I’ll make a confession: As I began reading Symptoms of Being Human, I didn’t think I’d learn a lot from the book. After all, it’s about a gender fluid teen — but my sister, many of my friends, and I all identify as LGBTQ+, and I’ve done a good amount of reading and thinking about gender identity. But my assumption was very wrong. Not only did this book draw me in with an engaging story and characters, it also highlighted for me just how deep my assumptions about gender identity and expression run.
Symptoms of Being Human follows the story of Riley, a high schooler who starts an anonymous blog about the experience of being gender fluid — which, in Riley’s case, means sometimes feeling more like a girl, sometimes more like a boy, and sometimes neither. Riley is not out at home or at school, but when the blog goes viral, a malicious classmate discovers who is behind it and begins threatening Riley. Riley must navigate the situation at school while simultaneously finding friends, a girlfriend, and a place in the LGBTQ+ community.
Although the plot itself is predictable sometimes, that was much less important to me than the remarkably pointed way in which Garvin challenges readers’ preconceptions. That point was driven home when Riley attends a gender and sexuality support group, and assumes that a transgender man is a woman based on his appearance. Riley says, “This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve misjudged someone else’s gender identity. I feel a pang of shame; like everyone else, my instinct is to put people in a category” (154). In that moment, I realized that I was doing exactly the same thing: mentally assigning a male/female identity to Riley, trying to categorize every action and thought as “masculine” or “feminine” — even though Riley’s gender fluidity is made clear from page 1. Symptoms of Being Human is filled with striking examples of this kind of judgement and its effects on Riley and other characters. This does mean that Garvin addresses bullying, suicide, sexual assault, and other difficult topics. However, the representation of these issues in the books does not feel gratuitous; rather, it gives readers an important opportunity to learn about both themselves and the concrete issues that Garvin tackles.
Finally, one of the main ideas of the book is that Riley has many identities and traits beyond gender fluidity, including an interest in music and a talent for writing. Indeed, Garvin uses Symptoms of Being Human to emphasize the similarities shared even by outwardly different people. This makes the story an engaging choice for anyone regardless of gender identity, and especially for teens who are trying to find community and identity. Also, it reinforces the importance of acceptance, respect, and trying to understand people with identities other than our own — a message that feels extraordinarily significant in today’s world.
By: Anja Hendrikse Liu
Garvin, Jeff. Symptoms of Being Human. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2016. Print.