Fur the record | Festival | Chicago Reader

Fur the record 

Furries aren't all fetishists—they’re members of a supportive community who (sometimes) don costumes to feel more comfortable in their own skins.

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click to enlarge Fur suiters at Midwest FurFest 2015

Fur suiters at Midwest FurFest 2015

Courtesy Midwest FurFest

"It's not like we're saying sex doesn't happen—when you get adults in a hotel somewhere, stuff's going to happen," says Matt Berger, media relations lead for Midwest FurFest. "But sex is definitely not something that's predominant, especially in public spaces." He's shrugging off a persistent misconception that all furries are sexual fetishists who enjoy cavorting about in animal costumes.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Midwest Furry Fandom, Inc., a regional organization that supports Midwest FurFest—one of the largest conventions in the U.S. celebrating the fandom of anthropomorphic animals. This year, the fur and games take place from December 5 to 8 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Midwest FurFest is open to all ages, though children under 17 may only attend with a parent or "designated adult" (children under six must also be accompanied by a guardian but are not permitted to partake in any of the fest's programming or events).

If furries—who often dress in custom fur suits (a mascot-style costume of an original character)—are not about a romp in the hay, what sets these individuals apart from the cosplay world?

"Science fiction conventions have fairly well-drawn boundaries around what's there, what you're doing, and why you're there, with a fan base built largely around predefined roles," Berger says. "The definition of a furry varies by individual—a furry could be anyone who has an interest in things like anthropomorphic-related animation, artwork, and performing."

While a vast majority of individuals consume anthropomorphic-related content at some point in their lives (think: Mickey Mouse, Zootopia, Guardians of the Galaxy's Rocket Raccoon), furries exhibit a focused, lifelong interest in this world.

For Berger, figuring out he was a furry was a gradual process. "I was definitely a Disney kid . . . but I also got into it through performing," he says. "I was a volunteer in Canada for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, performing as a mascot at various events to help raise funds. Donning a fur suit is a pretty cool experience because it's something that immediately puts a smile on someone's face as they're looking at you."

Berger's alter-ego persona—sometimes known as a "fursona" in the furry community—is "Kodi," a gray-and-white husky canine character he created nearly 15 years ago. "Fur suiters" claim the costumes are transformative, allowing the individual to amplify pieces of their personality that are typically more dormant in everyday life. Berger says he's more "happy and bouncy" as Kodi; others become mischievous, silly, flirty, mysterious, or even sinister. Fur suiters typically do not speak while in costume and rely on pantomime to communicate, which Berger says helps individuals shape-shift into character and exhibit key traits of their fursona.

Participants may have more than one fursona (rare but possible), or they may decide to forgo a fursona entirely. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of Midwest FurFest attendees do not wear a fur suit, according to Berger. For those who do suit up, however, the Midwest FurFest Fursuit Dance Competition is the weekend's premier event. "Going back nine years or so, the idea of dancing in a fur suit or costume was viewed as kind of silly because of how difficult it would be to manipulate the suit," Berger says. "And then it slowly became more and more interesting, and now, I'd argue, it is probably one of the bigger things in the fandom for a lot of people."

According to the updated rules for the 2019 dance competition, both full and partial suits are allowed for competitors, but "costumes should be arranged so that no skin is exposed or visible at any point during the performer's showcase." In addition, all costumes are required to be "free of profanity or inappropriate accessories."

"The dance competition is about showmanship: Can you get the crowd interested? How complex are your dance moves?" Berger says. "The judges look at things like how well your moves relate [to the audience] and impart emotions. It's definitely an amazing thing to watch someone do a full body flip wearing a giant animal costume."

In addition to the dance competition, Midwest FurFest offers more than 150 education- and entertainment-based sessions, including video and tabletop gaming, a voice-actor workshop, kink discussion group (18+ only), various writing workshops, a pie-throwing seminar, basics of ballroom dancing, travel tips, and sessions on fur suit safety and maintenance. New this year is the Quiet Room, a space where attendees can spend time away from noise, lights, photographers, and other convention-related stimuli.

Since 2000, Midwest FurFest has grown from 388 attendees to more than 10,000, with upwards of $540,000 raised for wildlife- and animal-related charities, including this year's beneficiary, the local no-kill shelter Felines & Canines.

As the culture of the furries continues to rise in popularity, members of this community are starting to feel less marginalized.

"The fact that you can just say 'the furry' and you don't have to explain to people what that means to the same degree that you used to means we're becoming a lot more mainstream," Berger says. "As it gets bigger and more accessible to folks, you'll see more and more of these conventions. We joke there's a furry convention somewhere in the country almost every weekend now."  v

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