When she was 9 or 10 years old, Jessie read a book that would change her life forever: Julie of the Wolves, a story about a young girl who bonds with a wolf pack to survive in the Alaskan tundra. It precipitated Jessie's realization that she identified as a wolf herself.
"I could certainly see a case being made that I latched on to wolves because of some difficult times in my life," Jessie told me. "I saw family in them, I saw protection and familiarity, and I saw an escape from what I was dealing with in my life."
Plenty of kids are obsessive, but for Jessie, her love of wolves became a lifestyle and a spiritual experience, including "phantom shifts," or episodes where she felt the physical characteristics of being a wolf.
"I would prowl my room late at night as a wolf, usually when I was restless or agitated. This was comforting to put myself into another place. Whether this is mental or spiritual, I don't really know. I still do a version of this to this day, and I know it's felt like both. I'm diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety, and there are many days where putting myself in 'wolf mind' helps to relax me."
In day-to-day life, 22-year-old Jessie, a college graduate who's worked as a receptionist and in a casino, is relatively open about her wolf identity. It's not something she shares with her coworkers, but she's out to her close friends and boyfriend, and sometimes she wears a tail to the mall.
She is a member of the "otherkin" community, a term used by people who identify as nonhuman, either in a spiritual sense or in terms of genuine physical dysphoria.
'Deal with it'
As that old New Yorker cartoon puts it, "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But for some people, the opposite is true. If you truly believe that you're not human, people on the internet will probably be the first to know. That's where the term "otherkin" first sprang up in the early '90s, in quiet little online culs-de-sac dedicated to those who believed they were dragons and elves. To someone who thinks of him- or herself as otherkin, the issue is one not of mental illness but of freedom of expression.
Adalen identifies as "not fully human." He has an affinity for dragons that dates back to early childhood. "You'll usually see two different ways people begin to identify," Adalen explained to me in an email. "A common one, including my own path, is that you've always known yourself to be different and usually had an affinity for an animal. They might come across the idea of otherkin and realize they are not alone. Other times, they might have a sudden spiritual experience or revelation that leads them to the conclusion that they are otherkin."
These ideas are reflected in accounts I've read online and from other people I contacted for this article. "I don't remember any point in my life where I didn't feel a sort of awareness of my self that was different or other than my body," said Miniar, an Icelandic otherkin. "I guess I assumed everyone had that sort of a thing, where they felt as if they had a tail or as if they could move their ears more than the physical ears would move, or generally felt as if they weren't the same as their body." Many otherkin report feeling the sensation of phantom limbs or tails.
"I have a memory from about the age of 10, of looking out at the stars and wondering which one I came from, as I knew I 'wasn't from around here,'" said Sade Wolfkitten, who bonded with her ex-husband over a shared interest in a group called the Elf Queen's Daughters, an early community of elf-kin who emerged from the 1970s hippie movement. They are still namechecked on otherkin timelines and various commemorative websites.
Wolfkitten came up through otherkin mailing lists in the early '90s, but, she added, "I stopped being active online a good 10 years ago. I don't have much contact at all with any sort of formal community at this point, nor would I particularly want to."
The accessibility of Reddit and Tumblr has irrevocably changed the way the otherkin community operates, making everything more visible and public. For old-timers, a few of the private mailing lists are still going, such as the 25-year-old Elfinkind Digest. Its minimalist homepage was last updated in August 2013 with a warning: "This is not a list for or about role-playing or role-playing games; we're elves. Deal with it."
If you believe yourself to be an elf, is it more damaging to be socially isolated and hide your identity from the world or to go online and have other people confirm your beliefs?
As the community began to float to the surface of the Internet, along came the jokes, the judgment, and the condescending concern from outsiders. On Reddit, the otherkin community is significant enough to have inspired an "In Action" forum, r/OtherkinInAction, where users make fun of what they consider to be particularly ridiculous posts.
"Otherkin is probably tough for someone to swallow who's never heard of it," said Adalen, "and those who have usually only hear it in a negative light. I have told exactly zero people I did not meet first through the internet." He owns a fair amount of dragon-related memorabilia but is pragmatic about the difficulty of making any serious physical changes.
"Otherkin accept that barring quantum leaps in science or virtual reality far beyond the Oculus Rift, taking another form is impossible. [They] know that they are, for the foreseeable future, human."
Otherkin by Internet
You don't come to the conclusion that you're a dragon without a certain amount of self-examination. Many otherkin are aware that some outsiders think they're delusional. The psychiatric professionals I contacted for this story, however, were surprisingly forgiving.
Dr. Marc D. Feldman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama and inventor of the term "Munchausen by internet," told me that otherkin didn't seem like a good fit for mental health treatment.
"People in advantaged countries like to think of themselves as especially complex, colorful, and special," he wrote in an email. "The otherkin phenomenon certainly reflects this first-world preoccupation. But it isn't illegal, doesn't victimize other people, and isn't a form of mental illness (unless people become delusional about it), so I don't see a particular need for 'treatment.'"
Dr. Jan Dirk Blom, an expert in clinical lycanthropy (the delusion of turning into an animal), has a similar opinion, saying that unless an otherkin individual is suffering, there's no reason to seek professional help.
"As regards the existence of [otherkin] communities, online or otherwise, where like-minded people join each other to exchange experiences and ideas on their affinity with animal or supernatural identities, I can only say that we cannot have enough of those groups," he wrote.
"Human experience and behaviour is so diverse, and only so little of it tends to be presented as 'normal' in the media, that communities such as these should be embraced and encouraged by us all."
In his opinion, the otherkin experience of "phantom shifts" may not be as unusual as it sounds: "In my area of expertise, i.e., psychotic disorders, it is well-known that some 10–15 percent of all people in the general population experience auditory hallucinations, and that close to a full 100 percent experience some sort of hallucination during their lives (i.e., auditory, visual, olfactory, or otherwise), but that only 1 percent are diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia spectrum disorder."
Online, the story of otherkin feels familiar. Self-discovery, obscure message boards, communities with byzantine internal conflicts: It's all very similar to the subcultures that spring up around any unusual identity or hobby — bronies being an obvious example. Posts on the main otherkin subreddit are a 50-50 split between curious skeptics ("This smells like bullshit. Please explain why you think it isn't") and otherkin looking for advice from their peers ("I think I am a direwolf. Now what?").
To identify publicly as otherkin is to invite derision from strangers, even though the community mostly overlaps with other marginalized groups: sci-fi/fantasy nerds, hippies, roleplaying gamers, social justice Tumblr, and furry fandom. You'd think otherkin would see more sympathy from this intersection of fringe communities, but instead the general attitude has a more mocking tone: "Well, I may be weird, but at least I'm not as weird as these guys."
The trans debate
There is one area where otherkin are a source of genuine conflict rather than casual mockery, and that's when people draw comparisons with transgender issues.
"The trans/otherkin issue is touchy, to say the least," said Adalen. "You see an easy grouping between the two in anti-trans slippery-slope arguments. The fallacy would say that since people identify as another gender, they will soon have an operation to change into a dog. To quite a few trans individuals and those opposed, we may appear as that argument personified."
It's a difficult issue, one compounded by the fact that many otherkin also identify as transgender themselves.
"I am transgender," Miniar said. "It has nothing to do with being otherkin. I think that the first people to connect otherkin to transgender were bigots looking for an excuse to disrespect transgender people. Some of these bigots went the troll path and created fake blogs."
It's been very easy for people to troll the otherkin community with fake Tumblr accounts claiming to have outlandish identities like Prince-Koyangi, the "autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-Asian cat" with multiple personalities. Prince-Koyangi's posts combined social-justice-friendly language with an increasingly bizarre set of traits, and while most readers quickly figured out the blog was a hoax, it still inspired a lot of discussion over whether it's possible to be too accepting. And since there are some people who give every impression of identifying as inanimate objects or anime characters (known as otakukin), it can be difficult to tell the difference between a hoax and the real thing.
When Prince-Koyangi's creator finally admitted the blog was fake, he or she wrote:
I find it so utterly absurd that a movement whose original purpose was to defend the rights of POC, trans individuals, and other oppressed groups has been co-opted by people who believe they are dragons or that they have Homestuck characters living inside their head. It's hilarious to me. It's also incredibly offensive.
But according to the otherkin I spoke to, comments like this just make things worse. Because hoax blogs are by nature more noticeable than the real thing; they attract more attention and create inaccurate stereotypes.
According to Miniar, these otherkin hoax blogs have created "a neverending circle" of trolls making jokes that blur the lines between trans people and otherkin. "Then some bigot picks this up as an example of why trans people are crazy and some well-meaning social-justice-oriented person picks it up as an example of why all otherkin are bigoted."
Jessie agreed. "Most anyone that I see claiming species dysphoria to be anything close to gender dysphoria … are not actually otherkin or transgender and are actually more often trolls. If someone is claiming to be a pizzakin and shrieking that anchovies are triggering, they're a troll. It disheartens me to see that people don't grasp that at times."
While the narrative of the crazy otherkin blogger has become a meme, the stereotype isn't always based in fact. One of the people I contacted for this article identifies as a genderfluid Night Fury dragon from the movie How to Train Your Dragon — in other words, perhaps the most Tumblr-stereotypical image of an otherkin. But even that person said: "The situation has been sorely misrepresented. Otherkin is not a trans identity, nor is it to be used to get into trans spaces."
Like Miniar, the dragon otherkin mentioned the issue of "neopronouns" as one of the reasons why people think otherkin are encroaching on trans identities. Neopronouns are newly coined pronouns like "xe/xir/xirself" that are used by people who don't fit into the gender binary, but they also spawned the concept of "nounself pronouns" such as "star/stars/starself" for people who identify as stars. This idea is heavily parodied as an example of identity politics gone mad, and Tumblr's #neopronouns tag is a journey down the rabbit hole of pronoun-related flamewars.
This backlash makes a lot of sense. For someone who identifies as nonbinary and simply wants people to respect one's chosen pronouns, it must be tremendously frustrating to be associated with teenagers who want to be referred to as "daem/daem/daemself" to reflect their demon identity. However, none of the otherkin I spoke to were in the habit of using neopronouns, and they seemed very aware of the difference between "otherkin problems," like being teased on the internet, and the systemic oppression faced by transgender people.
"My feelings of draconity are undeniable, but I believe that they are not as bad as someone desiring to transition, and the struggles some trans individuals face are far more serious than ours," Adalen wrote. "Otherkin aren't made homeless, don't struggle to pay for procedures or hormones, and are not victims of hate crimes.
"Generally speaking, otherkin aren't seeking to reduce credibility for anyone's gender identity or be hateful. We just want to be."