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November 26, 2011

I wish I could put my finger on it

Jaded FoxI wish I could put my finger on it

 

Josh Strom always loved foxes, but it wasn't until he became an adult that he started to imagine what it would be like to actually become one.

". There's just something about them that speaks to me," he tells me over coffee and a sandwich near his downtown San Francisco office, where he works as an IT guy for a media company. For the past 17 years, Strom has had an anthropomorphic alter-ego: Jaded Fox.

"He is six foot two, which is how tall I am. He's in his 30s, he has blue eyes and blond hair." Strom says, pointing to his blond ponytail and gentle blue eyes. "He's a nice guy to a fault. He offers his services when he shouldn't be because the people he's helping don't really deserve his help. He's gotten himself in trouble by doing this, which I myself have done a couple of times. He's definitely me. There's nothing fetishized about it. It's just me in a fox body." 

Strom is a furry — a subset of geeks who like to role play as fictional anthropomorphic characters with human traits. Furries are often portrayed as weirdos who dress up as animals for sex play. But Strom isn't here to tell me about costumes or kinks. He cautiously agreed to an interview with me because — as a 17-year veteran of the fandom — he wants to set the furry facts straight.

Fox Painting

Strom says that the fandom is not about sex at all, and that it's no different than communities of people obsessed with anime or superhero comics. "The furry fandom is just like any other group of like-minded individuals," Strom says. "It's like a tech nerd going to MacWorld." 

Ever since he was a little kid, Strom liked to draw pictures of animals that spoke — Bugs Bunny, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... and he was a big fan of Disney. As a teen, he volunteered as a fox cage maintenance guy at a wildlife reserve. "I was like, these are the coolest things ever," he says.

Many veteran furries credit their entrance into the fandom to Disney, specifically to the 1973 animated hit Robin Hood. Who could forget the savvy canine archer and his muse, foxy Maid Marion? "Every character in that movie is effectively a furry," Strom says. "They're all anthropomorphic animals." 

In college, Strom joined the furry fandom. He got a campus job as a lab admin, where he spent most of his time on Usenet. "I met a lot of people who were also interested in this stuff," he says. "It just made a lot of sense." That's where he discovered alt.fan.furry, a furry newsgroup.

"I backdoored into FurryMUCK through Disney use groups. It's basically a chat room that you telnet into. Combine Zork, the old Infocom text adventures, with World of Warcraft, and you get a MMO text-based game where you can write the room descriptions and build out stories. A lot of it has moved to Second Life, but I still have some characters there." Strom was also a theater major, so role-playing was a natural fit. "I found it invigorating and freeing."

The offline socializing among fur-fans started off as room parties at anime conventions; then, in 1989, some of the early adopters decided to hold their own event in Costa Mesa, California, which they called ConFurence Zero. People were already hosting weekend furry parties in their homes, but the early conventions proved that there was enough of a following to make these a regular occurrence. By the mid-90s, when Strom attended his first furry convention, hundreds were flocking to cities from Philadelphia to Essex to attend organized events where sold anthropomorphic art and fiction, congregated with fellow furries, and — on occasion — dressed up as bipedal animals. Today, there are dozens of furry conventions every year with some — like the esteemed Anthrocon — attracting nearly 3,000 people. 

But if the furry fandom truly is friendly and imaginative role-play, not a fetish, why do so many people see it that way? There were a few catalysts, according to Strom, and he becomes visibly upset to talk about them. "The early indiscretions of a few people" triggered a media frenzy early on that painted them as sex-crazed cosplayers, he explains. "They would go to other sci-fi and anime and comic conventions and look at anthropomorphic smut in public, or have loud conversations about, 'Boy I'd really like to hit this-or-that character from that random movie.'"

These miscreants were also quick to pipe up to the media, giving the outside world the wrong impression. Then there was the time when organizers of a certain unnamed furry conference advertised in BDSM magazines. "We started getting people who were like, this is a good place for us to go and meet swingers and get our jollies off! They put on costumes just to fit in and were only interested in the sex, not what the majority of us are actually there for." 

Or maybe it's simply that the world, especially the geek world, just needed an underdog. "People like to look down on someone else to make themselves feel better," Strom says. "That's just human nature."

Strom also mentions a  1994 Wired article and a 2001 Vanity Fair article, both of which he feels unfairly portrayed furries as freaks. After the latter was published, furry convention staff changed their media policies from to be more restrictive. On the Tyra Banks Show this past September, two furries appeared on a segment titled: "Does your sex life measure up to these guests?" The couple told Tyra about costumed sex ("There are strategically placed holes") and their plans to have a furry wedding. For most serious members of the fandom, was one of those horribly embarrassing incidents that forever marred the way their culture was perceived by the rest of us.

"We're interested in anthropomorphics," Strom says. "We go to conventions to hang out with friends, maybe buy something like art or badges, go to a discussion panel or see a show. Swinger parties and fetishes are there, but that's not what the fandom is about." 

In addition to his alter-ego Jaded Fox, Strom has dozens of characters that he role-plays with online — a gay weightlifting Florida panther, a medieval wolf assassin, a sexy Chinese vixen. "For me, the fandom is a hobby. It's also my creative outlet. Some people go home and sing. Some draw, some write. I create roles and work on characters."

 His latest concoction, still a work in progress, is a red fox with black hair wearing John Lennon glasses with a personality loosely based on Dave Tennant's Dr. Who. He admits to owning a jackalope fursuit but he only wears it to conventions and has never had sex in it. He also clarifies that he does not do this to escape reality ("I'm quite happy with my life"); he does not think that the Welsh Corgie that just walked past the restaurant window is sexy ("Bestiality is not furry. That's somebody that's sick"); and he does not look at real animals any differently than you or I ("Everyone wonders what animals are thinking").  

Like most geeks with hobbies, Strom and his furry friends seem to be able to distinguish between their real life and the imaginary world that they play in. Jaded Fox's parallel life is perhaps a tool of self-awareness and exploration. Strom tells me that Fox has evolved and matured since the early years, metamorphosing from gullible red fox to a witty kitsune. "The once-country bumpkin from Maine has turned into a lot more worldly character who can spot a con more likely than he could back in the day. It's been nearly 20 years, and as I've changed over those years, so has the character.

"I'm Josh. I'm an IT guy, I'm a video game geek, I'm a theater geek, and I'm furry. It's just one part of who

I wish I could put my finger on it   Josh Strom always loved foxes, but it wasn't until he became an adult that he started to imagine what it would be like to actually become one. ". There's just something about them that speaks to me," he tells me over coffee and a sandwich near his downtown San Fr ...»See Ya