It's Friday. I'm sitting in the lobby of a swank, North Shore Chicago hotel, typing away on a netbook. The chatter is lively and happy. People are hugging, laughing, trading stories from the past year. A man in a fox suit looks to me and waves, his frosty, tool-dip-and-foam-block nose looking almost wet in the light. When I wave back, he barks. The blue kangaroo passing by jumps a little, faking surprise; then, pulling out a little noisemaker, squeaks toward the fox.
It's hard to remember a time when I would have considered these events odd. It's been seven years since my first convention, and after a while one takes on the mentality of "seen it all before." The anatomy of a furry convention is quite simple, when you get down to brass tacks; it's a place where like-minded people of all creeds can get together and hang out for a weekend, free from any judgment. While I'm not exactly into furry anymore, the cons are still a lot of fun to attend on occasion. There is something about furry cons that brings open-minded people together and gives them a place to be themselves.
A few broad-stroke observations of furry conventions come after the jump:
A world where LGBT is the majority
Gay men make up an overwhelming majority of the furry population. Trans people, according to surveys, make up about 1 of every 61 furries, and that's not counting other kinds of gender-variant folks. While there are a disproportionate number of cisgender women attending conventions, many identify as lesbian or bisexual. Straight men and women are a minority group within a furry convention.
This is due to two significant factors. One, furry's makeup is an artifact of how furry conventions were originally advertised. Advertising for the original furry cons were targeted towards sci-fi and comic convention attendees who went to "funny animal" parties and panels made popular by the explosion of independent comic books of the 80s. These conventions were also pushed in gay and alt-life BBSes in the early days of the internet. Two, and perhaps more interesting of the reasons, furry gives many people a way to explore their identity in a safe space: after all, it's much easier to push social taboos if you can appraoch it from an angle that doesn't directly impede on one's identity. For example, it's may be easier for someone to explore their sexuality if they have the persona of a cute, innocent rabbit.
The nice side effect of this is that many of the basic social rules pertaining to heteronormity are thrown out of the window at furry cons. Personal space, a mainstay of most American culture, becomes less rigid. This doesn't mean that people violate the personal space of others; however, it is considered more socially acceptable to initiate contact. Furries at conventions are, on average, generous with hugs, and okay with being in constant physical contact to relative strangers. In any other situation this would seem awkward; however, in the furry convention world it makes perfect sense.
A place for dorks, a place for artists, a place for both
Picture this: a group of people goes out to Gameworks on Friday, comes back to the con hotel, and spends all night catching up with distant friends. Then, the next day, they trade internet meme jokes wile playing in a Street Fighter 4 tournament, right after playing a few board games with people they don't know. Later that night they throw a fantastic party with friends from across the country, smiling and laughing and carrying on like a bunch of old chums.
The furry fandom grew out of gaming, science fiction, and comic book conventions. The crowd's makeup is heavily skewed to favor traditionally "dorky" pasttimes. This comes through at a convention, where people can indulge their dorky selves in any number of ways. Also, thanks to the high concentration of creative people (artists, writers, costume designers, et cetera), activities are imaginative, witty, and tons of fun. I spent my entire weekend hanging out in a hotel full of creative people. That in itself is an experience, believe you me; concentrating that much talent and exuberance into one place makes for some crazy moments.
People who look down upon furry conventions miss the point: for all the potential flaws of the fandom, and all the strange things that may happen in front of waiting cameras, creative people are kicking back and enjoying a fantastic weekend together. There are few places in this world where so many creative, talented people can keep each others' company for an entire weekend; this in itself makes the furry con a special place to be.
Try something on for a day
My friend Paul said something to me about the convention that really explained a lot. "A furry convention is a chance to try something on for a weekend; if you don't like it, you can put it away later." It wasn't until halfway through the weekend that I realized just how right he was on the issue.
Furry conventions allow people to try and be anything for a weekend. The accept-everything attitude of furries, combined with the overwhelming percentage of non-straight sexual orientations, makes for an environment that allows great levity and experimentation. This may not help furry gain mainstream acceptance anytime soon, but it's a wonderful thing for people looking to explore their own identities. I know I used a convention to "feel out" my transition plans, and many furries use conventions as an opportunity to explore similar situations in a relatively safe environment.
Many of the "strange" things found at conventions are simply people exploring their identies; accepting this fact makes furry conventions much easier to understand. For better or worse, most every facet of human expression is represented at a furry convention. I've seen everything from straight couples' marriage ceremonies to people donating thousands of dollars to charity over a Hamtaro fursuit to babyfurs running around in overalls and beanie caps. Part of the reason furry has such a horrible reputation on the internet is because these different forms of expression are all accepted, or at least tolerated, within the convention scene. In a realm where many of the people involved have been cast aside by other, mainstram groups, anything less would be hypocrisy.
An extension of LGBT values
In the end, the furry convention world is a reflection of LGBT advocacy values: accept others as they are, so long as people aren't being hurt. Yes, there are oddities, but that's part of the charm of being part of a larger community. Strange things happen, but if those strange things aren't allowed to happen, neither are the wonderful things that happen between the sensationalist media headlines and attention-grabbing pictures.
I don't dare speak for the furry community as a whole. This post purposefully leaves out "lifestyler" furs, therians, and other extensions of the community, simply because I don't know enough to speak intelligently about their needs. As much as I'd like to say that I have a handle on what is and is not a furry, people have many reasons for attending cons. For some people like myself, furry cons are just a fun place to hang out for a weekend. For others, it's one of the only places where a large number of similarly-interested people can congreagate and talk about their philosophies on life. It operates much in the same way as a gay bar may operate for the larger gay community: we all have our reasons to drop by, but we all drop by to have a good time.
What I do think this post covers is both the necessity and the utility of furry conventions in the lives of the people who attend them. These cons serve as a blowoff valve, allowing people who may share dorky, strange, or otherwise deviant ideas to have an outlet for their desires. That is why furry conventions exist, in the end: they allow people an opportunity to leave their normal lives behidn for a weekend and enter a new world.
Something about that appeals to me on a deeply personal level. Perhaps that's why I continue to go to them, even though I haven't been "furry" for the past few years.