Like many teens on Tumblr, Marco obsessively reblogs photos of picturesquely overcast skies and sunsets. But the images he chooses don't just resonate with him aesthetically: For a while now, Marco says, he has identified as a cloud trapped in a human body.
"I always sort of didn't fit my human body but I didn't realize the extent of it until about a year and a half ago," he tells me over Tumblr messenger. That's when he first came across the concept of "cloudkin"—a subset of "weatherkin," itself a subset of "otherkin," a community of people who identify as... not people.
Otherkin are kind of notorious among certain internet circles; the most famous example is probably a woman who went viral after a Norwegian TV channel chronicled her choice to live as a cat. As a blog called Otherkin FAQ defines it, "otherkin" is "an umbrella term for beings in human bodies who identify as non-human."
But the category of non-human is far broader than one would initially suspect. In addition to the otherkin identify as animals, there are some who identify as mythical creatures, like dragons, fairies, or vampires; fictionkin, who identify as fictional characters, frequently from anime series or videogames; weatherkin, like Marco, who identify as weather systems; conceptkin, who identify as abstract concepts; spacekin, who identify as celestial bodies; and several other even more obscure categories (musickin, timeperiodkin—the list goes on).
When I first came across the #weatherkin tag on Tumblr—which led me to the #conceptkin tag, and even further to the conceptual abyss from there—I couldn't tell if I had stumbled into some sort of elaborate joke or communal performance piece. Some people were definitely fucking around: One blog, run by a "social justice warrior plantkin" who obsessively demands that their followers check their species privilege, was clearly a hoax.
But there were also several plaintive, introspective weatherkin blogs written in a seemingly sincere tone. "It's weird being rainkin [because] rain doesn't retain memories—it's water, it doesn't have a consciousness," one mused on a blog littered with artistic pictures of raindrops cascading into puddles. "And yet I remember interacting with metal?"
It's weird being rainkin [because] rain doesn't retain memories. And yet I remember interacting with metal?
When asked why he feels that he is an actual cloud—and how that's different from someone who just identifies deeply with that type of weather—Marco responds earnestly. "It's difficult to explain, but it's like I look at a cloud and I see it as me," he says. "That's what my soul is. It's as part of me as my toes or my hands. It's my soul."
Later, he adds, "It's sort of like a feeling of longing in a way, longing for a past life where I was a cloud. I'm mostly just deeply connected with clouds but—and this is a little embarrassing—I have this fan in my room and sometimes I sit in front of it and imagine I am flying again."
The idea of past lives comes up a lot in otherkin circles, but there's a significant difference between thinking that you were a cat in a past life and thinking that you were a cat in a past life and are also still a cat, somehow, in addition to being human.
Cat, who runs an otherkin-themed cosmetic blog, tries to explain this distinction to me in a separate Tumblr chat. As his name implies, he's catkin—a Scottish fold, specifically—and feels that he's the result of reincarnation. While those who believe in reincarnation typically believe that you start a new life in each new body, he seems to think that his soul is fundamentally feline, despite having ended up in human form.
According to him, being otherkin is "almost always a spiritual thing." While most otherkin "know they are human," he elaborates, "some feel what we call astral limbs where we can feel wings, tails, ears, etc. (whatever our kintype had) that are, obviously, not there any more."
"These limbs are usually bulky, uncomfortable, and often even painful at times," he adds.
I have this fan in my room and sometimes I sit in front of it and imagine I am flying again.
Cat firmly insists that being otherkin is "absolutely not delusional." Many mental health professionals have been told about otherkin, he adds, and "they agreed as long as it is not hurting you mentally or causing a negative impact in your life that it's perfectly healthy."
Indeed, in 2015, Dr. Marc Feldman, a clinical professor and creator of the term Munchausen by Internet, told the Daily Dot that identifying as otherkin "isn't illegal, doesn't victimize other people, and isn't a form of mental illness (unless people become delusional about it), so I don't see a particular need for 'treatment.'"
Even within the otherkin community, many are skeptical of those who identify as nonliving objects or abstract concepts. In a Tumblr dedicated to the experience of being otherkin, one mod described objectkin and conceptkin as "a large point of contention in the otherkin community."
A fictionkin named Felix—who identifies as the "legitimate reincarnation" of three different cartoon characters—wrote in a separate post, "The general consensus I have seen among more serious and reflective otherkin is you cannot be kin of something that does not have a mind, personality, or will of some form."
"You can't be a chairkin unless that chair was aware and had thoughts," he affirmed.
This is somewhat surprising, as the otherkin community has a reputation for being accepting to the point of absurdity. They often discuss their -kin identities using social justice rhetoric—which has led to criticism from people who believe they are appropriating from meaningful social movements. In 2012, for example, an "autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-asian cat" with thousands of followers admitted to being three bored teenagers, none of whom identified as any of those things.
You can't be a chairkin unless that chair was aware and had thoughts.
"Consider the following. You have created a community in which someone can claim to be an autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-Asian cat otherkin and not be immediately denounced as a troll," the teenagers wrote in a since-deleted post, further expressing their contempt that a movement focused on protecting oppressed groups "has been co-opted by people who believe they are dragons."
The otherkin community, however, insists they're not co-opting anything and that they're well aware that they don't face systematic discrimination in society. "Otherkinity is not a marginalized gender or orientation... the idea that we are is something I've only seen from troll blogs," writes the moderator of Otherkin FAQ. In the site's header, they note, "Kinfolk are not oppressed for being kin, and we know."
Still, the community's aggressive open-mindedness makes it so that any form of skepticism or scrutiny—Do you seriously think it's possible to identify as the entire decade of the 1980s?—can be portrayed as callous or insensitive, or even—worst of all—problematic. While there are certain identities that the otherkin community largely frowns upon (claiming to identify as a different race or ethnicity is typically seen as unacceptable, for instance), most kin are loath to tell anyone their identity isn't legitimate. After all, if no one IRL believes you're a dragon, why would you want to tell someone in your own online community that they can't feel like they're a cloud?
In response to Felix's post doubting the legitimate existence of objectkin, for instance, an anonymous user who identifies as neon light politely wrote a response insisting that there are times at which they "almost expect my body to start glowing from the inside" and that they "feel like the physical embodiment of neon during these times."
Felix quickly established that he had not meant to undermine the anonymous user's lived experience as someone who believes they are literal neon. "When I say, 'I don't believe in conceptkin or objectkin, etc., I'm not seeking to invalidate people's sincere experiences," he wrote.
"If I met someone who had spent three years of their life contemplating their identity, exploring their spirit and mental state, etc., and really, earnestly and sincerely believed that their internal truth was that they were somehow a chair," he said, "I would respect that, and believe them and their identity."