March 30, 2011: Kate Bornstein is being interviewed about Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation by Steve Scher on the talk show Weekday on KUOW 94.9FM (Puget Sound’s News Leader!). As is so often the case with these types of interviews it’s mostly Sex ‘n Gender 101, though the conversation keeps veering back to Kate’s BDSM activities. (If you want to follow along at home, the relevant bit of the discussion occurs at 40:03 into the mp3. )
I’ve observed that a lot of people in the furry scene are borderline anti-furry themselves, ashamed about their own proclivities and getting very cross indeed when anyone else tries to regard furryosity with any kind of respect.
Steve asks her to explain the concept of “ownership” in a master/slave relationship, and, sounding ever so slightly exasperated at having to go further in that particular direction, Kate replies: “Well, sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily depend on the gender of your partner. It can depend more on, what is it you like to do? For example, furries. Do you know…oh, good!” She pauses, and you can actually hear her eyes widening in feigned delight. “Steve, you’re a closet furry! Oh, look at your bushy tail!”
Sounding more than a little embarrassed, Steve chuckles and says: “I have to admit I saw a CSI episode which introduced me to a concept I had never known before.”
Kate: “Yes! People who like to dress up as woodland creatures, or…”
Steve: “And then…have sex.”
Kate: “Or not! Just cuddle.”
Steve, sounding less convinced: “Just cuddle.”
Kate: “The importance is being the woodland creature and flirting.”
Steve: “They’re on the island of rejected mascots, I’m sure, all together.” (Furry = rejection!)
Kate: “Oh, god, can you imagine that one?” Another shared chuckle, and then: “My sexual orientation is mostly involved with what I do, and what I really enjoy doing is…” And from there she goes back into discussing S/M and learning to be dominated and relinquish control vis-à-vis forty years living as an entitled man.
Furries are not brought up again, and the entire exchange takes roughly sixty seconds out of a forty-minute program, the first half of which is an interview with a guy who wrote a book about (real) tigers. The Weekday episode is eventually archived with the title “Tigers and Furries,” because of course it is.
April 28, 2011: Kate accepts the Judges’ Special Award in Nonfiction for Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation from The Publishing Triangle, which is evidently a thing that exists. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in Gender Outlaws, and I like to joke that the book has been receiving all these accolades in spite of my presence in it. More on that in my next column.) In her speech, Kate does one of her standard riffs on how there’s a whole bunch more identities than just LGBT. It’s a bit that she’s been doing since at least 2009, and probably since well before that–which is cool, since it’s more relevant than ever, especially when speaking to a group which describes itself as “The Association of Lesbians and Gay Men in Publishing.”
It starts at about 10:07 in the YouTube video. “We need to read more words by and about Q for queer, A for asexual, A for adult entertainers, S for sadomasochists, S for sex workers, S for swingers, D for drag queens, drag kings and all drag-fuck royalty. I for intersex. Let’s say it again–another F for feminists, because there can never be too many of those.” Her tone turns jocular, and she grins far more broadly than she has in a while (her overall energy level is astonishing considering that Kate is giving this speech while sick with a stomach flu, making her far more of a trooper than I’ll ever be): “Another F for furries!”
The audience laughs appreciatively, and Kate rubs her nose up and down and says in a knowing, almost conspiratorial tone: “Oh, you know what furries are? Heh heh heh…anybody who doesn’t, come up and see me later, I’ll tell you.” Back to her more serious tone: “G for genderqueer–interesting word, genderqueer, the only word in the English language that names a gender that doesn’t refer back to the binary. ‘Genderqueer.’ K for kinky, P for pornographers, P for pansexuals, P for polyamory…and E for et cetera, because it’s going to go on and on and on.” She makes an impassioned plea for all these various voices and identities to find a place in the modern publishing world. Whether or not people do in fact come up to her later to ask what furries are is not revealed in the video.
Okay, first off: I do not envy Kate these days. For all the pioneering work as she’s done over the decades, she’s been getting more and more backlash recently as the newer generations of super-hardcore trans activists look for things to get to get all super-hardcore activisty about. It makes me glad that I’m unlikely to become anybody’s idea of an icon or hero or a role model and have to deal with the enormous levels of static and backlash and fist-shaking WHY U NO? anger hurled at her (or even less angry, more conciliatory nitpicks like the one you’re reading right now). And it’s not like I completely identify with Kate—the gender binary actually works just fine for me, inasmuch as I’ve transitioned to female and would very much like to be regarded as female plzkthxbai. But I don’t take her anti-binary position as any kind of personal affront against me, either.
Darn it, though, the furry shaming bothers me. Now, unlike Steve Scher I do have a bushy tail which is safety-pinned to my skirt, I’m a regular at the monthly furry nightclub in San Francisco where I’ve engaged in dancefloor yiffing, and I’ve participated in other such events. So I can’t really say whether or not it would bother me if I wasn’t a furry myself, but I’d like to think so, especially since as a transsexual who grew up in a world in which all manner of gender-crossing tended to get boiled down to (in modern parlance) wtf that dude’s wearing a dress lol, I’m just not comfortable with shame as a tactic.
I don’t believe that Kate is anti-furry (nor do I believe many people besides myself would care if she was). Indeed, it’s clear that she takes a great deal of non-malicious delight in the concept, and it’s her go-to example of the variety of sexual expression. And yet, the tone of it all feels…well, shaming. Like, the exchange with Scher doesn’t feel a whole different than “You’re a closet transvestite, aren’t you? Oooh, I’ll bet you’re wearing panties right now!” I mean, what exactly was accomplished other than making him embarrassed for no good reason? What point was being made? Was there an insight that I’m just not picking up on? Because it feels to me like it comes out of nowhere, or like it’s a surefire bit that she’s used in the past that she knows will get a laugh and lighten the mood.
It certainly does so in the Publishing Triangle speech, with the same undercurrent (well, overcurrent) of “Oh, you’re one of those people, huh?” Myself, I can’t help but laugh that pornographer as a sexual/gender identity passes by without comment—seriously?–and I’d wager that somebody somewhere is angry at the exclusion of “D for dapper.”
Hell, I don’t know. I’m neither an activist nor an especially sharp political thinker. It’s entirely possible that Kate’s playing a deeper game than I can perceive, but no matter how playfully it’s done, teasing people by suggesting/accusing them of being furries and thus implying that being a furry is something to be embarrassed about feels like a continued marginalization of a group which is already pretty goddamned low on the ladder to begin with. (I’m also well aware that the “I’ll bet you’re wearing panties right now!” comparison I made above is probably offensive to some people, since it implies that furries are even close to being on the same level as trans people, which they are most certainly not, amirite?)
It wouldn’t even matter if Kate was anti-furry, I suppose. I’ve observed that a lot of people in the furry scene are borderline anti-furry themselves, ashamed about their own proclivities and getting very cross indeed when anyone else tries to regard furryosity with any kind of respect. (Every so often someone says “Maybe we should have a flag or something,” and it’s usually met with “NO! IT’S A FUCKING HOBBY! NO FLAG!”) It’s not too hard to believe that they might lack the internal fortitude required to be openly comfortable with something that meets so much societal disapproval and shame from so many directions–even from the most progressive of queers.
Oh, whatever. It’s no big whoop. They’re only furries.