From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics

Like a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings, "Eric Draven" used to keep a Tumblr. The microblogging platform has a strong community aspect, and it's easy to find people who like the same things — or are undergoing the same struggles — as you. There aren't many people undergoing the exact same struggles as Draven (a pseudonym taken from goth classic The Crow), though: unlike most teenagers and 20-somethings, Draven isn't, he claims, human. He might present as human, yes, but really he's a "fictive and otherkin who, in previous lives, has been a Deku Scrub and a dark elf." He's also "transethnic(Japanese) and andrognous [sic]."

What does this mean? An otherkin is a being born into the wrong body. Not just with the wrong parts, but as the wrong species: people who identify as otherkin believe that they are a wolves, or elves, or really any kind of being, born into a human body. (Furries, who focus on anthropomorphic animals and are known for dressing up, aren't the same thing as otherkin, many of whom don't dress up or change their appearances at all.) A fictive is like an otherkin where the true, internal identity is a fictional character — deku scrubs are tiny creatures from The Legend of Zelda series of video games. Transethnicity is this same phenomenon applied to ethnicity.

Draven, in other words, is a Japanese wood creature from The Legend of Zelda who was born into the body of a regular white kid.

The community of people who identify as otherkin is more than 30 years old (the term itself dates to 1990), but over the last decade or so, it's undergone an interesting shift, one that's put it in the spotlight and made it one of the most controversial communities on a number of online social networks — not just Tumblr, but Live Journal and the message board TV Tropes. Where the first generation of otherkin, birthed in the post-60s hippies-read-Lord of the Rings rise of nerd-dom (not coincidentally, the same psychic space that birthed phone phreaking and, in turn, computer hacking), seemed to align along the crystal-healing-Elfquest-comics axis of outsider subcultures — less about a biological or psychological identification than a kind of mystical or poetic connection — this new set of otherkin (or those claiming to be otherkin) has grafted the academic language of identity politics and social justice activism onto their experiences. In doing so, they've transformed what Nick Mamatas' 2001 Village Voice story, "Elven Like Me," saw as a kind of new-age Burning Man-style subculture into a semi-politicized identity group. (For more on the early history of otherkin here's a fascinating, extensively documented and footnoted "Otherkin Timeline".)

Being otherkin, to this group, isn't just about resisting technology or being in touch with nature (though these, and other fantasy and new age elements, still form a large part of otherkin culture) — it's about being marginalized, ignored, laughed at, and oppressed. It's like being transgender. And as this otherkin group has transformed its language and its focus, so too has its scope widened. Otherkin identities can encompass fictional characters. Or nonliving, inanimate objects. Or even multiple identities — some fictional, some animal, all of them occupying a single body. Out of this widening comes new words: cisspecies. Transethnicity. Transablism. Transfat.

The Best of Tumblr.TXT

"trans privilege is having sex reassignment surgery be a real thing, while nowhere offers 'species reassignment surgery' for otherkin" — 7/21/12

"You know what? The fact that I identify as a member of an alien species from a webcomic is the least of my problems" — 7/13/12

"this kind of gets my goat(sorry goatkin)" — 8/15/12

"if somebody does genuinely identify as a pizza, then yes, that identity is valid" — 7/4/12

"My parents don't understand that I'm not always in control of my body. A toddler and a flying dog CANNOT do work intended for an adult human" — 7/27/12

"when privileged folks feel the need to talk about their offline and local friends, there is a problem. that's bigoted against cyberculture" — 7/8/12

"[re: otherkin oppression] i would most certainly be denied a job in most if not all places, especially if i meowed" — 7/28/12

"When you limit us to only 250 posts/day you will find that you have gone too far in your autocratic methods of controlling your bloggers" — 8/10/12

Tumblr, which has a huge, passionate social justice community — thousands of people interested in feminism, gay rights, trans rights and other interrelated issues — is a natural fit for this group of otherkin. (Other, similar communities exist on LiveJournal and the TV Tropes message boards.) Like other Tumblr users who are members of marginalized groups, otherkin start their own blogs and write about their identities and the axieties and injustices of daily life (one says she was fired for being otherkin, others talk about coming out to their friends and family). They trade support and sympathy. And they fight with people who don't buy it — more often than not, people who they think should be broadly sympathetic to their goals.

"If you follow any blogs that have anything to do with leftism, feminism, etc., there's probably someone that's going to reblog someone else that feels the need to pay lip service to people who identify as inanimate objects," the guy behind Tumblr.TXT, a Twitter account dedicated to reproducing some of the site's most outlandish claims, told me over email. (He asked not to be identified by name: "I'm mocking people who belong in insane asylums and don't want to end up being tortured in a basement by people in fox costumes.")

As anyone who spent time at a liberal-arts college knows, communities oriented around openness and acceptance can have trouble figuring out exactly where the boundaries are. "The relationship between legitimate social justice activists and delusional weirdos is ever-changing and gives fascinating insights into how activist communities work," Tumblr.TXT says. There's a sharp division between the activists who believe their ethical and ideological commitments require them to accept to be open to any professed identity — and those who think that in the absence of structural oppression, cisgendered white people claiming to be gay Korean cats aren't just playing fantasy games but also undermining the strength of the movement by taking it to a bizarre conclusion.

It's an interesting argument. (For the record, I admire the balls it takes to claim that distinctions between species, or between fiction and non-, are socially-constructed in the same way gender is.) But it's also kind of a moot point. A search of the "otherkin" or "transethnicity" tags on Tumblr reveals a lot more social justice bloggers complaining about otherkin than actual otherkin. The Tumblr otherkin subculture is pretty small, and seems to be made up mostly of teenagers and 20-somethings who, if they'd never read bell hooks, would be casting spells in the woods behind the 7-11. Some of them are clearly sick or hurt in other ways: Kavita, whose legendarily long list of identity categories listed her as "human privileged for all of the following: nonhuman, non/human, otherkin, furry, cat, catkin, catperson, catbeing, cathuman, humancat, cat, ostricat, catostrich," deleted her Tumblr earlier this week and wrote "I'm not really okay, but I'm trying to get help and figure things out and be better."

And then there are the trolls. "I've seen people identifying as tubes of toothpaste or as Eva Braun, but you never know if you're looking at an elaborate troll," says Tumblr.TXT. "Tumblr user prince-koyangi, a 16-year-old Canadian white girl who identified as a Korean cat, turned out to be a troll account co-run by three people. They had me convinced it was a real person and a lot of transethnic otherkin pledged their support as the character got bombarded with anonymous messages accusing her of being a delusional racist. There really is no limit to what people are willing to accept as a valid identity and that makes it hard to determine which accounts are real."

"Eric Draven," I'm pretty sure, is real; he has a long, uniquely weird history across several different sites, and has posted pictures of himself. He's one of the Tumblr's (and TV Tropes') most notorious otherkin, and a figure of controversy even within the unbelievably tolerant otherkin community. (His entry on AnOtherWiki, the otherkin wiki, writes that he "has attracted significant negative attention to the community.") Draven claimed to be a pedophile (but said he'd never act on his attraction to young girls "unless I was warped to some anime world where lolis [Lolitas] totally had sex all the time or something"), for a while insisted that he'd fought in the Sino-Japanese war as a kobold (a kind of goblin), and apparently told people that a classmate, Stephanie, was the reincarnation of a "willing slave" he'd taken in a past life.

When I first came across Draven a few months ago, I emailed him several times in the hopes he'd answer some questions. He never responded. (Neither did many of the otherkin I asked to interview.) Last month, he took down his blog; what's left of it is mostly text snippets scattered across Tumblr in the posts of people yelling at him for being an antisocial or stupid or misogynist. Which he was. But like a lot of Tumblr users, he's also young, and silly, and stupid. When you feel like your identity, or your life projects, are under attack, it's easy lash out disproportionately. But Draven mostly just seemed like a weird kid. "I no longer believe I am a kobold or time elemental. Rather, I think I am a fictive who's lived multiple lives, and certain things from those lives were in my subconscious and gave me the ideas I previously had," he wrote in July. "I feel so silly. I am not yet entirely sure…"


A Field Guide to Otherkin on Tumblr

Otherkin
Definition: An otherkin is someone born into the wrong body. Not just slightly wrong, like a few wrong body parts, but completely wrong: into the wrong species entirely. Therians, an otherkin subgroup, for example, are wolves born into human bodies, but the scope is fairly wide; some people identify not just as non-human but non-animal, or even as inanimate objects, natural and unnatural. That being said, "[t]he mechanism for a non-human soul ending up in a human body is supposedly random," a popular, anonymously-written glossary reads, "but people always seem to end up with an animal or mythical creature heavily featured in TV shows and video games."
Quote: "I'd been awakened as a therian for almost three years and I had gotten my first job at the local superstore. [...I was exhausted and] I experienced strong feelings of fight or flight, which resulted in some vocalizations, particularly growling and snarling, and a stooped, digitigrade posture as I continued to fight with myself as best I could internally to regain my composure and finish my job (I was just too tired to fight my instincts). It really felt like my human mask was crumbling through my fingers. [...] I told [my manager] about my nonhuman identity and the basics of what shifting is [...]. She didn't really ask me any questions about it, but gave a look that I can only interpret as an 'I'm not so sure you're well' look, and then she suggested to me that maybe this job wasn't the right one for me.'" — Not Quite There

From Otherkin to Transethnicity: Your Field Guide to the Weird World of Tumblr Identity Politics
"Me in my full form. I think it turned out fairly good." [from Le Maison de Violettes]

Fictive
Type: Fictives are like otherkin, but their true identity is a fictional character, often from a series of fantasy novels or a Japanese role-playing game.
Quote: "This is a blog about what I feel and experience as a fictive singlet (‘singlet' as in not a headmate; it's just me here). [...] anyone wanting my personal definition or education as to what ‘fictive' means to me will only be redirected to this page. (It's a term that I dislike; ‘out-sourced' is acceptable but doesn't feel right either and is less well-known. If I did choose a label, it would probably be ‘mediakin'.) Whatever you want to call it, I am a person who identifies as Orihara Izaya of the light-novel/anime/manga series Durarara!! despite it being a ‘work of fiction'." — Heads or Tails?

Multiple Systems
Type: "Multiple systems" is the phrase used by people who believe their body contains more than one identity — several human identities, or several otherkin identities, or a mix. Often their Tumblrs are written from several different accounts, each one representing that particular identity.
Quote: "We refer to ourselves as Raychel's Library. We all share an otherspace called The Library! My front is a cisgendered female who shares a queerplatonic bond with her soul partner, Starrkat, who is also a multiples system. My system currently includes 3 members: Raychel (my lovely front!), Tonban (an older, wise, cisgendered male merkin… We turn to him for advice all the time), Asbiorn Snorrason (a genderfluid male-bodied Norse peasant, who is sometimes possessed by Loki. Ze's typically quite mild-mannered, but occasionally the impish Trickster god comes out to play!)." — Le Maison des Violettes

Transethnicity, Transablism, Transfat
Type: Transethnic describes people whose race is "wrong" in the same way that a transgender person's biological sex is "wrong." Transablism and transfatism describe the same identity formation for ability and, uh, size.
Quote: "since a plethora of individuals have produced questions on the legitimacy of my identification (whom the majority are ironically claiming to be post-constructionists), i intend for this to give you all a better insight into my identification as a "black woman". [...] in this case, the pre-englightenment philosopher rene descartes statement 'cogito ergo sum', "i think, therefore i am", is an important contributing factor to my identification, aided with internal feelings of belonging and similarity." — Black Women Values

Demisexual
Type: Demisexuals are people who cannot feel sexual attraction to someone until they have an emotional connection with that person.
Quote: "They will likely never understand where we come from because they don't know what it's like to be demisexual. I know everyone experiences sexuality differently, but for me, I have only ever been sexually attracted to one person in my entire life. And even then, it took a hell of a long time to develop, and a LOT more than just us having a few nice conversations and sharing a couple of things in common. Does that sound normal to you? Does the fact that, no matter what ANYONE looks like, I will never be able to find them physically sexually attractive in the least?" — My Life as a Teenage Fantroll

Soulbonding
Type: In the words of Soulbonding.net, "soulbonds are souls that are not your own with whom you either share your own mind or interact with mentally in some way." In practice, soulbonds are a lot like otherkin and fictives and multiple systems with a less of a commitment — your soulbonds aren't you, they're just... souls.
Quote: "I'm perfectly sane, not possessed by any "fairy tale" beings that I know of. Perhaps you should read some of my earlier posts. First of all, I use the word "soulbond" because I don't like explaining. Second of all, my primary soulbond is Layne Staley. I trust you've heard of him. And I have evidence to back it up. [...] For about three years now, I've been a latent fan of Alice in Chains. Had "Dirt", never really listened to it much. Until about a year ago, that is. About a year ago, I was looking for something to listen to, and I saw "Dirt". Now, at the time, I knew about six Alice in Chains songs. Rooster, Angry Chair, Them Bones, Man in the Box, Down in a Hole, and What the Hell Have I. I put the CD in my player, and listened to 13 tracks of grungy goodness. I knew every song. Same thing with Unplugged. And the self-titled release. And Jar of Flies. And now Facelift. I know every song Alice in Chains has released, most of them before I'd even heard them. Not to mention the fact that I cried when I heard the news about him passing on. Of course, there is more. There's always more. The number 19 is significant to me. And I was born exactly six months, to the day, away from Layne's birthday. The only difference was the year. And how old was Layne when I was born? 19. Not to mention the fact that I've been told I sound like him, just with a deeper speaking voice. My natural singing voice is roughly the same as his. And let's not forget my favorite thing. Reality is subjective." — Gaia Online

Corrections: An earlier version of this article referred to deku scrubs as "elves" and kobolds as "fairies." In fact, deku scrubs are "essentially tree people" and kobolds are "weird little goblin things." We regret the error.

[thanks to @Arr and @TumblrTXT for their help]

Image by Jim Cooke.