What does community mean to its members and those on the outside looking in? “Misunderstandings, no willingness to learn about the communities or to understand them with little to no lack of care before judging.”
This is a quote from a 22 year old who is apart of the LGBTQIA community. Her name is Michaela Johnson, she’s a member of not only the LGBTQIA community but also a smaller community called furries.
Members of the community can be described as “an enthusiast for animal characters with human characteristics, in particular a person who dresses up in costume as such a character or uses one as an avatar online.”
In a 2003 episode of Crime Scene Investigator the show shone a less than flattering light on the community. In the episode the community is shown to be mainly about the sexual aspect of the fandom.
Kathleen Gerbasi, a social psychologist, professor at Niagara County Community College, and lead researcher for the International Anthropomorphic Research Project said their findings of the community were abnormal. In an interview with the Guardian in 2016 Gerbasi said, “We researchers are horrified by that stuff, because it really doesn’t represent the reality we see in the fandom.”
Gerbasi feels the community gets a bad name because people are afraid of things they don’t understand. She said, “curl and other inappropriate phrases are used to bash the people individually or as a whole who are involved in these communities.” There have been negative attitudes directed at both LGBTQIA and the furry community by people not familiar with them.
Johnson said, “For the LGBTQIA I’ve heard phrases such as: ‘Fags burn in hell,’ a classic ‘God hates fags,’ etc. It’s gone so far as to people picketing the graves of dead military personnel either before, during, or after the funeral if they were known or seen as gay or whatever they had chosen to be seen as.”
A large population of the furry community are also part of the LGBTQIA community. The International Anthropomorphic Research Project conducted a survey in 2011 with a sample group of 4,338 furries and 485 non-furries. The groups participated in an online questionnaire consisting of 170 questions. The results showed about 1 in 4 furries are exclusively heterosexual, 1 in 5 are exclusively homosexual, and the rest are somewhere in-between. With the community being made of the full spectrum of sexual orientation it has been subjected to some of the same harsh comments as the LGBTQIA community.
Johnson said, “a few names people people call them are: Fur fags, Animal f***ers, and Furry Nazi. Including the verbal and written bashing of a few well known furry YouTubers and Popufurs. Along with stalking and threats at their own houses and hate mail in their physical mail boxes.”
In 2014 the Midwest FurFest convention was attacked with chlorine gas that resulted in 19 convention attendees being sent to the hospital. The severity of this incident was tremendously undercut when reported about on national news network MSNBC. Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, two hosts on the show Morning Joe, actually laughed uncontrollably while talking about the incident.
Being involved in a community can involve as many internal struggles as external ones. Christopher Plunkett said, “being a part of a community is something that, as a black man, I have to work at.”
Plunkett believes being part of a community comes with certain expectations. “Acting a certain way, talking a certain way, you have like a certain amount of artists or dislike a certain musician being black is hard for me,” he said.
Plunkett says he has gotten a lot of criticism within the black community for not fitting a mold. “I’ve been told a lot that I talk too proper or ‘too white,’ and I didn’t like Jordan’s. I got made fun of because I didn’t own a pair or want one,” he said. “I was called Oreo because I liked things like anime and that’s not considered a black thing, I find myself acting black just to be able to interact with my own people.”
It would appear that most communities have a level of expectations for its members, in many suburban areas housing communities are governed by rules imposed by homeowners associations. Homeowner associations tend be a private association formed by a real estate developer for the purpose of marketing, managing, and selling homes and lots in a residential subdivision.
These expectations and rules dictate behavior in these communities and can make them unapproachable to outsiders.
“Some of the internal problems I’ve had or seen are people putting others down harshly,” Johnson said. “Both communities say they are open to all people and welcoming; they are but not everyone is onboard with that.”
Johnson said this exclusivity can make a community fall apart.
“I see it as internal self-destruction. This kind of falls back onto the aspect of people not “following the rules” of the community,” she said. “I’ve seen people forced out of communities simply because they had a different opinion and voiced it. So, people of their own community will see them as a danger instead of an ally.”
The internal and external struggles that come with being a member of a community can be difficult to get past, but Michaela believes that being a part of these communities has given her something which surpasses the struggles. Michaela said, “The most positive things I’ve pulled away from the communities would have to be, and it’s going to sound ironic but, it’s the people.”
The furry community is made up of people from all walks of life trying to find their place in the world. Samuel Conway, a Professional Research Scientist and chairman of Anthrocon, one of the largest furry conventions in the world, was interviewed by the Guardian to describe what the furry community was to him.
He said, “Furry fandom is unique among fan cultures in that we are not consumers, but rather creators, Star Trek fans are chasing someone else’s dream. Furries create our own fandom.”
Johnson said, “Over the years my life has changed drastically and with moving out and to a new state entirely, I’ve been able to grow as me rather than a photocopy of what I was to be formed into by high expectations and values that didn’t match my own.”
Conway went on to say, “I want folks to realize that we are not any special breed apart, if you’ll pardon the pun, We have scientists, lawyers, physicians, firefighters, soldiers, police officers, schoolteachers, construction workers, custodians, musicians, journalists – just about anyone that is likely to pass you on a city street may well be a furry fan.”
The furry community is about giving people a place to escape the difficulties of life and, for some people, like Johnson, what they need to overcome personal demons.
“When I was 17 I was in a bad place, both mentally and physically,” Johnson said. She explained how when she was at one of the lowest points in her life she came across the furry community. It helped her deal with the difficulties in her life.
“It was only when I came across a youtube page filled with furries at a convention did I begin to smile,” Johnson said.
Dr. Gerbasi said, “People seem to find a family and a friend group there – people who like them for who they are, and for who they wanna be,” she explained. “Maybe the character is this really buff tiger guy but it doesn’t seem to matter the person is a shorter, overweight, typical nerdy-looking guy.”
Communities today can form in many different ways and places. They can give people a place to feel safe, and in Johnson’s case save lives. “I began learning more and more until I realized this was the group I wanted to be a part of. Not only did I make a new friend that week who helped me but I had also found a place to call home and feel safe at. I soon came across the LGBTQIA community and that saved me completely,” Johnson said.