Worlds of Words presents a new year of our regular feature, My Take/Your Take, in which we share a thematic dialogue on selected books. My Take/Your Take introduces one book, two or more readers, and multiple perspectives. Then we ask, “What’s your take?”
This month we discuss adolescent literature that features coming out stories of transgender and gender fluid adolescents. Mary and Leanna happened upon this genre when they brainstormed ways to interpret a Crossing Borders theme in their undergraduate teacher-education classes. Tabitha, a doctoral candidate, focuses on children’s and adolescent literature that features LGBTQ+ characters as part of their research agenda. What follows in each discussion is a synopsis of the novel and excerpts from our conversations about multiple topics including believability (Tunnel & Jacobs, 2004), stereotypes, story patterns (Stott, 1978), supports in place for LGBTQ youth (particularly at school), and the authors’ calls to action.
Tunnel, M. T., & Jacobs, J. (2004). Children’s literature briefly. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Stott, J. C. (1978). Running away to home—A story pattern in children’s literature. Language Arts. 55(4), (473-477).
Trapped inside a female body, J struggles to claim his male identity. As J’s female body begins to develop, he begins binding his chest and hiding underneath layers of clothing. J desperately wants, needs, to take T (testosterone) so that his body will reflect his true identity. But because he is only 17, J needs his parents’ consent. J will have to come out to his parents as FtM (female to male) transgender. Beam’s novel portrays the struggles of a teenager trying to come out to family and friends so that he can live the life he was meant to live.
We began our conversation with a discussion about the believability of the story. We focused on J’s struggles as a transgender adolescent and on the ending of the novel.
MARY: Let’s start with the ending. Leanna, you said that it was a happy ending and that wasn’t realistic.
LEANNA: It seemed like it wasn’t going to be a happy ending. I was a little hopeful that it wouldn’t be, but then the ending was almost too fake. It ended happily even though J went through these horrible things. Js circumstance is unique. People who struggle with these things don’t always have great recoveries, where everything is all squared away in the end.
TABITHA: Everything tied itself into a neat little bow… the end!
MARY: What would you say J’s struggles are? His biggest struggles?
LEANNA: He can’t be who he is because of the people around him. That consumes every thought. It’s harder for J to step over hurdles to be himself. It consumes his every thought because everyone else thinks he is Jennifer.
TABITHA: J’s gender identity and gender expression don’t match up with his biological sex. People are so focused on what his biological sex is that he’s having a hard time feeling comfortable in his skin. He’s not accepted by his family or his friends for the most part.
MARY: I liked the book. Would I recommend it? As an outsider, I wouldn’t be able to say that it’s an authentic portrayal.
TABITHA: I would say, yes, it is a pretty authentic portrayal. It’s difficult to say that because each person has a different authentic experience. But the emotions that the author describes, the coping skills, the ways of trying to ‘pass’ as male are authentic. I would recommend to a student because it’s well-written and the author is well-known. She’s written frequently about trans folks.
Our conversation shifts as we discuss elements of J’s coming out story as portrayed by the author. We wonder if J’s story contains stereotypes.
MARY: I couldn’t determine if there are stereotypes throughout the book, so I made a list: eliminating his female body by not looking at himself in the mirror, cutting his hair short, wearing layers of baggy clothes. I don’t know if those are stereotypes, strategies, or something else.
TABITHA: For many people I know who are FtM trans, they do use those strategies to make themselves appear more masculine–anything from wearing an undershirt with shirts over to flatten their chest to harmful things like using Ace Bandages.
LEANNA: I don’t think it’s so much stereotypical as much as it is educating. The author is trying to educate the reader about the struggles and coping strategies that trans people use to make their bodies match their identity prior to a full transition. Make sense?
TABITHA: Yes. Almost everyone I know who is trans does those things.
LEANNA: J creates a binder and then someone gives him a binder–that is one of the happy endings because a binder is expensive. I did see some stereotypes like when J has that confrontation with Blue (a classmate) about the poem. She thinks that he is gay, so the artsy stereotype of gay men.
Our conversation turns to possible story patterns of LBGT novels. Although we don’t mention Stotts’ (1978) article specifically, we base our conversation on story patterns he identified in children’s literature (e.g. home-away-home). For our conversations, we explore Time and Time Away as a story pattern in the novels we discuss for My Take/Your Take.
TABITHA: J is kind of spoiled, honestly. He is kind of arrogant. He doesn’t listen to anyone else when they talk to him, he has his own ideas. While I don’t think his parents are doing a great job of supporting him, I also don’t think that anybody’s parents do a great job of supporting them in certain situations. And being trans is a huge thing. As a parent you go from having a daughter for so long and then one day your daughter says, “So, I’m not a girl.”
MARY: But is it really, “and then one day”?
TABITHA: Usually in the stories and in people’s lives there are signs, but then there is one day where the person “comes out” and says, “This is who I am.” Think about the way that J knows he is a boy and spends months, weeks, and years being a boy to his mind and then he comes out. He has all that space and time to transition in his head. Then he needs his parents to accept him as soon as he comes out to them. It’s a huge thing.
LEANNA: J assumed his parents wouldn’t accept him. For sure, they aren’t overly accepting, but he never has to leave. That is never a suggestion. He never has to go to a hotel; he never has to go to this homeless shelter. He doesn’t have to do any of that, but it helps create the neat happy ending.
TABITHA: Yeah, things have to be bad so that they can get good. If he stuck it out with his family, I don’t know if they ever would have been exuberant, but they probably would have been better.
LEANNA: In the end, his parents are somewhat accepting. He doesn’t give them that opportunity.
MARY: You think then, what is created by the end of the story is that J’s parents have time to get to a place that he has already gotten to?
TABITHA: I think that’s what happens… if you’re trans or not part of the gender binary, then you spend a lot of time thinking about that and trying to figure out who you are, why you feel the way you do, why you don’t fit in to the normal (applicable even if you’re gay/lesbian). Then by the time you’re ready to share, you have had all this time, you know who you are, you know how you feel, but you don’t realize that others need an adjustment period too. J is a senior so he’s probably had these thoughts for years and he doesn’t give his parents and friends a chance to process in order to accept him.
LEANNA: They are accepting of him as a lesbian but this is different. It’s almost grieving the loss of Jennifer, the person they know and J wants acceptance to be instantaneous.
TABITHA: Often people see ‘signs’ that they can interpret–some sort of embodiment, hair, clothes, etc., that let them think you are gay/lesbian and you can come to accept that. However, moving from lesbian to boy is a bigger step.
MARY: Why don’t parents step forward and ask for time and ask their child to not do anything irrational like leave home. Are there books that talk about that?
LEANNA: I don’t know if there are books that talk about time and time away–not from the trans person’s point of view.
TABITHA: Not really–maybe Luna?
MARY: Wouldn’t that be more hopeful in a book? Time?
As former teachers (Mary and Tabitha) and an administrator (Leanna), we examine the role school plays in the lives of LGBTQ students. We are hopeful that schools provide not only safe spaces, but also support and education about LGBTQ to all students, faculty, and staff.
LEANNA: Going back to the ending, J’s now accepted to college, and everything is tied up neatly. It’s a great ending. But it goes along with the “It Gets Better” project. That is, now this time is over and J is going somewhere he can get a new start where people don’t know him.
TABITHA: Do we want to say anything else about his experiences in school? I think it’s reflective of a really crappy reality.
MARY: J’s experiences in school–the support that school gives, if any–the first high school is hell. J doesn’t want to be there and often doesn’t go.
LEANNA: In the alternative school, the academic level is not as high as J is accustomed to but the adults and his friend are supportive, his friend more so than the adults. But it doesn’t seem like a big theme.
MARY: Why is his school experience absent in this novel? Is it the author’s choice?
LEANNA: Yeah, school doesn’t seem that important to J.
MARY: Maybe that’s why the author makes him a senior, so school wouldn’t have to be a focus.
LEANNA: Maybe? One of J’s biggest fears is what will happen when he goes to college. He has those fears and anxieties about his name/dead name in school (dead name is the name a person is assigned at birth but no longer wants to be called). He does talk about school. It’s mentioned, but it isn’t a big focus.
MARY: What else is J worried about in college?
LEANNA: The roommate thing, the bathroom thing, the transcript would say one name while he goes by another.
TABITHA: Those are typical worries and concerns for people who are trans.
MARY: So, maybe as we read the other novels, we can watch for different ways the character is supported.
TABITHA: Or, like, what does support look like to the trans person?
Title: I Am J
Author: Cris Beam
Publisher: Little Brown
Date Published: January 1, 2011
Winner of the Kirkus Best Book Award of 2011, the Amazon Best Books Award of March 2011, the Junior Library Guild Selection of 2011 and the Rainbow Book List for 2012.
Liam has never felt okay in his own skin because deep down, he knows that he is a girl playing a boy during his waking hours. At night, though, Luna emerges. Safe in the confines of her sister Regan’s bedroom, she transforms into the girl that she is inside. As Luna becomes more comfortable with her chosen identity, she can’t hide from the world anymore. Luna feels she must emerge from her cocoon and present as Luna to the world. But will Regan and the rest of Luna’s friends and family be able to accept Luna for who she is? And can Regan ever stop resenting the choices that Luna has made and how those choices affect her? Peters’ novel shows the struggles of a transgender teen trying to come to terms with her identity as well as shows readers how Luna’s struggles (and the struggles of others like her) can impact the lives of close friends and family members.
We began with a discussion about whose story is being told and from whose perspective. Our conversation transitioned from perspective to wondering if Time and Time Away were story patterns found in Luna.
TABITHA: Did you think that the character of Luna was underdeveloped in this book? I felt like she was less a character and more an object. I didn’t learn anything about Luna except that she likes to sneak into her sister Regan’s bedroom in the middle of the night and put on makeup. I understand that Luna is trans but that’s about all I learned. I don’t feel like she had a lot of personality. In fact, most of the story was about Luna’s sister, Regan.
LEANNA: I would say the story is about Luna’s struggle to come out. Maybe that doesn’t develop her personality, but the flashbacks to Luna’s childhood helped me understand Luna’s struggles.
MARY: The story is an outsider’s perspective on Luna. Regan was watching, participating in Luna’s life. She was more connected to Luna than other people, like Luna’s friend, Aly. But still, this is Regan’s story.
TABITHA: Maybe the title and the cover threw me off. I expected it to be more a story about Luna than about Regan.
MARY: So who do you think the audience for this book is? It almost seems like it would be for family members or siblings or…?
LEANNA: Allies, I guess?
MARY: Allies – to share the struggles that allies face?
TABITHA: Yeah, which I guess is something that we talked about in I Am J, where the family has no idea what’s going on and that it’s a transition for them as well.
MARY: And again, it has the story pattern of Time, right? Regan had time, but Luna’s parents did not. Though I think they suspect…
TABITHA: The mom, for sure.
MARY: So there was the story pattern of Time, and at the end there was the pattern of Time Away. We talked about how we weren’t sure if time away helped people understand in the same way that staying around to watch the development, the transition, the emerging would help.
TABITHA: I do think that time away might help Luna, because she’s walking into a great opportunity. And I don’t think that staying would benefit her at all.
MARY: Not at all?
TABITHA: I don’t know…. I think that Luna’s life has a lot of impact on Regan’s life. If Luna stayed, she would continue to impact Reagan’s life in a lot of negative ways because Regan spends all her time worrying about Luna and doesn’t live her own life. Luna’s the older sibling and is so wrapped up in her own world that it’s hard for her to see how she’s impacting Regan. Yet, Regan doesn’t say “no” because she doesn’t know how.
LEANNA: It does seem like Reagan is so focused on Luna, even when she’s not around Luna.
MARY: What does Regan focus on specifically?
LEANNA: I think Regan focuses on safety or on the fear she feels when Luna decides to transition and come out to everyone.
TABITHA: It’s obvious to Regan that Luna can’t keep hiding. Regan doesn’t know when Luna’s going to come out, and she is surprised when Luna shows up at school dressed in her girl clothes. Regan did not anticipate that, and the impact of Luna’s actions was difficult for Reagan to deal with. I think Regan just assumed that Luna could continue dressing up in the middle of the night in her bedroom for the rest of Luna’s life and not actually come out.
Our interest in the role school plays in the lives of LGBT teens sparked our discussion about the support Luna and Regan receive at school. We also discussed similarities found in Luna and I am J.
TABITHA: I was thinking about the school theme again. I think Luna and J are similar because neither of them goes to school because it’s too much — too awful, too traumatic. We see this when Luna’s dad showed up at baseball tryouts to make sure Luna participated. I thought, “Man, dude, you’re a jerk.”
LEANNA: School is a very restrictive environment, where even your family can show up and make sure you’re doing what they want you to do.
TABITHA: This might be why Luna spent a lot of time not going to school, like J. Then Luna was dragging Regan out of school.
MARY: Yet, wasn’t Luna really bright?
LEANNA and TABITHA: Yes.
MARY: So Luna could kind of afford to skip school.
LEANNA: J was bright, too. Right?
MARY: So why are these characters portrayed this way in these stories?
TABITHA: Do the characters have to be smart for readers to take them seriously as trans?
MARY: Is that what the authors are saying?
TABITHA: I don’t know, but in some backwards way that makes sense. I think that some readers would need a reason to believe that they’re not just crazy people. Does that make sense?
MARY & LEANNA: Yes!
MARY: But, I’m bothered by that.
TABITHA: So am I. I don’t think it’s okay if it’s true.
MARY: Is this trying to “normalize” the trans characters? They’re smart, they drive nice cars, and they go to Starbucks. They are just like “us.”
TABITHA: Seems to be. If they’re going to be on the fringe for being trans, if they’re going to be marginalized by being trans, they must somehow fit into categories that people find acceptable, you know? It’s a lot easier for general readers to accept characters as being trans if they’re portrayed as “normal” in other ways.
MARY: Yes, like if they’re really smart.
TABITHA: Or if they do things that make them a “typical” teenager so that we can forgive their trans-ness.
LEANNA: Or at least so we don’t think it’s a “phase.” Because they’ve been stable all this time, in other ways.
TABITHA: Right, so it doesn’t look like they’re having a breakdown. It seems like from the descriptions of Luna and I Am J, the characters live decent, middle-class lives, right? And they both have parents that are married. (The parents being married is kind of a big deal.) So they have this nice family, right? That’s another way the authors normalize Luna and J, by giving them this perceived perfect American family… a mom and a dad, good jobs, cars and stuff.
LEANNA: Maybe the middle-class lives surround these character to show no blame. For example, if the characters lived with a single parent or had less economic stability, those struggles may be seen as something to blame for the character choosing to be a different gender.
TABITHA: That seems like a nature versus nurture argument in some ways. Their environment is good, so readers expect trans characters to be happy, healthy, “normal” kids. They don’t have a lot of struggles.
MARY: Are you saying that the author is trying to diffuse the nature versus nurture argument by “normalizing” Luna’s environment?
TABITHA: Yes, in a way. Clearly nature has given Luna a good life, so readers can’t blame her trans identity on something that went wrong in her family life.
We closed our discussion with a conversation about the author’s call to action. We wondered if we were being called to action by the author or the characters in Luna and I am J.
MARY: Is there a call to action in Luna? What kind of action is the author or Regan or Luna asking readers to take? Do these books have a call to action?
LEANNA: In these books, the authors explained being trans, making sure not to confuse it with being gay or lesbian, and used proper pronouns. Maybe it’s a simple call (and I don’t know that it’s simple); maybe we’re called to use proper language and to understand differences between LGBT?
TABITHA: That makes sense. And Luna and J just want to be accepted. They want people to understand that being trans is who they are and to respect that.
Author: Julie Anne Peters
Publisher: Little Brown
Date Published: February 1, 2006
Winner of the 2005 Stonewall Honor Book Award from the American Library Association, the 2005 Colorado Book Award for Young Adult Literature, the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults 2005, the Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2004, and the New York Public Library Books for the Teen-Age List 2005.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is the story of Gabe, who has been living as Elizabeth, but has known for some time that he is Gabe and must figure out a way to show himself to the world. Through his job at a local radio station, and with the support of his friend and neighbor, John, Gabe is able to experiment with sharing his identity during his late-night radio show. Unfortunately, people eventually begin to make the connections between Gabe and Elizabeth, and when things take a turn for the worst, Gabe must make some difficult decisions. Using humor and a wide range of musical references, Cronn-Mills addresses the delicate subject of an often ignored population in a way that is authentic and engaging.
We began our conversation with praise for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children and a discussion about the realistic elements of the story:
MARY, TABITHA, and LEANNA (all talking): Loved it! Loved this book! Really great story!
TABITHA: I think it’s a pretty realistic portrayal.
MARY: Do you think it’s realistic? Or are the other books (I am J and Luna) realistic?
TABITHA: It’s like what I was saying about the last two books; I think it is completely realistic for some people. Beautiful Music reminds me of at least two of my friends’ experiences. One friend’s family, even though it’s been a few years, still struggles and occasionally misgenders him, but they make an effort to be good, supportive parents. And his friends try really hard, too. I think that there are people who are lucky enough to have that.
MARY: This book seems much more holistic, looking at a person as a person rather than looking at a person as a gender.
TABITHA: I would say so, too. And I think that Gabe’s experiences are pretty realistic, too. Like working at the radio station. High school students do this; they work at radio stations. And then Gabe gets a following, which seemed a little on the fictional side, but that could happen.
MARY: Sure, it happens. Like people on YouTube.
TABITHA: Right! It may have felt more realistic to me if it was YouTube. But I think that the story is honest, even the horrible things that happen are honest. It’s not like Gabe has a perfect life with a supportive family, blah, blah, blah. No, he has this encounter with people from school who are mean to him. I think that’s pretty real. Even if you have a support network of people who care, you’re still going to encounter mean people.
LEANNA: I thought radio was good, though. Gabe is able to be Gabe when he is working because he talks to an invisible audience, and that gives him the confidence to be who he is. I think I liked him most when he was on the air.
MARY: Yes, there wasn’t a struggle. And I also liked that Gabe didn’t win the contest. I liked that he didn’t win and he had to make a plan, because life doesn’t always go smoothly.
LEANNA: And John lived in the end, but he wasn’t well. He wasn’t back to normal. I liked that it wasn’t all happy at the end.
TABITHA: There was no bow! We don’t like the nice little bow on top at the end.
Next, we discussed the possibilities of Time and Time Away as a story pattern in Beautiful Music just as we had discussed this possibility in I am J and Luna in our previous My Take/Your Take conversations.
MARY: Okay, this book had Time as a story pattern, but it didn’t have Time Away. What do you think about that?
TABITHA: I don’t think Gabe needed time away.
LEANNA: Isn’t he going away in the end?
TABITHA: He’s going to college, right?
MARY: He’s going to junior college in his home town, so not quite “away.”
TABITHA: I think that Luna and J needed time away. They needed time away more than Gabe does, because their families weren’t as accepting as Gabe’s family. I don’t think that Gabe’s family is perfect by any means, but they seemed more inclined to try.
MARY: I’m not sure that the dad was in a trying mood…
LEANNA: Well, he did introduce Gabe as his son at the end, right?
MARY: Oh, that’s right!
TABITHA: I think the dad needed more time, but I think Gabe has a lot more support than Luna or J did. With those supports in place, Gabe didn’t necessarily feel like he had to leave. Luna said that she felt like she had to leave. It seemed that J felt like he had to leave originally, but then he came back and stayed with his friend for a while. That’s probably why Beautiful Music doesn’t have Time Away. I don’t think that Gabe needs it as much.
LEANNA: Do you think that Gabe did spend time away, though? He seemed very independent and most of his time was spent next door at John’s house, or work, or the radio station, or school. So maybe Gabe was away?
MARY: I thought that was a typical teenager thing, though.
TABITHA: Right, but Luna and J don’t have that much going on. They don’t have friends really.
LEANNA: They don’t have outlets.
TABITHA: Right, and Gabe has all these things that he does. He doesn’t let the fact that he’s struggling with his gender identity put him in a box and keep him away from his life. He doesn’t let it make him stop living. In a way J and Luna both kind of put their lives on hold while they were trying to figure out their gender identity and what to do, while Gabe is like, “No… I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”
LEANNA: Yes, and take risks at the same time. And if it didn’t work out, then, oh well.
TABITHA: Yeah, but small risks. Not like J and Luna, who had to take huge risks. Which is what I think makes Beautiful Music seem so much more realistic because who doesn’t take small risks in their lives? And I think all of Gabe’s small risks led up to his situation being a lot better than J and Luna’s situations.
We also discussed the supportive role school plays in the lives of transgender youth. Tabitha talked about the Safe Schools Initiative during our discussion.
MARY: I’m not sure that school was supportive in this book, either.
TABITHA & LEANNA: No.
TABITHA: I don’t think school is supportive in any of the books that I’ve read with LGBT characters.
MARY: That’s so interesting.
LEANNA: It’s not surprising, though. There’s so much bullying that takes place in schools, so I’m not surprised that they’re not supportive. Because in reality, I don’t think that they are.
MARY: No, but isn’t there this push or this move to make schools safer places for LGBT students?
TABITHA: The Safe Schools Initiative is a huge deal, but you can make the environment safe. You can create designated spaces to help people feel safe. But you can’t make the other students be safe.
MARY: That’s true.
TABITHA: That’s the problem I have. While I support the Safe Schools Initiative and I think it’s great that they’re trying to educate teachers, I think one of the biggest problems is the other students. And what good is it doing LGBT students if we’re like, “Oh you’re struggling so just go to this room and you’ll be safe…”
LEANNA: And we have to mark our rooms with the triangle and the rainbow saying this is a safe zone and this is not.
TABITHA: Exactly, and so I have a problem with the “safe spaces” thing because of that.
MARY: Because every space should be safe.
TABITHA: Yeah and maybe we don’t necessarily need safe spaces that segregate, maybe we need brave spaces that integrate? Just people who are willing to be themselves in the world and show others by example that it’s okay to be different?
MARY: And I don’t think it’s people perceived as different that have problems. It’s the people that can’t handle those who are perceived as different. Those are the people we should be educating and working with.
TABITHA: Yes! There was a study done about the immigrants and safe spaces. They were basically quarantined, but it doesn’t change anything. They’re eventually going to have to leave that room, and the underlying problem is the other people. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything in place to do anything about those other people.
LEANNA and MARY: Exactly.
Title: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
Author: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Publisher: North Star Editions
Date Published: October 8, 2012
Winner of the 2014 Stonewall Award from the American Library Association and a silver medal winner of the 2014 IPPY Award (Independent Publisher Book Award)
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 the novel. 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