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April 21st, 2008

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03:34 am - The otherkin community & my quest for belonging
After shadowmorphic's utterly amazing visit, I've thought about becoming a part of the otherkin community and how it was different for me than anything similar I'd ever experienced . I'm very much not a "joiner", and so I always looked for a sense of community and belonging in the company of like-minded people (for various definitions of like-minded), rather than among the people I was simply going to school with or working alongside. However, as I discuss at length here, I'm fairly shy in that I normally have great difficulty meeting people or interacting with people I don't know well. Nevertheless, I'm also an extrovert who finds being around people I'm comfortable with exceedingly energizing and wonderful.

In my teens and early 20s, I regularly encountered the idea that all one really needed to do to find comfort and happiness was locate and join the appropriate social group – reading a goodly number of romantic fantasy novels in this same era only served to solidify this impression, and so I tried. My first attempts were with SF fandom. At SF cons and SF book discussion groups I met a number of interesting people, but only a very few actual friends, and even in books discussion groups or SF club meetings with between half a dozen and 20 people, I always felt like an outsider and I ended up disappointed and unsatisfied most times that I went to such meetings and events.

I briefly tried the queer & bi community in grad school, and had even less luck – some of this was clearly because the diversity of people is so high, and the rest can be explained by the fact that I was in LA at the time, and if you aren't both beautiful and rich, the LA queer community wants absolutely nothing to do with you.

My next attempt at looking for community was in the neopagan community – I trained with a coven in LA, and was close to my teachers, but definitely (as it should be) as a student and not a friend, and I never particularly connected with anyone else in the coven. I watched a number of the other students become close friends with one another, but it never worked for me. After that, I explored the wider pagan community in LA, San Diego, and Portland, and found that on average I had even less in common with the people there than the people who had been in the various SF groups I had previously attended, and that I was even less likely to find people I connected with in the neopagan community. I've avoided neopagan events and groups for around the last decade and will almost certainly continue to do so, in large part I've never met anyone who has become a friend solely or even mostly through contacts I made with the pagan community. So, while I definitely consider myself to be a neopagan, the overall pagan community offers nothing to me.

My next attempt was professional. When I became a full-time RPG writer, I started going to gaming conventions again. I found a very nice group of people through my friend and then colleague byzantine_ruins, but other than these people (a number of whom are reading this), who were far more a group of Geoff's friends, than any subsection of the RPG industry), I didn't particularly connect with anyone else and was largely as comfortable as I was in many RPG industry parties solely because I could borrow Geoff's social skills and use him as an ice-breaker and an introduction. In 1999, I went to GenCon without Geoff or any of the various Pittsburgh and related people and had an impressively miserable time, because I did not have anyone to serve to buffer my shyness. Despite knowing more than a dozen colleagues who where there, I felt impressively alone. My experiences in few similar events went no better, letting me know that this too was a failure in terms of finding a community I felt actually comfortable in. My very brief foray into the polyamorous community went no better.

By the late 1990s, I had largely decided that either the idea that people can find a community of others where they feel comfortable and at home was entirely a myth, or at minimum, that I was not something that I'd ever find. Then, in 2004, I started going to otherkin events – first to a meet-up in a nearby restaurant, and then going to Walking the Thresholds in Pennsylvania. In these events, I felt at home in a way that I still find difficult to describe or explain. After the first few minutes in any such event, my shyness almost completely vanishes and I feel as comfortable and relaxed as I do in a group of people who I all know well. In addition, I have met more than half a dozen people who I regard as very close friends (despite the unfortunate fact that most of them live much too far away). Since that time, I've gone to otherkin gathers of various sorts in various settings and the comfort remains a constant. It has nothing to do with the presence of certain specific people or the size of the group. It's simply true that in a space where everyone identified as otherkin, I feel at home.

Some of this comfort is likely due to the flexibility of identity implicit in the otherkin community, since I find this sort of flexibility to be comfortable and familiar given both some of the oddities of my personal spirituality and several of the people I'm close to, but it's also considerably more than that. There is something about the general social dynamic – which is simultaneously touch positive, accepting of a variety of different metaphysical worldviews, and more than anything, accepting of (and often set up with the expectation of) a fair amount of social awkwardness. I'm told by people who have been in both sorts of spaces that the furry community offers a somewhat similar environment, and if there was ever a furry event nearby, I might well give it a try, just to see how I reacted to it.

In any case, the entire dynamic of the various otherkin gatherings and meet-ups I've been to has been slightly different from every other social spaces I've been in, sufficiently so that I can end up cuddled next to and talking happily up to someone I've just met, or where I can introduce myself to two people I overheard talking about a RPG that I helped write and end up with two very close friends – two events that I cannot ever imagine happening in other any social space that I've been in. Given that I've experienced similar levels of comfort in gatherings or meet-ups which shared no members in common other than myself, it's clearly the overall community and local social norms (which are to a large degree shared over the internet) rather than the presence of any individual people.

Going to these gatherings and meet-ups has definitely helped with my confidence level in other social situations, but only to a point. I went to GenCon 2006 and I was not particularly unhappy. However, while I had a finely honed professional front firmly in place, and used a multitude of techniques for dealing with social awkwardness, all that merely meant that I was not actively unhappy and that I rarely felt painfully awkward. I in now way felt comfortable there and the only time that I actually enjoyed myself was the time I spent talking with jhkim in the hotel room we shared.

I've made similar efforts of various sorts and have repeatedly seen that in otherkin spaces I feel at home in a way that normally only occurs in the presence of close friends. Also, the odds of me meeting people who I can become close friends with in otherkin spaces is vastly higher than in other social spaces (where such meetings effectively never occur. That doesn't mean that I didn't also find some people who I dislike. Also, there are occasionally the problems inherent in any space that is almost exclusively home to freaks, the damaged, and the damaged freaks (which of course, also raises the obvious question of which of these categories I belong in). There is even the very occasional person who is sufficiently non-functional to be obviously mentally ill. However, the general environment causes my shyness to largely vanish. I have found a community where I feel at home in a way that a decade ago I would have considered completely impossible.

In any case, I am curious to know what those of you who are either familiar with the otherkin community, or who have found a similar home in other communities think makes a particular community work so well for someone.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(24 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC)
That's a fascinating observation, and as I think about it one that seems to ring true. Of course, the obvious question is why this is true in otherkin spaces and not in more general pagan or SF geek spaces.
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
This is a good question, one that I'm examining a bit now because I *have* felt pretty darn comfortable in general pagan / geek spaces at various points in my life, and I think it's that there's some kind of overriding concern with "being an adult", quotation marks intentional, and certain of the things that people do when they want to come off that way. Like emulating their parents & being too worried what other people will think of them to even talk about things like emotional tone.
[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2008 01:57 am (UTC)
There's an emotional guardedness that's common in US culture that I often see in force even stronger in many SF & pagan events. It seems to me that this is true because many people there are often as concerned about not looking foolish or childlike as they are with having fun. In most otherkin space, this is largely absent, and it seems absent by design rather than accident. Part of otherkin space seems (to me at least) to be about having the ability to be more emotionally open than elsewhere, with the primary limitations on emotional expression being those of basic politeness than the typical restraint (and the often combined cynicism, distance, and reserve) common in most other social spaces that I've encountered.

In short, it seems that people in otherkin spaces are significantly less afraid of looking foolish or excessively strange. Perhaps it's because they are closer to the social mainstream, but I've often seen that in pagan and SF geek spaces, many people seem more concerned about not looking foolish or excessively strange than they would elsewhere.
Date:April 22nd, 2008 10:47 am (UTC)
Maugorn was the one who told me about "taking responsibility for emotional tone".

As for why other groups don't do it, one possibility is that it's a new idea. Even the otherkin who are doing it apparently don't generally have words for it. If it's a new idea, it takes time to spread.

Other possibilities are that people don't realize it's important or don't think it's possible for people to make a conscious choice about it.

Also, it's risky. You guys are making it work, but if it isn't honestly and competently done, it could be a very unpleasant sort of bullying. One thing that sf fans are apt to avoid (for good and ill) is being exclusionary.

It seems consistent with the idea of faerie for otherkin to innocently and almost unconsciously achieve something which most people would think is impossible and which actually is more dangerous than it looks.

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