By Mary L. Fahrenbruck, Leanna Lucero and Tabitha P. Collins
Riley is a gender fluid teenager who struggles with their identity on daily basis — sometimes Riley feels like a boy, other times a girl, and sometimes neither. The added weight of a sometimes complicated secret gender identity on a normal teenager is often overwhelming to Riley, so at the suggestion of their therapist, Riley creates an online blog using an alias as a method of venting their frustrations as well as to create a forum to openly discuss their struggles as a gender fluid person. Despite these difficulties, Riley is beginning to settle in at a new school with new friends (Bec and Solo) who seem to accept them for who they are. When an anonymous commenter on Riley’s blog discovers their true identity, Riley must decide whether to erase the blog and walk away from this newfound safe space or to come out and face their parents and the rest of the world.
Our discussion opened with comments about our connections to this novel, Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human. We also discussed Garvin’s writing style which cleverly conceals Riley’s biological gender from readers. Because Riley is gender fluid, we used the pronouns they, their, them, themselves, rather than she, his, him, or herself to refer to Riley throughout our conversation.
LEANNA: I had a really hard time getting into the book at first, and I don’t know why. Because now that I’m in it, I like it.
MARY: I liked it, but I think I liked it because Tabitha emailed me a quote.
LEANNA: A quote from this book?
TABITHA: No, it was from an article I read.
Logan, Laswell, Hood, & Watson (2014) believe that the types of queer novels that teachers should be looking for to implement in their classrooms are “novels that emphasize queer consciousness/community. In these novels we find that the characters are not alone, but are surrounded by supportive friends and family members, living full, realistic, and well-rounded lives” (p. 31).
I sent it to Mary because it reminded me of why we liked Gabe from Beautiful Music for Ugly Children so much, but it could also be about Riley. Riley has a well-rounded life and is into blogging. Riley has trouble at school but is also supported, has friends, and they do stuff outside of school.
MARY: And Bec and Solo like Riley for Riley. That was one of the things we had talked about with I Am J. We really wanted to like J just because J was a person, not because J has all of these characteristics. That’s why I found myself liking Riley, because Riley was a person first and foremost.
TABITHA: Yes! Bec and Solo both like Riley. Neither of them were particularly surprised or even tried to bother to figure out how Riley identified. They were both just like, “Okay, cool. You do you.”
LEANNA: Yeah. I liked Riley as much as I liked Gabe.
MARY: So did you try to figure out if Riley is biologically male or female? At one point I was trying to figure it out. Then I realized Riley’s biological gender is never going to be revealed through pronouns or any sort of action. I like how that really reflects gender fluidity.
LEANNA: I was trying to figure out who Riley was and I think that’s what frustrated me. Or maybe that’s why I couldn’t get into the story at the beginning.
During our discussion we identified three systems of support for Riley: friends, blogging and family. We questioned the believability of the blog, but concluded that Riley found support among their followers despite the circumstances. Like the other three novels, we didn’t find the schools environment to be supportive to LGBT students.
MARY: I wondered if Riley’s school experiences were going to be the same in this novel as in the other novels–there wasn’t going to be anything supportive at school. I did feel that way about this novel; nothing stood out as supportive, but there also wasn’t anything that stood out as odd about Riley’s high school. But I don’t see any support for LGBT students.
TABITHA: No, the only sort of support that readers see is through Solo and Bec.
LEANNA: And the blogging–that’s a huge support. I think that’s one of the places I found hard to believe. With my dissertation work around social media, it was hard to believe how quickly there were so many followers of Riley’s blog.
MARY: So the part where Riley has 50 followers one day and the next day there were over 1,000, that’s not believable?
LEANNA: No, that didn’t seem believable to me. The fact that Riley found support through this invisible audience, though, is completely believable to me.
TABITHA: But I found the family support to be really encouraging in this one. I mean, they made mistakes, but so did Riley. Riley hid it from them for so long. It took Riley a while to realize that they could trust their parents.
MARY: What’s the copyright for this novel? 2016. Maybe we’re experiencing the evolution of books over time. I Am J was 2011 and that was a “problem book.” Maybe Symptoms shows an evolution of trans books over time, that we want to be more understanding and supportive. But still, there’s no school support–nothing there.
In keeping with our discussions about story patterns in novels featuring coming out stories of LGBT adolescents, we focus on Time and Time Away. In the conversation about Riley, we began to define more clearly for ourselves what we mean by Time and Time Away.
MARY: If we are looking at story patterns across novels and thinking about Time and Time Away as story patterns, there’s no Time Away in this one. However, Riley goes to the support group meeting in another town and interacts with friends more. Is that far enough away?
TABITHA: Well, if we argued that time away for Gabe was the radio station, couldn’t we argue the same for Riley? Time away is the support group, friend time, going to the football game, and of course the blogging.
MARY: Then Time Away begs to be unpacked. Is it physically away? Is it distance away? Does it have to be a great distance away? Or can it just be the radio station in the same town or the support group in the next town?
LEANNA: Who is the time away for? Because if it’s for the character who is struggling and searching for their identity, I think it can be any type of away. Riley’s trip to the support group, that’s more physically away.
TABITHA: And if we’re looking at time away for the character who is trans or gender fluid, we could say that Gabe and Riley did more time away. Because the only thing I could classify in Luna as time away is maybe when she went to the mall or when she’s in her bedroom with the makeup and clothes? We also need to think about what sorts of time away are healthy and not?
LEANNA: Maybe it would be better to call Time Away something like Safe Space. The radio station was a safe space.
MARY: The blog was a safe space.
LEANNA: I know that we talked about school being a safe space (and how it may not be) and that all spaces should be safe. But finding that place, whether it be in the basement, the radio station, or online may be…
TABITHA: A place where you feel comfortable to be you? If we classify it that way, each character had a bit of a safe space but J and Luna didn’t have much of that. Riley and Gabe have a lot of places where they feel safe. I think that’s the main difference between the two sets of books.
As we considered Tabitha’s comment of “sets of books” we began to think about what events might have influenced our perceived positionality shift of trans characters, plot and theme over time.
MARY: I wonder if there’s something that happened — if we look at the copyright and the breaks between the books — I wonder if there’s something that happened that made the shift in these books occur.
TABITHA: Like a political or cultural shift?
We think that the event that happened that may have changed the way that the literature is written was in 2012, with the EEOC (US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) declaring trans employee rights protected.
LEANNA: I liked what Tabitha said about thinking of these as two different sets of books, I am J and Luna as one, Beautiful Music and Symptoms the other, because I agree that there’s definitely that positionality change.
MARY: And maybe that’s a shift from Time/Time Away to Safe Spaces, because EEOC creates a safer space at work now. Also, in the last two novels the parents didn’t need as much time to accept their children’s transition or emerging.
TABITHA: That makes sense. I was talking to someone about this and we came to this idea that J and Luna were very secretive about this whole transition. Gabe and Riley were both socially transitioning in whatever way they were comfortable, and playing with that transition without changing too much. Riley and Gabe seemed to be transitioning to their chosen identity slowly and more thoughtfully – that takes time too, but it’s time for the character to figure themselves out and invite others into that journey. This approach contrasts to J and Luna, who transitioned mostly in solitude or in their heads. J and Luna eventually found that point where they felt like they didn’t have a choice but to transition and chose that point to share with others. Gabe and Riley seem much more comfortable with who they are and share that with others sooner.
LEANNA: That makes sense. Riley and Gabe also had a space to negotiate and explore their transitions on the radio and online in the blogs. Whereas J and Luna didn’t really have that space or a wide audience.
TABITHA: They didn’t really give themselves that space.
LEANNA: Exactly. Riley and Gabe had a wide audience to explore who they really were and wait for that acceptance or rejection.
TABITHA: But an invisible audience–it wasn’t like a school thing. Luna and J were so broken in a way that they didn’t have any other thoughts about what to do… other ways of negotiating their lives. It had to be medical transitioning or nothing.
LEANNA: Right. I agree.
MARY: I think that we all have a little bit of gender fluidity in us, so that begs the question about why aren’t we more accepting of gender fluidity?
LEANNA: It has to do with our conditioning. I mean even Riley struggles with that. We classify in some ways.
MARY: I think that these books have really opened my eyes to the way that we gender our world, objects, behaviors, words and phrases.
Title: Symptoms of Being Human
Author: Jeff Garvin
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date Published: February 2, 2016