Title: Symptoms of Being Human
Author: Jeff Garvin
Publication date: 2016
Date started: 19/11/2019
Date finished: 23/11/2019
First sentence: “The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?”
Last sentence: “And I reach up with my brush and paint it white.”
Favorite sentence: “We’re all taught from a young age that there are only two choices: pink or blue, Bratz or Power Rangers, cheerleading or football. We see gender in two dimensions because that’s what society has taught us from birth. But, are you ready for a shocking revelation? SOCIETY NEEDS TO CHANGE.”
Content warning: sexual assault, transphobia, transphobic slurs, homophobic slurs, suicide attempt, trans teenager suicide, anxiety, meds intake (Xanax and others), self harm, bullying, outing, use of “he or she” for genderqueer people
Summary: Riley is genderfluid and very androgynous, to the point that people often ask them if they’re a boy or a girl. They had to quit their previous high school due to bullying, and attempted suicide because of it, so they aren’t sure how things will go in their new school. Riley is also the child of a Congressman, and doesn’t want to threaten the incoming election by coming out. Riley soon makes two friends at school: Solo and Bec. Solo is a jock and has shitty friends, but after a rocky start they establish a solid friendship. Bec is an alternative kid and Riley soon falls in love with her. On the advice of their therapist, Riley starts a blog to talk about genderfluidity. Their posts are honest and funny, and start to attract a lot of people. They are featured in a famous LGBTQ+ website, and Riley starts to be scared that someone will discover their IRL identity. Things get even worse when they answer a message to support a trans teenager and that she goes back to her family but gets beat up – the story breaks in the newspapers and everybody is wondering who is the mysterious author of that blog. Bec takes Riley to a trans support group meeting before Riley comes out, but that reassures Riley who then comes out to her and Solo afterwards. Bec tells Riley that she knew about the support group because her sister was trans and killed herself. After an election party with their parents, Riley is surrounded by journalists asking them about their gender identity… Riley panics, and discovers that their gender identity was leaked to the press, as well as their blog. Riley learns that Bec’s brother saw their blog when connecting their computer to the WiFi, and decided to tell an awful jock about it in the hopes of getting some favors. Riley comes out properly to their parents, and then leaves to try and find their friends. But their friends are nowhere to be found, and Riley is cornered by the jocks instead, who attack them and try to see what’s in their pants. Bec and Solo intervene and save Riley, who is then brought to a hospital. They later decide to participate to a panel about trans people and thus properly come out publicly.
Opinion: Here we go, another depressing book about lgbtq+ people focused on how wrong we feel and how much we get bullied, written by a cis author. Yeay! I knew it would be most likely to be like this when I started it, so thankfully my hopes weren’t too high and I managed to enjoy parts of the book.
Like the main character, I’m genderfluid, and could relate to some parts of Riley’s experience, but not a lot. I was surprised at how well they could identify where they were on the gender scale at every moment for instance, because that’s something that I struggle a lot with personally – I can feel the fluctuation but don’t always know what will help make me feel better. Everybody is different, however, so that wasn’t the most unrealistic part.
The choice to not tell us what is Riley’s biological sex is nice in the way that it might prevent readers from seeing them as an androgynous boy or girl, but it erases the whole experience of being misgendered constantly. Maybe it’s because I’m 15 years older than them, but if someone asked me if I was a boy or a girl now, I would answer ‘Yes’ and laugh my ass off. Even when I was an androgynous 12 years old kid, I always loved the few times someone asked me this, because as least they recognized my gender non conformity. Of course Riley is being bullied with this question, and they aren’t out, so they don’t want to be faced with a question they don’t feel ready to answer yet. And everybody has different experiences, of course. But nobody being able to identify you as a boy or a girl is the dream of many non binary people, so focusing on this as the main cause for Riley’s suffering felt off. Also, where are my gender neutral pronouns? Hello? Not only do we never address Riley’s pronouns, but other genderqueer people are referred to as “he or she”, which honestly hurts a lot, when there are many possibilities for gender neutral pronouns. One last irrealistic thing in my opinion is the fact that when Riley finally comes out, people immediately take them at their word, whereas in my experience even if people hear you out they will write it off as an unimportant detail and continue to see you as your birth sex.
Despite all those criticism, I was ready to recommend it with warnings to other genderfluid and non binary people… until the sexual assault happened. This is such an exhausting trope. Yes people are curious what’s in our pants, yes we get attacked for it, but can we keep it out of our fiction so we don’t get re-traumatized every time we want to see some representation? Damn it.
As I write this review a few weeks after finishing the book, I mostly tried to forget about the bad stuff and kept some good memories of this book (somehow). Probably because it’s the first book with a genderfluid main character that I read, and that I’ll take what I get. But we deserve so much better!