Donald Trump may want to ban transgender people from serving in the military, but as my teenage daughter, a sometimes furry named "Roo," reminds me, "LGBTQ people are always welcome with open arms in the furry fandom because we're all just beautiful animals!"
One late night, when I thought the day was done, my daughter walked into my bedroom and announced that she was a furry—specifically a kangaroo-dragon, her own hybrid dream animal. Of course, her birth certificate says she's a girl, but she corrected me on this identifying fact.
I shook my head. "No," I said. "No way. That's a sex thing."
She rolled her eyes. "That's only for people in mursuits who want to yiff. Not everyone is in it for sex, Mom," she scolded. "Mursuits are fursuits specifically designed for sex. You know? Openings for access?"
I didn't know and wasn't sure I wanted to know how she knew all this terminology. The unschooled public (me) often misidentifies furries as a subculture of sexual fetishists, to the chagrin of the many, many furries who aren't. A sizable contingent are just fans of all things furry and cute, including fursuits that embody their fursonas (though only 10 to 15 percent of furries own a fursuit), art, stories, and other media that feature anthropomorphic animal characters. Put more simply, according to my daughter: "Furries are just people who love animals that look a little like people."
"But what do you mean you are a furry?" I asked.
She showed me drawings she'd been making for an imagined fursuit and photos of furries. "I've finally found people like me," she said. "When I was little and played house, I never wanted to be the mom or dad or sister. I was the dog or the cat." Her face glowed with enthusiasm.
"But the sex thing?" I said.
"No superficial judgments. You support me in everything else," she said. "Why not support me in being an animal?" Schooled by my own kid.
She was right: My job as her mother is to support her purpose and joy, so we jumped into furry fandom together, which has come to mean a yearly expedition to Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to its website, it's the largest furry convention in the world. This year, it drew 7,544 attendees, with 1,890 fursuiters participating in the parade, including my daughter Roo. It also means, by extension, hanging out with a sizable group of other under 18 furries, many of whom, like my daughter, have a more open, flexible, and creative understanding of gender, sexuality, and identity.
I quickly learned that joining the furry community is not just about putting on a fursuit and "being an animal." The fandom is a happy home for large numbers of non-heterosexual, transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people, welcoming many who feel stigmatized at home, school, and work. For many under 18 furries, the community provides a place where they "fit in" for the first time—one where they're celebrated for their creative, invented fursonas.
Anthrocon even has specific programming for the under 18 fandom, including "Under 18 Fur Meetups," and for unschooled parents like me, "So Your Kid Dragged You to Anthrocon" and "Furry Parenting." And programming for furries of all ages, like "Good Fur Day: Self-Confidence, Assertiveness, and You," and "Deciding Who to Tell About My Tail: Negotiating Conversations with Non-Furries About Being a Furry," Anthrocon works hard to incorporate inclusive programming for all, including meetups for furry parents and furries with disabilities.
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At the Under 18 meetup, I talked to Sky*, a purple and blue cat who identifies as a lesbian. "My fursona came about after my friends couldn't accept me," she said. "So I made this idealized version of myself—a hyper-talkative, confident cat. Here, nobody knows what I look like or who I am under my fursuit. And everybody wants to hug me and take pictures with me!"
"My kid is trans and has Asperger's, and we live in this small conservative town in Indiana," said the mother of a 13-year-old named Fawn. "No way can they be themselves. This is where they're happiest." She looked toward the circle of furries—cats, wolves, dragons, dogs, and a lizard—sitting cross-legged on the floor, some holding their heads in their laps (it gets hot under all that fur) and others in head-to-toe fur. "Believe me. I wasn't ready for this at first, but my kid needs me to be ready, so I am."
In 2015, 600 out of 6,386 Anthrocon registrants were under 19; last year that number jumped to 891 out of 7,306. Since attendees under 12 don't have to register as long as they're accompanied by a guardian, the true number of young furries in attendance was likely much greater.
The trend reflects what's true among the larger furry community: The subculture is drawing a substantial—and growing—youth cohort. About 33 percent of respondents to the last Furry Poll, the self-designated largest continuing survey of furry fandom, report their age as between 15 and 19. The forum Furry Teens boasts nearly 5,000 members. While Anthrocon isn't the only Furry meetup with under 18 programming, it is the largest and most visible—though there's been a push to incorporate more events for younger furries elsewhere. For instance, Texas Furry Fiesta incorporates family-friendly (e.g., G-rated) events for parents and their children.
Dr. Courtney Plante is a researcher with the International Anthropomorphic Research Project (IARP)—"a multidisciplinary team of scientists studying the furry fandom from a variety of different perspectives," according to their website—and Furscience, the IARP's public information hub with a mission to increase understanding and decrease stigma of the furry fandom. He explains that while ethics standards limit the research IARP can do on furries under 18, they can extrapolate from findings about adult LGBTQ furries. "Data suggests that only 30 percent of furries identify as exclusively or predominantly heterosexual," Dr. Plante said, "numbers that clearly differ from the general population, where nearly 90 percent identify as exclusively or predominantly heterosexual."
The furry community, he noted, provides an especially safe space for young people struggling to find validation and acceptance elsewhere in their lives. "When a person isn't forced to conceal their identity or live in fear of ostracism, they can begin to grow and flourish as a person," he said.
If nothing else, Anthrocon is a place where these vulnerable kids and teens can create fursonas that are impossible in the "real" world: a pink lion, a bespectacled shepherd, a unicorn twinkling in LED lights. Back in the under 18 meetup, Raven, a red wolf who identifies as queer, said, "Raven is who I am, what I like and helps me become who I'm supposed to be. Raven is my dream me."
Dr. Plante noted there are numerous stories of people who enter the furry fandom identifying as straight, who then "feel this part of their identity awaken, or realize it was there all along," and end up coming out as queer. "In other instances, they may have compartmentalized this facet of their identity. 'I'm not gay, my fursona is gay!' Or 'I identify as male, but my fursona is female,'" he said.
Outside the Anthrocon convention center, my daughter and I were sitting in the Starbucks drinking our pink furrycinos. "Anthrocon is so beautiful," I said. "Everyone is welcoming and happy and human-furry creativity is astounding! It's like walking through a surreal nature preserve or living inside a Studio Ghibli movie."
My daughter was combing the fur on her head with a wire cat brush while sipping her furrycino. "Since joining the fandom, I've become more open," she said. "You don't have to be what society says that you have to be. As long as we don't hurt each other, love who you want to love and be who you want to be. I know that because I'm a furry—that no matter who or what I turn out to be, I don't have to worry. There'll always be people who will accept me."
*Names of under-18 furries have been changed.
Kerry Neville is the author of two collections of short fiction, Necessary Lies and Remember to Forget Me. Follow her on Twitter.