Kyell Gold’s new novel may lie at the most unlikely intersection in literary history: a gay immigrant Muslim romance involving furries—that is, people who feel a close identification with anthropomorphic animal characters.
“I wrote this book in part as a response to the wave of Islamophobia in this country,” Gold explained in an author’s note, “never dreaming at the time that it would crest as it has now.”
The Time He Desires is the story of Aziz, a cheetah in a faltering heterosexual marriage who explores the boundaries of his sexuality with the help of a gay fox. Aziz is a Sudanese immigrant, and he engages in a struggle with his desires that will be familiar to queer readers. Gold’s been writing furry romance novels full-time for several years, after bouncing from chemical engineering to business school to zoology. After he was laid off in 2010 with a generous severance package, his husband said, “if you’re going to be a full-time writer, this is the time to start.”
“One of the themes of my stories, from very early on, has been conflict between people who realize they’re gay and a society that has problems with that sexuality,” Gold said. Though his previous books have touched on Christianity, “I know that Islam is also not necessarily tolerant towards homosexuality. … I also didn’t understand much about Islam other than that it’s a religion that hundreds of millions of people in the world follow.”
And so he resolved to learn more. He turned first to Wikipedia, then forums and Tumblr pages.
“I wanted to acknowledge that there are queer Muslims out there in the world,” he said. “One of the things I’d seen come up every now and then is especially American queer Muslims saying that they don’t have any community, except for these online groups. They can’t join their Muslim communities if they’re going to be out about their sexuality; but they can’t join many LGBT groups because people will be wary of them because of their religion.”
By early 2016, he was ready to begin writing a book that could bridge those communities. The timing was particularly apt, given the political climate.
“This was written well before the election and the prospect of the Muslim registry became more concrete,” Gold said. “I started with the concept that this is another world religion, I learned more about it, I talked to people who practice it, and it reenforced … the idea that Islam is a way for people to understand the world and bond. It’s not a codicil to create terrorists.”
“English-language media has often vilified Muslims,” said Dwale, a Muslim friend who advised Gold on the book. “For many people, their only exposure to Muslims is as stock villains. … With all that going on, the simple reminder ‘Muslims are people, too’ becomes an important message, one the mainstream media has been reluctant to spread.”
Muslims, queers, and furries all share the experience of having been marginalized by the mainstream, and of being continually forced to justify their existence. But just as public opinion on LGBTQ folks has softened over the last few years, furries seem to be enjoying a break as well.
Back in March of 2016, a group of Syrian refugees was temporarily placed in the same hotel as a furry conference, resulting in a heartwarming cultural exchange as the con attendees welcomed the residents to their new country. In October, a Tumblr post went viral in which a teen girl breathlessly described a group of awesome furry bowlers in her town. And on Reddit, a user confessed that when he went to a furry conference to make fun of attendees, he wound up having such a good time that he joined them.
The key factor in expanding tolerance for queers and furries seems to be exposure. The more people meet LGBTQ family or go bowling with furries, the harder it gets to regard them as other—and so novels like Gold’s may do the same for Islam.
In fact, the furry fandom may be among the best possible communities to expand religious tolerance.
“The furry characters give the world a little bit of a fantasy element,” Gold said. “It’s human enough that you recognize behaviors, but I’m not giving you background that has a lot of baggage associated with them.” And besides the distance that anthropomorphic characters provide, he said, the fandom is in general a welcoming place. “People are like, ‘what animal are you?’ which seems like a simple question. And it makes you think about who you are, and what does that map to. … I want to be big and tough, I’ll be a tiger or a wolf; I’m small, I’ll be a mouse. Then you have to present that—you’re saying, ‘hey, this is me, who I am inside.’ … You can’t trust people enough to tell them these things about you if you’re not also going to be trustworthy when they tell you things about them. … What it comes down to is everybody is willing to be themselves, and encouraging of other people finding themselves.”
Dwale, who converted to Islam in 2009, confirmed Gold’s assessment.
“By and large I would have to say that furries are among the most tolerant people one could hope to meet,” he said. “I do expect to be disowned en masse by my family when I finally get around to telling them about my conversion, whereas I’ll still have furry friends. So there’s that.”