Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Sound and the Furry: Robert Lyle Talks Furry Conventions, Erotica, and Stigma


Back in December, a video of Mika Brzezinski losing her shit went viral. In case you don't remember what happened, the anchor of MSNBC's Morning Joe was presenting news about a gas attack at a furry convention, and when one of her cohosts informed her that a furry was a person who dresses up as an animal and role plays, she giggled hysterically before running off the stage. Many of the aforementioned furries were hospitalized, and although I could see how one would be initially shocked at learning of something so unique, it struck me as rude in the context and unprofessional given she is a journalist.

I tweeted about the story after the video of Mika had gone viral, and through Twitter, I was able to connect with Robert Lyle, the 25-year-old author of the interspecies romance series, Feathers with Benefits. "I can't really blame them for not knowing what furries are," Robert said. "It's largely an internet subculture even with MFF (Midwest Fur Fest) seeing close to 4600 attendees; but laughing hysterically while reporting an attack that sent 19 people to the hospital and caused the early morning evacuation of an entire hotel? Classy."


Robert's life as a furry began approximately eight years ago. He was searching for art online when he found a now defunct gallery of dragons and mythological creatures. He liked what he saw so he registered for the site's forum. "From there, I made friends, found other places to hang out, and the rest is history," Robert said. To connect with other furries, Robert mostly connects online through Skype or forums, but in 2014, he did MFF to connect with his furry friends from the Netherlands and Texas. At Midwest Fur fest, Robert described the activities as being very similar to that of other conventions. "I looked around the artists' tables and spent a little too much money there, watched the fursuit parade, and saw some of the other events happening. I missed the panels on writing due to a long registration line, but there's always next time," he said.

Two furries from 2014's Midwest Fur Fest, courtesy of AoLun08
All of Robert's friends are aware and okay with his lifestyle or are members themselves; but Robert has shielded details of the fandom from his family. "My parents know I went down to MFF to meet friends, and I told them it was like a comic convention. They think it's weird, but didn't ask more. I haven't told them I'm a furry, and I certainly haven't told them I write erotica—inter-species erotica, at that—nor do I ever intend to unless it's unavoidable. They're fairly open-minded, but still pretty conservative and tend to judge things on a moralistic world-view. I honestly don't know how they'd deal with it, nor am I keen to find out. I can't let worrying stop me from the writing, though," Robert said. 

Robert started writing his furry series, Feathers With Benefits, a year ago. It is about a human named Torio who gets paired up professionally with a gryphon named Riane as part of an initiative to forge new interspecies alliances. The story can be found on the furry website, So Furry, and Robert said that he's happy with the reception his work has received.

However, even though Robert has found his place in the furry community, he still has to use the pen name Robert Lyle to shield himself from the mainstream. "Until recently I wouldn't even admit I was a furry, in part because of widespread stereotyping, harassment, and even hatred of the fandom, both online and off," Robert said. "I used to have a dragon avatar for some gaming accounts, and occasionally someone would send me a message asking me if I was "one of those furries" or just calling me a "fucking furfag." I've seen friends harassed for their art, or for the company they keep. I know of people who've had to shut down their accounts and go dark from the cyberbullying. Some people are just misinformed or ignorant of what furry means, and the sheer diversity of interests doesn't help. Others are just following the bandwagon of trolls who banded together years and years ago to target the fandom, and its status as the "internet punching bag" is only just starting to turn around. It doesn't help that early mainstream attention tried to explain furries and fursuiting as 'well, these are young people, therefore it's all about deviant sex.' I've never seen the episode, but apparently CSI had an infamously terrible portrayal of a furry convention."

Still from CSI's Fur and Loathing, courtesy of Huffington Post
That episode, Fur and Loathing, was broadcast in 2003. In the episode, people dressed in fursuits attended  a convention to have fetish sex, a depiction that seems very different from Robert's experience at MFF.

In the end, despite the judgment or amused giggles the community has received from outsiders, Robert is hopeful that people will eventually become more accepting. "The fandom's reputation is normalizing, and mainstream reporting keeps churning out "they're actually normal, albeit nerdy" articles, which is awesome," Robert said. "The hate still exists, and I doubt that's going away anytime soon. After all, we just can't have people who are different than us, no, not one bit."