On a Saturday in late August, a couple dozen people, including a now broke Milo Yiannopoulos, showed up in MAGA hats to march through downtown Boston holding signs endorsing Trump. They were there for a “Straight Pride Parade,” an event organized by a group Boston Pride warned were white supremacists attempting to bait the queer community into outrage.
Despite being an attendance flop, the event drew national attention. Counter-protestors arrived to outnumber the attendees. Police showed up with riot gear and pepper spray. Thirty-six people were arrested.
This relatively small but highly controversial event had a strange ripple effect: the local furry community and its annual Boston convention called Anthro New England (ANE) are now embroiled in a debate about whether the conference should continue to donate money to a charity that helps law enforcement buy gear for police dogs.
Massachusetts Vest-a-Dog, ANE’s long-time charity, raises money to buy bulletproof vests kennels for K-9 cruisers, scent-training kits, and bite suits for police dogs. The Vest-a-Dog website says that police departments don’t have proper funding for these items for their dogs, and K-9 bulletproof vests cost between $1,200 and $2,500 each, depending on the type the department chooses. It’s been the recipient of tens of thousands of dollars of donations from ANE over the last several years.
Many people in the furry community are people of color, queer, trans, gender-nonconforming or otherwise marginalized in society. The choice to support law enforcement, many in the community argue, is unacceptable—especially as excessive policing threaten the stability of their communities and lives outside of the furry fandom.
But others are arguing that supporting a local organization that’s trying to protect dogs’ lives is a worthy cause, and that the confusion around pulling support from Vest-a-Dog will do more harm than good.
On September 5, Bazil Remblai, chairperson for the ANE, posted a letter on Twitter.
“Over the past day, many of you have reached out to express concerns regarding Antro New England’s partnership with MA Vest-a-Dog, particularly in light of disturbing reports of police action against counter-protestors at the Straight Pride Parade,” he wrote. Because of this backlash, the organization was discussing whether to continue supporting Massachusetts Vest-a-Dog.
ANE has hosted a yearly furry convention in Boston since 2015, and each year’s proceeds benefit an animal-based charity. According to fandom encyclopedia WikiFur, ANE’s first con had 757 attendees and raised $15,000. The event has grown each year since, with $22,500 raised by 2,251 attendees in 2019.
The furries I spoke to told me that to their knowledge, Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog—a charitable organization that raises money for law enforcement agencies to buy bulletproof vests for K-9 officers—has been part of ANE since its early days. The ANE charity webpage says it’s raised $79,500 over the years for MA Vest-a-Dog.
This isn’t the first year attendees of ANE and the furry community around it have voiced concerns about proceeds supporting law enforcement: A Change.org petition addressed to ANE directors ahead of the 2019 conference demanded that the organization drop Vest-a-Dog as its charity. For marginalized people, the petition states, “policing as an institution, as it currently exists, is dangerous to our continued safety and livelihood.”
“When a formal announcement was made about the Massachusetts Vest-A-Dog charity status being in jeopardy, I was a bit heartbroken,” one attendee who goes by “J” and has been going to ANE since 2015, told Motherboard. “The group which runs [Vest-a-Dog] are a lovely collection of volunteers who are very supportive of the fandom—they are dedicated to what they believe in and they care a lot about the police dogs’ welfare.”
Another longtime attendee, who goes by @Saint10K on Twitter, told me that as a queer person living in New England, it’s difficult to support a convention that helps law enforcement, especially after the forceful police action in Boston. “There are so many queer people struggling even in our community,” he said. “With the furry community being a largely queer space, I really hope leadership sees these struggles, sees the behavior of the Boston Police Department and makes their decision with its own community in mind.”
A furry who goes by @S0LARDOG on Twitter told me that in his view, ANE needs to choose a new charity as soon as possible, to avoid excluding any more people. “They have to at least support something not affiliated with law enforcement,” he said. “I personally would like for them to donate to a cause that helps minorities be it POC or LGBT+. If not that at least climate change.”
The furry community is diverse, and can provide a supportive and welcoming support network for people who identify as queer or gender-nonconforming. In the earliest days of the web, furries built chat communities and forums to gather online, across distances, in spaces where the rest of society wouldn’t judge them for their hobby of choice.
On the other end of the furry political spectrum, neo-Nazi furry sentiments exist—whether in the form of Nazi-esque armbands on fursuits, or in internet memes. Anti-fascist furries work to keep their communities free of violence and white nationalism.
“Some observers [on Twitter] jumped at the chance to nominate an LGBT charity to the position,” J said. “While these organizations are obviously a noble cause, the furry fandom is first and foremost a celebration of anthropomorphic fiction and art—donations should be focused on animal-related causes, not sexual minorities.”
J believes this is a “localized issue which is being blown out of proportion,” evidenced by the fact that many of the people replying to Remblai’s letter on Twitter aren’t based on New England or attendees of ANE.
But even if it is a local issue, what happens to regional cons—like the Rocky Mountain Fur Con of 2017, which was canceled after threats of violence sparked by the issue of armbands that resembled those on Third Reich uniforms—can echo across the whole fandom.
Both @S0LARDOG and @Saint10K said it does reflect on the wider furry culture and beyond. “The fandom, while progressive, has sections where people are either very conservative or centrist,” @S0LARDOG said. “The fact that we have some arguing for MA Vest-a-Dog to continue being the charity is an issue in my opinion.”
A spokesperson for ANE told Motherboard that while the organization hasn’t reached a decision, another letter will be published on September 14 with more information on the 2020 ANE charity.
“It will definitely reach out to the wider fandom,” @Saint10K said. “I hope this is at least a message that change is possible within our community.”