The other day I read an online comic, Theri There, about Otherkin. In it, the artist depicted different types of otherkin doing various activities that reflected their nature. An angelkin worked in a soup kitchen, a bird therian flew a hangglider, etc. In the last panel the artist showed two therians, who said that once in a while they growled when no one was around. That entire comic depicted what I perceive to be a problem of identity for Otherkin.
I notice with alarming regularity that when the subject of Otherkin comes up it’s always about identity, namely how you determine if you’re really Otherkin or not. There is inevitably a focus on which labels can be correctly applied to a person in order to determine the status of identity. It gets to the point that identity seems to be an obsession for some Otherkin. What seems to be rarely asked, however, is what other functions, purposes, or goals, beyond identity, being Otherkin serves. For instance, do you feel your existence is validated by being Otherkin? Does being Otherkin provide you a calling? What is it to you besides a label?
The quest for self-discovery is a life long adventure and a worthy goal, provided it’s balanced with other goals. Identity should never wholly define a person, especially because it is a very fluid phenomenon. Who you claim to be can change quickly under the right circumstances, with the right stress and pressure. Unexpected news can turn a good day into a bad day and a happy person into a sad person, changing some of the nuances of identity. Your identity is not constructed in isolation of everything else, but instead relies upon the network of connections you forge between yourself and other people. It also exists in an even larger context of culture. Western culture (which incidentally seems to have the majority of Otherkin) has lots of images and stories centered around dragons, elves, and various other mythological creatures that Otherkin identify with. Recently anime has made an impact in Western Culture and suddenly we have mediakin as a result. Even therians aren’t exempt from this cultural impact. Switch on the TV and turn to the Animal Planet channel and you have an opportunity to get exposure to a variety of shows on different animals in their habitat. Or watch a cartoon show about Bugs Bunny or some other character and you see animals anthropomorphized.
Curiously Otherkin and therians seemed to have primarily shown up in the last fifteen to twenty years, which is around the time the internet first started being used, and people were exposed to even more forms of media distilling cultural information. Even in the rare case where someone identified as Otherkin before that time, there was still a lot of access to cultural material, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. My point is that culture has an impact on a person’s sense of identity. A desire to feel special about yourself for instance, can be affected by access to books on elves and dragons. The escapism such books offer, also offer a person a chance to feel special and validated because if they identify with those beings then they is perhaps not in such a horrible situation.
But what about memories? Many Otherkin claimed to have memories of past lives where they were clearly not human. I won’t rule out the possibility that I or anyone else had a past life as something other than human. This universe is too vast to assume that the only sentient inhabitants are humans. Who can really say what happens to a soul after the death of a physical body? But with that said, I’d also say that memories are tricky. For instance, think of your latest argument with someone. Try and remember it in detail and then ask the person what s/he remembers. Chances are some details are different. Part of this is simply perception, but there’s also a chance that you or the other person (or both!) have conveniently remembered something differently or that didn’t happen at all to justify who was right or wrong. Memories can be manufactured by the brain. We can remember events, in this life alone, that we never actually experienced. Memory is so changeable that it’s fairly unreliable as the sole means of determining identity.
We also have to consider the impact culture has on memory and on our imagination. It seems to me that the imagination is vividly tied into memory. The ability to remember a past event is similar to the ability to fantasize or daydream. When you include the impact of culture, in terms of shows viewed, or book read, then you have to consider how much the symbolism and imagery affects the memories you have. Memory alone shouldn’t be used to determine identity. It can act as an aide, providing contextual clues, but it should be carefully verified and tested. This can occur by meeting people you share these memories with, but even in that case, if you find that the memories of the group change frequently, or if people accept a memory immediately just because it sounds good, you might want to question whether they really share memories with you. Another way to verify these memories involves trying to learn a language. If you feel certain you spoke Japanese in a past life, you could test this by trying to learn Japanese in this life. It’s possible that the memories would aide you in relearning the language. Even when you can verify memories, remember that your past life is past. It can offer you the knowledge you accumulated in the past, but you’re living this life for a reason as well.
In humans, (I’ll talk more in a moment about this label) there is a biological need for certainty. Labels are a form of certainty. They provide us structure, definitions, and explanations for why we make the choices we make. Sometimes they even allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their choices. For instance, how many times have you seen a person at a workplace duck out of doing a task by saying that it doesn’t fit hir job description? Sometimes people use labels to explain behavior away: I’m a therian and I can’t help growling, howling, snarling at people when I’m mad, etc. Being therian could be a reason for those mannerisms, but it shouldn’t be as an excuse to justify behavior. In other words, if you’re growling at a person, don’t just say it’s your therian identity making you do it. Admit the reasons why you’re growling (i.e. I don’t like this person or they did something that caused me to react or I want to seem more legitimately animal).
Labels provide boundaries: “If I’m this then I’m not this”, or “If I can label and define this I can control it”. The boundaries are derived from naming something, and thus giving it presence, but also controlling the nature of that presence. When we label something we have control over it (supposedly). Control is another biological need, because people who don’t have control seek it out as a way of establishing a sense of structure and self in an uncertain universe. Being able to identify yourself as Otherkin is a way of controlling your internal and external environments. It establishes a sense of self that is different from others. It can also be a reaction to the people around you. If you’ve been picked on or harassed, it’s nice to escape that situation by identifying yourself as something different and unique. Then when those people pick on you, you can console yourself by thinking at least I’m this or that being, which these mere humans aren’t. If that seems rather melodramatic, remember that no one likes to be picked on and just about everyone wants to be special, especially in a cultural that encourages mediocrity. The choice to identify as someone else can be a reaction to situations that a person feels s/he can’t handle. By imagining that s/he is someone else, s/he can draw on the characteristics of that identity to give hir strength to deal with the situation. But there’s something that people forget about identity.
Identity is never a static phenomenon. People try to establish identity as a reality by relying on labels and definitions. These are usually used (incorrectly) to indicate essence, i.e. what something is. What people forget about labels and definitions is that they aren’t really describing what something is, but what someone feels something OUGHT to be. The choice to identify as Other, as opposed to human, carries with it values that you associate with what is Other, and therefore has an agenda to it. That agenda could be a need to feel special, especially if your personal circumstances are bad. It could be because you genuinely feel that there is something “different” about you as compared to everyone else, and by identifying as Other you validate that feeling. Regardless of what the agenda is, it’s important to acknowledge it to yourself when deciding that you identify as this or that kind of ‘kin. Questioning why you choose particular labels to describe yourself is a good way of understanding the conscious and/or subconscious choices you’ve made to come to those conclusions. People use words very easily, without considering the impact those words have on themselves and others. Recognizing that impact is important, because when you choose labels to describe and define yourself, you also define the world around you and your interactions with people. A lot of persecution that some Otherkin claim to experience could easily be avoided by being discrete and realizing that being Otherkin isn’t the entirety of their existence. They might even find, as I have, that it’s not that important in everyday life to be an elf, a dragon, or whatever else. Being Otherkin is just one facet, but there are other facets that are worth exploring and knowing as well, and not just for identity purposes. Do you feel a calling to do charity work? Are you as writer, a painter, etc.? What do those labels mean to you and how do they impact your life and others’? When you weigh being Otherkin against the other facets of your life you will quickly realize it contributes to the whole, but doesn’t and shouldn’t define the whole. Not everything that you are is a result of being Otherkin; we are a result of nurturing as well as innate nature.
When you choose a particular label to center your sense of identity on, you are identifying yourself for you and the world. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but when I see people who feel a need to proclaim their Otherkinness to the point that they use it to define themselves as a whole, it seems like they are limiting themselves. I don’t feel the need to tell everyone the various labels I associate with myself. Its part of me…I enjoy exploring it and meshing it into my life, and I don’t deny that, but I don’t need to proclaim it either. It’s enough that I know this is a part of me and when I need it I can draw on it. I keep my identity fluid because I can be so many other things than just Otherkin or a magician or whatever else I label myself as. Labels can define you, but they also restrict you, and can create dogmatism and elitism in your attitude and approach to other people. Choosing to be fluid about your labels can help you understand other people and be more adaptive to situations that arise in your life.
Don’t forget as well that you are biologically human, even if you do claim some nonhuman genetic material. You are also socialized as a human in a human world. Ignoring that aspect of yourself is flawed, because it ignores to some degree the reality of your situation. Being human has its own joys, tribulations, and special quality. It’s not something that can wholly define you, just as being Otherkin can’t, but it is an experience in its own right, to be savored and enjoyed while you have it. Ignoring it is missing out on the journey and meaning of being human.
So you’re an elf, or a dragon, or a therian. That’s nice, but what’s it doing for you? What will you do with it? How does this identity impact how you think of other parts of your life? How does it impact how you think and interact with people around you? What does being Otherkin help you do that you couldn’t do before? These are some questions that you can ask yourself as you explore your Otherkin identity. It’s not enough to just validate yourself by saying I’m this or that kind of being. While it’s nice to know that you identify as a dragon, if all you ever do is establish that you are a dragon, you haven’t really touched the surface of what that identity really means.
By finding meaning and purpose in your identity you can begin to define what you want to do with that identity. For instance, if you identify as angelkin and you feel compelled to act as a helper or healer to people that could be a result of identifying as angelkin and seeing angels as beings who help people. Remember that identity is backed up by action. If you feel called to serve people then go to a local soup kitchen or other volunteer service. Or if you identify as a therian get involved in environmental activism involving your phenotype’s species, or at the least promote environmental awareness in people around you. Let your identity be defined by more than just a feeling that you’re different. While feeling special is nice, doing nothing but feeling special helps neither yourself, nor anyone else or the world that you currently live in. Let your actions speak to and of that identity and let those actions involve more than just posturing about what kind of Otherkin you are.