On the appropriation of trans narratives by therianthropes

On the appropriation of trans narratives by therianthropes

I’ve never been active on otherkin forums so I cannot speak for otherkin and will only refer to the therian community. I’ll use citations a lot because I believe it is important to frame this article as part of a larger debate among therians (and beyond) about animal identity; I want those who have contributed to the discussions over the years to reclaim their stories and feel empowered by their participation, rather than let non-therians define instead of ourselves what we mean by the words we use.

Therianthropes are people who identify in part or whole as nonhuman animals; who feel they are some kind of nonhuman animal inside, instead of or along with being human. As I am writing this, there has been a lot of discussion on some websites about the differences and similarities between the transgender realm of experiences and therianthropy. This has been especially true on Tumblr, where a small part of the social justice community has reacted negatively at the use of words like “transspecies” and “species dysphoria”, calling it an appropriation of transgender terms and experiences.

I am writing this essay in order to summarize my views on the issue, and I speak from the perspective of a white, middle-class, neuroAtypical, transmasculine therianthrope with an anxiety disorder. I’m also a grad student in the social sciences but this isn’t a scientific paper; the answer to the question “why not?” is “because I have too much academic work on my plate already”. Beside, I’m not a native English-speaker.

For clarification: I use the term trans not as a short form for transsexual or transgender, but as an umbrella term also inclusive of genderqueer, gender fluid and other non-binary identities. I will refer to non-trans people as “cisgender” or “cis”, a term used to fight against the idea that trans people are abnormal and that “non-” should be the norm. Cis people are individuals whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.

First I want to dispel the myth that words such as “transspecies” and “species dysphoria” emerged from animal-people and otherkin dabbling in social justice on Tumblr. “Transspecies” can be traced back with certainty in the therian community to at least the late 90’s, when the famous social platform simply did not exist. Going through the archives of the usenet group Alt.Horror.Werewolves, the birthplace of modern therianthropy, you could read these comments:

There are many diverse individuals on this newsgroup who hold a link to therianthropy: the different kinds of shifters, the trans-species folks {animal in a human body}, and those like yourself with animalistic characteristics.

The Wind King, 1997, AHWw.

For many people, there is no separate “animal side,” they *are* the animal. […] Others within this category are “Transpecies” even “Transgenders” or both.  This is a case of “Oops, wrong body,” where said person feels they were intended to be born into a different existence, be it another species or another sex.

Jakkal, 1998, AHWw.

Before I did a search on the web, I didn’t know what words to use to explain my feelings. I used to use the term “transspecies”, taken from the term transgendered.

Red Dawg, 1999, AHWw.

I’m aware that some of these are simplistic explanations of what transness is and I address that point later, but it is interesting to note the early use of “transspecies” as one possible variation of therianthropy. Further indication that “transspecies” was in use before Tumblr can be found in other websites and news groups, as with the following citation – which by the way illustrates that some therians had already engaged discussions and critical thinking about the intersectionality between therianthropy and other subjects, namely ethnicity:

The community [ethnic_kin] is for the discussion of the intersections between ethnicity and Otherkinism, therianthropy, species dysphoria and transspeciesism. Anyone with deep interest in both is welcome to join.

Raki, 2004, LJ community “Therianthropy”

Body dysphoria is defined as the feeling of unhappiness, anxiety and discomfort with one’s body, and generally a symptom of a body dysmorphic disorder. Species dysphoria, then, can be understood as a type of body dysphoria/dysmorphia related to one’s physical species. Prior to the growth in popularity of the phrase “species dysphoria” in therian communities, there had been numerous statements relating to being an animal mind or soul “trapped in the wrong body”. A couple of examples:

I wake up every morning and face a form that does not feel like me.  I suppose it is bad enough for people who are too thin or too heavy – they can often remedy the problem with a change in diet.  It is worse for someone who finds themselves to be the wrong gender – there is surgery. What do you do if you think you are the wrong species?

Coyote Jack, 1994, AHWw

many of us again feel that we were born in the wrong body and were meant to be animals instead of humans [this is no more insane that the plight of your average transgender--they feel they were born in the body of the wrong gender]

Windigo the Feral, 1996, AHWw

Likewise, the results of a 1995 AHWw survey were reposted by Ashikaa; they indicated that out of 25 participants, 28% felt they were “born into the wrong body”. In 1997, 56 answered the poll and, according to Utlah, 50% said “Yes” when asked about being born in the wrong body.

Because people have lacked the language to describe their therianthropic experience to others, the parallel with trans narratives has offered a way to better explain therianthropy to those not familiar with the concept. It would be tempting to assume that therians who use this terminology are appropriative of trans stories and leave it at that, but things are not as simple.

First we need to define appropriation: generally understood as cultural appropriation, it is the taking of cultural expressions, beliefs or artifacts from an usually marginalized group by a more privileged collective or individual. Frequently, it involves the misunderstanding and misuse of terms and practices that are taken outside their contexts.

To demonstrate that therianthropes are appropriating trans narratives, we would need to prove that therians constitute a privileged and distinct group from trans people; and that they are misunderstanding the language they’re using. Outside of the fact that this is taking therians as one homogeneous group with no intersectionality with other issues whatsoever, it is overlooking something essential: the fact that trans people themselves have always been present in the community. Windigo, quoted above and one of the people who used “transspecies” the most frequently in the archives of AHWw, defined himself as “a windigo–a male windigo at that–in a female human body”.

I’ve corresponded for years through LiveJournal, Dreamwidth and other sites with a good number of trans therians like myself, among which Liesk (author on “The Marsh”), Ozen (who owned the domain name “tranimal.net”), or Merf (aka “Mamma bear”). Quil, whom I got to know in 2004, also is one of us; on an essay no longer available on his website he wrote:

My mindset is a mix of leopard and human. Physically, however, I am human and only human. Maintaining my leopard instincts in a human world is a tricky thing. A therianthrope/were/transspecies/animal person is human plus animal. Most people aren’t.

Quil, 2004, in “Two Viewpoints”.

Emphasis is mine. Here we can see “transspecies” as one of several valid alternatives for “therianthrope”. I too suggested that “therianthropes could be called transpecies” (sic) in a 2005 comment on LJ. We’ve also suggested body dysphoria as an experience distinctive of some people’s therianthropy:

That evidence, though, doesn’t say to us “This person is really an [insert animal here.]” That evidence says merely “This person really does act like an animal, and probably really does think like one, too.” You take that evidence, and you take your body dysphoria, and you can prove therianthropy. Not scientifically, certainly not, but you can prove it to yourself.

Quil, 2006, in “Animality Defined”.

And because Liesk had already eloquently addressed the issue of language in defining who and what we are, I feel it is important to remember his contribution to the larger debate:

I can describe a male as having XY chromosomes, testosterone as the dominant sexual hormone, and possessing both primary and secondary male sex characteristics. But this cannot begin to describe what a man is, how a man is different from a boy, what the nature of masculinity is, and the various ways in which male-identified people, in all of the bodies and sexes they come in, regard themselves and their gender. As a male whose body nowhere near fits the physiological, hormonal or genetic criteria, I must seek the latter interpretation. This again falls prey to the question of language and how it applies to the real world. If gender is a construct, to what degree can we allow it to affect our lives, and how can be build sexual identities as human beings that bring us fulfillment and (here it is again) a sense of self?

There is little here that does not apply to being animal inside as well. Since we are clearly not physically the animals we feel we are, we must look to redefine our approach to animalness and species. How we approach this, in fact, gives further definition to who we are.

Liesk, 2006, “Seeking the Self and (Hardly) Making Sense of It”

Since the 2000’s, trans and genderqueer therians seem to have become increasingly more present and visible than in the general population. In a 2011 poll about sexual orientation and gender identity on the Werelist – one of the most popular therian boards – where multiple choices were allowed, out of 148 voters nearly 19% said they were “Gender Fluid”, above 7% identified as “Transgender” (the category included both MtF and FtM transgenders and transsexuals), while over 16% of participants voted “Other Gender Identity” (some individuals, for instance, identified as neutrois, bigender and more).

Trans animal-people are real. We had been exploring animality and gender through art and writings since long before Tumblr’s social justice warriors found out about therianthropes and tried to teach us what being trans is about.

Back to the “realness” of therianthropy and species dysphoria, about fifty people answered a 2013 poll by Jarandhel on the Werelist that asked “do you experience significant, regular depression or discontent due to your body being human?”; 56% of replies were positive. A genderqueer participant pointed out that the data may be skewed because there was no option in the poll for “experience species dysphoria but not depression”, which is what would better match his and some others’ experience. Several individuals reported that they did not feel depressed per se but that they felt disoriented by their human body and its “mapping”.

Not every therian experiences species dysphoria, feels like they were born in the wrong body, or would modify their appearance to look more like their theriotype; not everyone identifies as “transspecies” either. But the data gathered when therians are asked about how comfortable their are with their human body also depends on how the question is phrased and not solely on the diversity of individual experiences.

Whether it was worded in terms of species dysphoria, “true form” or “wrong body” narratives, one topic that has been debated over and over again since AHWw has been that of surgery and body modifications to make oneself more comfortable with their human body or look like their theriotype:

So far, I’ve three tattoos and one pierced ear. Both the tattoos and piercing have special meaning for me, related to my wereness […] Would I get other, more radical body modifications, if they were someday possible? Fangs, claws, real fur? Heck yeah. Sign me up now. :)

KatmanDu, 1997, AHWw

Yes, it would be cool to have things like dog-like ears, pointy teeth, claws, etc. etc. But until I could get over my twitchiness around plastic surgery, and until I could be absolutely guarenteed of zero further health problems from the surgery, I would never do it.

Dinogrrl, 2003, LiveJournal community “Therianthropy”

Personally, I suffered from severe depression related to [therianthropy] for about 30 years, and at times stood home from work because of it. I never thought about surgery, though, because even if that were remotely possible it would be inadequate compared to actually being in an animal form. [...] I’ve learned to cope better as I got older [...] I can’t think about that all the time or I will be depressed and dysfunctional.

Claycat, 2009, the Werelist

in my case, if physical transitioning was possible for therians and I had the chance to do it, I’d think about it logically and decide not to. I’m sort of the therian equivalent of genderfluid, so a permanent transition isn’t going to help much. […] But some therians would give anything to transition and never look back.

Blue Sloth, 2012, Susans.org (transgender resources, in “Comparing Therianthropy to Being Transgender for Illustrative Purposes”)

Similarly to what is found among trans people, the wish for surgery may be moderated by other factors such as potential health issues, how realistic it would look, and whether or not one would actually have the body of the “real” thing [species, gender] after physical transition – and that isn’t even delving into monetary concerns, though a lot of time people did not discuss potential costs of species surgery and such as, because they were highlighting the lack of medical options in the first place.

Unlike with people who are transgender, there is no transition that I can go through, no injections, no surgeries, no real help to turn to. […] There are no therapists dedicated to species dysphoria, no organizations, no medical or other mental help doctors or facilities. It feels like you are completely and utterly alone.

Anuolf, 2009, the Werelist

Individual experiences may differ from one another. Animal-people may use “dysphoria” to cover a wide range of realities, from severe depression and suicidal thoughts to the more fleeting feelings of discontentment with one’s species – but trans people are no different in that regard, sometimes mentioning dysphoria as a core component of their transness, sometimes simply talking of days they feel more or less “dysphoric”. I’ve seen people claim that therians can’t experience dysphoria because identifying as another species “is not possible”, because it is “stupid” – but this is no argumentation. A more adequate question maybe would be, are “species” entirely outside of the realm of social constructs and personal identity?

There seems to be a general agreement nowadays that gender is a construct, while sex is a neutral fact of nature (and, likewise, species) – but the truth is, what constitutes a “sex” has been subjected to as much socio-historical variations as “gender”. At times, male and female bodies were considered part of a same spectrum, at times they were considered to be two distinct species. Concerning today’s medical practice, it is as much arbitrary to decide that sex organs measuring under 0.9cm must be female and those above 2 or 2.5cm must be male. What about everything that falls in-between? Other categories of individuals are completely dismissed; it is difficult to argue that science is being objective and factual on this matter.

Pushing the idea further and as a provocative paper, Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote “The Five Sexes” to question the idea that only two sexes would be biologically correct (indeed, the existence of many forms of intersex variations show the wide range of natural occurrences of other sexes than the traditional male and female). Obviously, the author was not advocating for an actual revision of science from two to five sexes – but her proposal was meant as food for thoughts.

Likewise, species is not an issue that is solely biological either. It has been discussed whether chimpanzees and bonobos should actually be classified within the human genus Homo, seeing that they share 98% of their DNA with us (99,4% in another study). Conversely, some scientists have argued for the inclusion of humans in the Pan genus. However, the inclusion of other types of hominoids in the same genus as humans would force us to reconsider what exactly is “human” – as for now a human is defined as a member of our genus “Homo” – with consequences both on how we classify our extinct ancestors and on whether human rights should be applied to other species.

We should also keep in mind that in the past the humanity of some people was denied and some groups were considered closer to nonhuman animals than humans. What constitutes “humanity” has been subject of centuries of philosophical debates, and the boundaries defining “human” has always been rather blurry and shifting depending not only on scientific progress but also on cultural and historical contexts.

There was a time where gender dysphoria and the desire to alter one’s sex was considered a delusion, which justified the use of intensive prolonged psychotherapy to supposedly “cure” trans people. I don’t think we should dismiss too quickly the experiences of a category individuals just because it pushes further than our usual boundaries. It’s important to acknowledge how serious and undermining species dysphoria can get for the people who experience it; it is not a mere whim:

I feel an overwhelming desire to be my theriotype physically. […] It is extremely debilitating, with it affecting my every day life. There has been days where I can’t do anything more than sit and mope or sob uncontrollably. I’ve played hooky from work more for my species dysphoria than I have for an actual illness […] It feels like a horrible joke is being played on me.

Anuolf, 2009, the Werelist

Being otherkin caused me extreme dysphoria and contributed greatly to my depression as a teenager. I do feel it affects every aspect of my life. It’s fundamental to who I am. I really do feel like I fake being human (and I’m not very good at it). Meanwhile, I had strong feelings about my gender only twice during my teens (including 18-19) which is… confusing… I do have dysphoria now, but I’ve gotten more used to it.

Edge, 2012, Susans.org (transgender resources, in “Comparing Therianthropy to Being Transgender for Illustrative Purposes”)

i just feel physically sick and awful because my body needs to look like that. my hands need to be talons. my hair needs to be feathers. and i want it to be realistic. […] just, fuck you all, THIS IS A FUCKING MEDICAL CONDITION for me, it does negatively affect my quality of life, i don’t care if it looks fucking stupid to you or you “grew out of wanting to be an animal when you were 5”, i don’t give a fuck because whether it looks stupid or not, THIS IS WHAT I FUCKING NEED.

ninmenjuushin, 2012, on Tumblr

We’ve seen that not only a part of the therian community seems to genuinely experience feelings of dysphoria/dysmorphia regarding their animal identity, but many animal-people actually have a first-hand experience of gender dysphoria or trans identity as well. Claiming that the therians who discuss their animality in terms of transspeciesism are appropriating trans accounts of selfhood actually is erasing the existence of trans therians and silencing their voices.

I am tired of being denied the right to compare my experiences of being trans and therian together, especially when it is argued by people who aren’t both in the first place. If they don’t experience both conditions, no legit comparison can be made. At the same time, I also want to warn against trans therians who play the gatekeepers for all of us: there is no single answer to the question “is being trans like being therian”. For some trans therians, the experience is similar in some respects; for certain others, the two have nothing to do together. There is no consensus between us because it depends on individuals, therefore there is no definite answer on the subject.

I’m going to paraphrase myself from an earlier essay, but I think one of the problems in this debate about the use of gender metaphors to discuss animality, is that people have started equating being trans with being gender experts. Only, everybody has an experience of gender identity and can say for themselves if they feel dysphoric or not. It is perfectly okay for cis animal-people to say “I don’t experience significant dysphoria regarding my anatomical sex, I identify with the gender I was assigned, but that’s the point: I feel it is the opposite for my animal identity, like I was assigned a species in the social sense and it does not match”.

Some people have felt offended by the concept of therianthropy and “transspeciesism” because they have failed to make an important distinction: there is a difference between drawing parallels between two abstracts concepts like animality and gender on one hand, and on the other comparing the social reality of trans and therians together. There is no arguing that trans people face specific forms of oppression, including institutionalized ones, and that it does not mirror the experience of therianthropes as these have no public recognition (which doesn’t mean that therians never get trashed for being different, either). However the concept of gender does not belong to trans people specifically; what belongs to trans people are their own identities and struggles.

So to summarize: equating the struggles of trans people with that of therians is problematic; comparing gender identity and animality is usually fine; comparing trans experiences and therian ones are okay if one is both trans, therian and not making generalizations about others.

Regarding the debate on the “appropriation” of dysphoria by animal-people… again trans non-therians do not own the term and have no right to command who can and can’t use it. A couple of pertinent quotes:

I’m trans, human, and you’re a stupid fucking asshole.  Stop trying to “protect” my identity.  If trans people are so fucking bent out of shape by others saying “dysphoria” maybe let them step up to the plate and talk about why, because I’m looking at the word saying dys- means “bad or ill” and phoria “bear, bearing, to carry” not, “A word trans people use to describe themselves hands the fuck off.”

bestthrowawayevah, 2013, on Tumblr

the term “dysphoria” is used in a wide range of communities, not just in terms of gender […] The eating disorder community uses it a lot, along with the lesser known “body dysmorphia,” and so does the body positive movement and even some communities that don’t use it to refer to identity so much as a feeling of displacement.

Khamaseen, 2013, on Dreamwidth.

Beside body dysphoria, “species identity” is commonly found in therian narratives. In my 2004 introduction to therianthropy, I defined therianthropes as “people whose species identity does not match their biological body.” On BeingLion.com, Kusani – who defines herself as a “human-male cat-female weird-ass genderfuck” – used the metaphor as well in her own “Introduction to Animality” (2009). In my 2006 writing “Animal-people Folklore”, I wrote about the invisibility of other-than-human existences in society: “[individuals] can call themselves gender-variant, but species-variant people don’t exist. We all are homo sapiens and there is no word for species identity, and no pronoun for animals.” My more recent articles mention the concept as well, and Liesk has been using it since at least 2005:

Like I’ve said before, I identify with each of my species — I identify with humans, I identify with deer, and I identify with canines, individually. But they have to be together to represent my species identity. “Canis dichotomus sapiens” works for me because it shows them together. They’re ‘ingredients’ of the whole here.

Liesk, 2005, in a LJ comment; emphasis mine.

Outside of the therian community, at least one research paper has used “species identity” before, concerning the furry community:

Furries are humans interested in anthropomorphic art and cartoons. […] Dichotomous responses (“yes” or “no”) to two key furry-identity questions (“do you consider yourself to be less than 100% human” and “if you could become 0% human, would you”) produced a two-by-two furry typology. […] One-quarter of the furry sample answered “yes” to both questions [...] This type of furry has certain characteristics paralleling gender-identity disorder. To explore this parallel, the furry typology, and the proposed construct of “Species Identity Disorder” needs further research.

K. C. Gerbasi, N. Paolone, J. Higner, L. L. Scaletta, P. L. Bernstein, S. Conway, and A. Privitera, “Furries from A to Z (Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism)”, Society and Animals 16, 2008

It should be noted that some furries actually identify as therians, and conversely some therians participate in the furry fandom. Furry and therianthropy are not one and the same, however. Although the paper did not mention “species dysphoria” specifically, “species identity disorder” is very reminiscent of the idea.

Of course species dysphoria is generally not acknowledged as a mental illness in the DSM, and claiming to have species dysphoria would be considered self-diagnosis. I could argue that some therians have sought therapy for a reason or another and told their therapist they identify as animals; and that some of these professionals labelled the experience naturally as “species dysphoria” or “transspeciesism”. This is true, but I don’t want to go that road.

The DSM actually does not meet unanimous approval from professionals or from the “mentally ill”. Many transgender activists have asked for the removal of the transgender condition from the psychiatric nomenclatures, as it is not a mental illness. As a transman, I’ve fought for the right to decide for myself who and what I am without being subjected to the authority of a self-proclaimed expert. I knew I was trans before any doctor told me their opinion on the matter; it is not because at some point of history trans people appeared in the DSM that we are real. I didn’t need anyone to tell me what my gender identity is, and I’m certainly not going to help doctors own the right of labeling myself and other therians as species dysphoric.

No matter how rare “species dysphoria” is in the scientific literature, it is useful to us therians to describe a set of experiences and feelings. Why would some cisgender and trans people claim that trans identities are not a mental illness, that only trans people have the right to label themselves as trans, and yet use the diagnostic of gender dysphoria to assert gender-variant people as more real than therianthropes? This is quite a paradox.

It is very important to remember that if trans people had not used self-determination and self-diagnosis in the 50-60’s and on, insisting to their doctors that they would need hormones and surgery to get better, then they would certainly not have had results. For people who want to know more about this, I strongly advise to read Meyerowitz’s book “How Sex Changed – A History of Transsexuality in the United States”. If trans identities have become more legitimate and accepted, it is because trans people themselves and their allies (among which a few doctors but not only) actually have fought for it against the will of the global medical community.

So is self-diagnosis necessarily problematic? I don’t believe it is. As Tsu – author of the writing “Birdtistic” on having autism and being a swan – has put it, “do some people make mistakes in self-diagnosis? Of course, but a lot of doctors make mistakes in diagnosis too”.

What is problematic with the “wrong body” narrative of trans people is that it has become mandatory to deliver in order to gain access to physical transition, because it is the story doctors want to hear, assuming that all trans-people experience dysphoria and trans identity the same way. Likewise, one issue with applying “species dysphoria” and the “wrong body” accounts of animality to therianthropy would be if it becomes the only legitimate way to experience it – but so far people have usually insisted on the fact that neither species dysphoria nor some other experiences such as shifting are mandatory to be labelled a therian.

I believe that the growing number of visible trans therians in the 2000’s and on, with their alternative accounts of animal identity, have helped in some respect the larger therian community to explain their therianthropy more in terms of identity and perceptive experiences, instead or along with other explanations such as the spiritual ones (simultaneously, the visibility of neuroAtypical therians and the discussions on atypical neurobiology also played their part). While there had been infrequent uses of parallels with gender identity since the apparition of the online therian community, they remained isolated cases; terms like “species dysphoria” and such did not gain that much popularity until trans therians and their allies became more visible and vocal in discussion groups and personal websites. More and more, non-trans therians have found this framework relevant for therianthropy and have too used the language of gender (and of social justice) to discuss therian matters.

Never has this exploration of animal identity threatened trans people and our access to health care*. Therianthropes simply do not have the power and means to discredit trans identities. Rather, it is non-therians who have repeatedly tried to discredit therian identities, claiming that they are ridiculous and worthless by presenting the concept of therianthropy as insulting to other minorities (who “struggle with real issues” sic). The logic here would be that therianthropy is not a real phenomenon; but we saw it is. The actual issue is people trying to be gatekeepers about who can experience what and what is real, making up hierarchies.

*Of course I’m aware there has been one conservative article written about transspecies and transgenders mocking the two, and it could be argued that therianthropy is used as a way to criticize transgender people and their supporters. However with an examination of the rhetoric used I think it is clear that it is not the existence of therianthropes that caused such hostile view of trans people, and folks have not waited for therian visibility to dismiss “gender theory” entirely. More importantly, history should have taught us that the right answer to the hate of minority groups has never been the hate of more marginal minority groups.