place towards the convention center, something happened — one of those tiny moments that puts things into perspective.
I was following a group of three or four fursuits when a sort of mean looking couple in a convertible stopped their car in the middle of traffic and began walking towards the group. They radiated unabashed glee as the Furries posed for pictures with the two of them. Whatever this couple’s malfunction, they at least got a jolt of unexpected fun on a Saturday morning. And really, isn’t this enough? There aren’t too many hobbies or subcultures that go out of their way to bring their strange type of good cheer to the world around them.
"Play [and exploration] are preparation for evolution yet to come."
Downtown Pittsburgh, with its architecture and skyline, can be quite stunning. Also, depending on the time of day and the amount of trash on the street, it can be a real dump. Especially after dark, when everyone heads home and there is nothing open except for a handful of bars, a strip club, and Awesome Books. But during Anthrocon, the corner of 10th and Liberty Avenue is transformed into a whimsical menagerie. I saw a motorcycle cop smile like a kid as furries surrounded him and held him hostage for a good ten minutes. And later on a local young woman in Satanic Madonna garb (ca. 1984) sat on the lap of a horse in a wheelchair and shared what looked like an honest, human moment; a tender conversation passed between the two as a drag queen in a witch’s hat paused for photos with the anthropomorphs drinking beer in the far-right turning lane of 10th Street.
“Play [and exploration],” John Pfeiffer writes in The Emergence of Society, “are preparation for evolution yet to come. The spirit of exploration and challenge contributes to the creation of an enormous repertoire of possibilities, possibly inventions and actions and concepts, possible worlds.”
This is the role that science fiction has always played: sci-fi is a literary proving ground, a place where ideas are allowed to run free before (if they prove fit) being adopted by the world at large. And maybe there are even a few lessons that sci-fi fandom’s bastard cousin, Furry, can teach the world. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the kids at Anthrocon.
Still, you’ll never get me to dress up as the Toledo Mud Hen.