A Secret Weapon of the Progressive Left: Furries

Democratic socialist congressional candidate Shahid Buttar, who is running to unseat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, poses with Patch O'Furr at the Bernie Sanders rally in Richmond, California on Feb. 17, 2020.  (Shahid for Change campaign)

Patch O'Furr was running on five hours of sleep.

He'd stayed out late with his furry friends the night before. But Bernie Sanders' campaign rally in Richmond was starting soon, so he and his squad woke up early and piled in the car. Since his purple-haired rat costume was still in the trunk, he put on the fur suit and scrawled "Furries 4 Bernie" in large block letters with Sharpie on a piece of cardboard.

As thousands of Sanders supporters lined up around the Craneway Pavilion to hear the senator's speech on Feb. 17, people of all ages, including families with kids, stopped O'Furr every few feet for photos. Shahid Buttar, the democratic socialist running to unseat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, posed for a picture and invited O'Furr to volunteer for his congressional campaign, noting that a giant rodent toting a slogan could have the impact of 50 regular volunteers.

"We're here, we are furries, we are for Bernie, let's do this," says O'Furr, a 42-year-old Richmond artist and e-commerce entrepreneur who runs the furry news blog Dogpatch Press. "We're not an organization, we're just doing what we love."

O'Furr is part of niche yet enthusiastic subculture centered around a love for anthropomorphic animal characters. Furries attend conventions and gatherings, make and commission artwork of their alter egos (or "fursonas"), chat with fellow enthusiasts online and dress up in fur suits that represent their animal identities. (The subculture has a reputation for being a sexual kink, but the furries I spoke with for this story say that aspect is overly sensationalized in the media and doesn't represent the entire fandom.)

This election season, furries are entering the political arena in growing numbers. And while they might seem like an unlikely constituency to rally support for candidates, the fandom's outsider outlook and robust social networks—both on and offline—make it particularly poised to mobilize for the progressive left ahead of the Democratic primary in California and nationwide.

Wild, an East Bay resident, canvasses for Bernie Sanders and is the head of a group called Bernie Sanders Furs.
Wild, an East Bay resident, canvasses for Bernie Sanders and is the head of a group called Bernie Sanders Furs. (Courtesy of Wild)

A Subculture Ready to Get the Vote Out

Typically, furries find one another on Twitter and the chat platform Telegram, and meet in person at conventions like San Jose's Further Confusion (FurCon), Midwest FurFest and Anthrocon, and dance parties like DJ NeonBunny's monthly Frolic party at the Eagle in San Francisco. For many, the community is a chosen family that welcomes those who may feel socially ostracized. The fandom doesn't revolve around a specific commercial entity, in contrast to subcultures that form around anime, video games or Star Wars. Instead, furry culture, much like the punk scene, emphasizes do-it-yourself participation and person-to-person connections. In essence, the people who make up the subculture invent it in real time.

"We've always been a deep-seated community of people who need somewhere to go, somewhere to find a universal love," says Berry Pecan Tart, a 33-year-old barista from Napa who came out "of the cage" as a furry this year (his fursona is a California black bear). It was a moment of self-actualization that coincided with his joining the Democratic Socialists of America. With the DSA, he recently volunteered to fix car headlights to help undocumented immigrants avoid traffic stops that leave them vulnerable to deportation.

With many LGBTQ+ and neurodiverse people among their ranks, furries largely embrace progressive causes. "I know many furries doing phone banking, primarily in favor of Bernie Sanders—overwhelmingly, I would say—in Iowa and New Hampshire," says Kamunt Kurush, a 29-year-old student and furry in the Chicago area who uses his Twitter platform to live tweet the Democratic debates and promote left-wing candidates (his fursona is a cheetah). Recently, Buttar's campaign noticed Kurush's enthusiastic posts and invited him to a private direct message group of people promoting the candidate's pro-Medicare for All, pro-Green New Deal message.

"I knew somebody who even went to New Hampshire to knock on doors [for Sanders]," Kurush says of the furry community's dedication. "A friend of mine who lives in San Francisco has volunteered for Shahid Buttar’s campaign to do some canvassing."

In a previous generation, a politician running for congress might not have wanted to be affiliated with a subculture widely seen as fringe. But Buttar embraces the furry vote. "My recognition of the value of furries, my recognition of the value of subcultures generally is rooted in my own identity as an artist," says Buttar, adding that countercultural groups have pushed progressive political ideas into the mainstream throughout history. "It's not just furries—anyone who's willing to raise their voice and be creative, artists, are the lifeblood of our community and our culture writ large."

An East Bay resident who goes by Wild (his fursona is a lion) runs a national Telegram chat called Bernie Sanders Furs, where furries spread information about Sanders rallies and volunteer opportunities, and share memes and articles. He canvassed for Sanders over the past two weekends, and says Sanders' emphasis on fighting economic inequality and taxing extreme wealth are front-of-mind for the furry community, which is largely millennial and burdened with student loan debt and stagnant wages.

"The furry fandom as a whole, our interactions are recreational, and we have a lot of artists," Wild says, adding that Medicare for All would be a huge boon for self-employed fur suit makers and fursona illustrators who can't afford healthcare. "When people can’t feed their families, the luxury of the furry fandom can’t really exist. It’s hard to go to furry conventions when you can’t make rent."

"I haven't had healthcare since 2007," says O'Furr. "This is why Bernie is the guy. And Green New Deal also—if you talk about, well, what do furries have to do with politics? If you look at climate change, we are going to be losing so many habitats, so many species. It's going to affect everything that we do, everything that we eat, the places we live. We need a Green New Deal and to get off of fossil fuels."

Ideological Clashes and the Rise of Alt-Furries

Not all of the furry fandom, however, embraces social and environmental justice causes. In 2015, when the white nationalist movement began to gain mainstream traction during Donald Trump's presidential campaign, a scourge of neo-Nazism took hold among furries. A group called the Furry Raiders began wearing Nazi-esque uniforms and armbands over their fur suits at conventions.

In 2017, the Rocky Mountain Fur Con in Denver was cancelled over a controversy over the Furry Raiders that resulted in threats of violence. Eventually, the group's leader Foxler—real name Lee Miller—was exposed as an accused child predator, and currently awaits criminal trial for sex crimes in Colorado.

Deo, a 28-year-old union steelworker from Iowa (her fursona is a Tasmanian devil), has been one of the most active furries in the fight against hate groups within the fandom. She explains that the alt-right targets furries because of the large amount of socially awkward, young, alienated white men among them.

"Gamergate was sort of winding down [around 2015], and you had all these angry people who were semi-organized and realized anger had power," she says, referring to the online harassment campaign waged by gamers against women in the video game industry. "White nationalists saw the opportunity that you have a bunch of angry young men on the internet, and you can ply them with whatever kind of propaganda you want."

Doe the Tasmanian devil, a union steelworker from Iowa, has played a key role in exposing white nationalism within the furry fandom.
Doe the Tasmanian devil, a union steelworker from Iowa, has played a key role in exposing white nationalism within the furry fandom. (Courtesy of Deo)

As the alt-right movement grew after the 2016 election, its activists developed techniques for courting furries with animal-oriented racist media (including a baffling cover of a Lion King song with lyrics celebrating white supremacy that Deo discovered in an alt-furry chat). Deo and other anti-fascist furries began infiltrating alt-furry online groups to keep tabs on their plans for recruitment.

"Our events combat this alt-right push. A lot of conventions have banned their leadership," says Deo, adding that she's been doxxed and physically threatened for this work. "As far as I know of, every convention has banned hate paraphernalia. There’s a lot more community involvement now: people are aware, they’re talking about it, they’re looking out for each other."

With alt-right ringleaders like Milo Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter and no longer making frequent news headlines, the alt-furry movement has, too, somewhat receded into the shadows. Deo says she's been involved in restorative justice work to help de-radicalize those leaving hate groups.

"It can be one of the hardest subjects to tackle, especially when we're talking about getting people to realize the harm that they've committed," Deo says. "And then committing to making that change, taking that personal responsibility, and working on reintegration of those people into our community so they have community support and don't fall back into those groups."

A Wide Network Mobilizing for Super Tuesday

Dogpatch Press—which gets anywhere from 20,000–50,000 monthly views—helped chronicle the turmoil inside the fandom, with posts exposing leaked alt-furry chat logs and identifying an alt-furry who marched with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville in 2017.

More on arts and activism

And in addition to combating hate groups, Deo has been doing her part ahead of the election, too. She canvassed ahead of the Iowa caucus and helped organize a Sanders rally in her state. Now, she's sharing her experience for best practices for phone banking and knocking on doors with her furry friends across the country.

"People are in West Virginia or Ohio, and you can lend them help, too," she says. "Like, 'Hey, are you phone banking for Bernie? Here, I’ll get on my phone too and we can type on Discord chat together while we’re phone banking for these candidates.'"

The most surprising people can identify as furries, Deo says, like her cowboy friend from South Dakota who's a democratic socialist. And with their shared interests already formed, their political networks are strong and wide.

"Furries are everywhere," Deo explains. "We walk among you."

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