“Symptoms of Being Human,” a must-read for any gender-variant person

Abigail Whitcomb, Podcast & Opinions Editor, Marketing Manager

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TW: assault/bullying/panic attacks/suicide

I stumbled across the book “Symptoms of Being Human” by Jeff Garvin when I was in Barnes & Noble, returning another book. I figured “why the heck not get another one, you have nothing better to do anyway”. The cover of this book had an emo fringe, which captured my attention by flashing me back to my emo years. Then I read the back, and I didn’t even get past the first full sentence when I ran in line to buy it.

The novel follows Riley Cavanaugh, a genderfluid teen who just switched out of Catholic School to public school in their junior year. At the advice of their therapist, they start a blog as a way to vent and express their gender experience. Little do they know, the blog goes viral.

Spoilers ahead.

This book shows what it’s really like to have an ambiguous gender. On the first day of school, Riley is faced with adversity as soon as they step on to school property. They then face more adversity from the jock crowd, who relentlessly make fun of them and bully them at lunch. The only solace they can find is with Bec, a mysterious, outspoken girl, and Solo- an ex-nerd turned jock who becomes Riley’s personal bodyguard.

Riley starts an anonymous blog, going by Alix at the encouragement of their therapist, Doctor Ann. It documents their ups and downs of gender and all that comes with it. The blog quickly becomes famous after being featured on a queer website, becoming even more famous when an anonymous follower sends a message when contemplating suicide after being kicked out of her house. This gives Riley a huge spotlight and makes them feel overwhelmed with fear, thinking that they could mess up in the public light.

Riley is faced with a lot of pressure which causes them to experience many panic attacks and bouts of hysteria. I love how the author leaves these moments in, maybe even emphasizes them, to show that gender isn’t all just flower crowns and rainbows. Riley’s mind is flooded from expectations from their family, who is in the spotlight because their father is a congressman running for public office, from school, and from the blog. These all expect them to act a certain way, which pays a toll on Riley’s well being.

Riley also experiences gender dysphoria and euphoria. They feel dysphoria when forced to wear a formal garment to events held by their father for the campaign and when their “internal compass” changes male/female/other. What is described in the book is mostly social dysphoria, which is a nice change for YA LGBT books. They also experience gender euphoria at the end of the book, when they find an outfit that they “want to marry and make babies with”.

This book documents harassment farther than just name calling though. It describes physical assault, shining a light on a large problem for the LGBTQ community. Riley, after a rough coming out experience, runs off to an abandoned building and gets assaulted by members of the football team. Though it is rough, it is a reality, something we have to face and bring attention to, and the author does the in the best way.

Overall, this book was a realistic encapsulation of what gender-variant teens experience, and it really resonated with how I experience gender. I recommended this for anyone who is looking to understand what it’s like being gender-variant or is gender-variant themselves.

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