Title: Symptoms of Being Human (2016)
Author: Jeff Garvin
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Extent: 352 pages
Release Date: February 2, 2016
The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is… Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.
Symptoms of Being Human is the story of Riley, who on some days identifies as a boy, and other days identifies as a girl — also called gender fluidity in this book. I encountered the idea quite a while ago during my Tumblr days so it’s not entirely unfamiliar to me, but this book, through Riley, will give an easy-to-understand introduction for those unfamiliar with it and want to learn more.
I relate to Riley. A lot, a lot, a lot. Considering that I have no issues being my sex and gender this might seem odd, but there are tons of things in this book that really connected with me. Apart from body dysmorphia, Riley also had to deal with anxiety attacks, bullying, feeling out of place, wanting to fit in — all those very real, very current things many of us experience all the way through our lives.
“People do judge books by their covers; it’s human nature. They react to the way you look before they hear a single word that comes out of your mouth.”
This book is not, thankfully, all serious, which makes my reading experience that much more enjoyable. There are sweet, heartfelt moments between Riley and Bec and Solo — two students who are drawn to Riley and eventually become Riley’s friends. There’s also Riley’s blog, hosted on a fictional platform called Bloglr and has all the characteristics of, well, a Tumblr blog.
One thing that I loved seeing was that Riley has good parents. They may be sporadically around, but they actually come through when Riley needs them. I admit that Riley still has to deal with a level of denial and rejection, but these things are phases, not permanent states. At the end of the day, I think Riley’s parents handled the situation as best as they could given the circumstances, and sometimes that’s all we can hope for, no matter how ugly that sounds.
Symptoms of Being Human carries with it many key messages — lessons that we can learn from even if we don’t experience Riley’s experiences. This book is about calling out people—or really society—on the ugly truths in life:
“You know what’s messed up? People tolerate secrecy. [ … ] It’s like, it’s okay to have gay feelings or trans feelings or gender fluid feelings — as long as you keep them inside. As long as you don’t “act” on them. Whatever that means. People don’t condemn you for being trans. They condemn you for embracing it.”
It’s about dealing with the weight of other people’s expectations—especially our parents’—and the guilt that we feel when we don’t even come close to ever fulfilling them:
“I’m their only kid, and sometimes I feel guilty for being how I am. I think maybe they would have been happier with a son who would play football like Dad did. Or, maybe Mom might have preferred a daughter she could paint her toenails with and take to ballet lessons. But instead, they got me — something they don’t quite understand and tend to handle alternately like a glass figurine and a feral cat.”
It’s also about coming out, and realising that people’s perception on who you are says more about them than it speaks about you:
“You have to know that there is NOTHING wrong with you. Your parents’ reactions have zero to do with you, and everything to do with them. For you, coming out is about finally understanding who you are, and then admitting it to the people who are most important to you. But for your parents, maybe they see it as this big, shocking change. And they aren’t equipped to handle it. To them, it’s like you suddenly made this huge choice they don’t understand.”
Finally, it’s also about how just silent agreement or encouragement isn’t enough—you need action to actually make a difference:
“But the truth is, feelings don’t change anything. To change something, you have to say things out loud. Do things. Take chances. Take a stand.”
There are lots of things that could have gone wrong with this book. Some people might question the whole validity of gender fluidity and find Riley and her world ridiculous and hard to understand. Others might feel like it’s too SJW (Social Justice Warrior)-ish, a term used for online civil activists who vehemently engage in social justice debates and are usually very easily offended.
The only reason why I’m taking off a star is because the message, however truthful it was, did get a little bit preachy at the end. I also didn’t personally need to be convinced, so at times it felt more repetitive than it ought to be.
Overall, though, Symptoms of Being Human was thoughtful, relatable, and utterly sympathetic—a great introduction for anyone unfamiliar with sex and gender issues and a good story for those who just want to know more.