It's difficult to know how to begin this feature, so I shall come right to the point: Otherkin are a subculture of people who identify as animals and other non-human beings, including dragons, demons, and fairies. Though a small community, they are still a significant number of people who believe something that the rest of us may find difficult to understand.
Before we can continue, some fundamental definitions are needed.
Otherkin: A term for someone who identifies as a non-human mythical being, like a dragon.
Therian/Therianthrope: A person who identifies as a real animal, such as a wolf.
Kintype/Theriotype: The creature that a person identifies as.
M-Shift: Short for "mental shift". This is an experience that some otherkin/therians have when their kintype dominates their personality.
This is only a very basic grounding, since types of otherkin are almost literally endless and there is a lot of specialised vocabulary. This article will be dealing mostly with those who refer to themselves as therians, so some more detail will be required.
The Therian Guide defines a therianthrope as "A person who is, feels, or believes he/she is a non-human animal (not physically). The connection can be spiritual or logical." It goes on to say that many therians begin to show signs of their non-human identity at an early age.
Explanations as to why people identify this way are plentiful, with some believing that it is a form of reincarnation, others that it is a matter of a soul being misplaced, and a few that it is a psychological condition that is nonetheless real.
A vocal community for those who identify as animals and other non-human creatures exists on Tumblr, but there are a host of other websites and forums, such as Dreamhart or Otherkin Alliance. They are clearly tight-knit and supportive places for their users, but the attitude towards non-otherkin can be defensive.
On therian-guide.com, I was openly told that they didn't trust me, and on this basis they refused to give any interviews.
Many agreed, and the consensus was that there are almost no articles that represent their community well.
So journalists do not have the best reputation amongst otherkin. Still, I would have been happy to put right any incorrect assumptions they were worried about.
One polytherian (someone with several kintypes) who goes by the name of Kai did agree to be interviewed. She identifies as canis lupus, including all subspecies, and snow leopards.
She says: "Being nonhuman to me means feeling, deep down in the core of my being, that I don't belong in a human body. That my spirit and psychology don't match my physical form.
"Ever since my early teen years I've felt like I didn't quite fit as a human, but didn't learn about otherkin or therianthropy until years later when I was 16. And after that I kept trying to deny that that's what I was and try and blend in and "be normal". You know, the usual teenage desire to be like everyone else.
"Months after learning about the term and researching it, I gave up trying to be something I didn't feel I was and accepted the term. So while there's no easy answer to when I realized I was nonhuman, I'd probably say I had my "ah hah" moment when I learned about the term."
"I did lose my job because of my identity...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...I believe I may have frightened some of the customers who came into the aisle during this...
"I told [the night manager] about my nonhuman identity and the basics of what shifting is, and that it sometimes happens to a degree where I can’t hold it back. 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...I haven’t worked outside of my home since then."
Kai is not alone in feeling discriminated against. Amongst the positive sides, Online resource Otherkin Alliance writes that they often experience prejudice and bullying, not only from hostile people on the internet but in real life:
"Some kin who have confessed their feelings to their families have been met with absolute love and affection, the family fully accepting and even rejoicing in an other soul making itself a part of that family. Other kin, who are not so lucky, are met with fear. They are belittled, laughed at, even abused physically, for their confessions, and many are even disowned from their homes or thrown out onto the street."
No wonder, then, that some are reluctant to talk to outsiders.
Despite such harassment, Kai is still an active member of the otherkin community; but there are others, ex-otherkin, who left when they realised that they no longer believed they identified as a non-human creature.
'M' had been a big cat, but preferred not to specify her kintype or username in case she was recognised.
"I do believe perhaps there are some people who truly, truly believe they are otherkin," she said. "But the VAST majority of otherkin are lying to themselves."
"I lost a lot of friends. The new friends I made were people I had to be careful around for fear of offending...A lot of the people there are just people trying to find their way in the world, who are easily defensive because you always are when you're lying to yourself that much."
"It just forces you into smaller and smaller (and incredibly unhealthy) social circles."
M is not alone in feeling this way after leaving the otherkin community - one tumblr blog, Melted Snowflake, has several submissions from people who say they are ex-otherkin, and claims to be an ex-snow goose. Their opinion is that the entire community is (whether consciously or unconsciously) faking, which is hotly contested by current members who say that Melted Snowflake is merely trolling.
Whether they are or not, the otherkin community is a small but determined part of internet subculture, and has only been growing since the 90's. How it may develop in coming years remains to be seen.
Correction: This article previously claimed that the largest community of otherkin can be found on Tumblr. This is incorrect, as pointed out by RogueSareth in the comments.