Sometimes, certain books come along at just the right moment in our lives. And sometimes they come along much later. Not too late, but not at the time we really needed them.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When I was growing up in the dark prehistoric ages before the internet — before cable TV even — certain ideas and concepts just weren’t available to my young mind. I read ravenously, everything I could get my hands on, without any real restrictions from my parents, but I knew literally nothing about sexual identity or gender expression. I remember reading a couple of early news stories about people like Renee Richards, a tennis player who had male-to-female reassignment surgery in the 1970’s — but it was mostly the stuff of punchlines or baffled magazine articles. One time I tried to talk about one of those articles with my mom — who a vocal feminist and pretty enlightened person for that time and that place (Southern America, firmly inside the Bible Belt). Her reply was, “Why would anyone want to do that?”
I never heard the words “transgender” or even “transsexual”. In fact, I was a teenager before I ever knew anyone who was openly Gay. And the depictions of LGBTQ people in the media at that time ranged from non-existent to ridiculous to condescendingly tragic.
It’s hard not to look back and wonder what my life would have been like if I’d had those images — if concepts like gender non-conforming, gender fluid and non-binary had been available to me when I was figuring out who I was. (A puzzle I’ve never even come close to solving.)
So I have quietly been making a list of books and other media that I think of as “Things I Wish Had Existed When I Was A Kid”.
Very close to the top of that list is The Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin.
Riley Cavanaugh is a high school student and the child of a US Senator, from a very conservative district in Orange County. On top of the usual teenage rebellion, Riley (who spent some time in a psychiatric hospital after trying to wash down a bottle of Xanax with booze) is beginning to understand what it means to be gender fluid. Some days, Riley wakes up feeling like a girl, some days like a boy — and some days neither.
Riley’s father is trying to pass an important new public education bill, and so Riley moves from a private Catholic school (which was hell, but where at least the uniform requirement eliminated the decision of what to wear every morning) to a public school in their district.
Maybe public school will be different, maybe Riley can find a place to fit in and not be the constant target of abuse. Maybe. Or maybe not.
But there are new friends to be made: a Star Wars loving Samoan football player called Solo, and Bec, an intriguing girl with a lip ring and lightsaber blue eyes.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley begins an anonymous blog about being gender fluid — and that blog takes off when other teenagers find it and relate to Riley’s struggle. Suddenly, the isolated outsider has a (virtual) community, a cause to fight for, and (maybe) a girlfriend.
But not everyone is willing to accept Riley on Riley’s terms. And when one of those enemies make the connection between the weird kid in school and the blogger, everything Riley cares about (and Congressman Cavanaugh’s re-election) is put in jeopardy.
The Symptoms of Being Human is a heartbreakingly good book about a main character you can’t help but love and cheer for. A young adult novel that is rich enough for readers of all ages — even for the confused inner children of people who needed books like this a long time ago.
Thank goodness we have them now.