LGBTQ YA Book Review: The Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is another of my Writer’s Book Club books, and I’m quite grateful I read it. It’s what I’d describe as a literary YA novel dealing primarily with the internal struggle of protagonist Riley Cavanaugh, nonbinary child of a congressman from Park Hills, California.

At the opening of the story, Riley isn’t doing too hot. They (there isn’t a preferred pronoun in the book, so they seems the best pronoun to use for the review due to familiarity and widespread adoption) have just transferred to a new school and have chosen to adopt a gender-neutral persona in an attempt to deflect constant questions about gender. Right when they walk into school, they’re immediately called “it” and attacked by a group of girls led by Sierra, one of the main antagonists in the book.

When they settle into their first period class, they meet a big Samoan dude nicknamed Solo and hit it off over geeky references. Just as they get comfortable in this new friendship, however, they’re left alone and stranded in their third period and eventually at lunch, where the football team humiliates them by demanding to know if they are a “fag” or a “dyke.”

Back at home, Riley avoids talking to their family about their experiences and instead turns to the blog they had started at the beginning of the first chapter. Under the pseudonym Alix, they spill their feelings out onto Tumblr expy Bloglr, believing it’s more like a journal than a blog post due to their lack of followers. They didn’t expect their blog to pick up followers and attract attention, and they certainly didn’t expect the later attention of love interest Bec.

Much like the last book I reviewed, A Land of Iron, the relationships between the protagonist and those around them form the beating heart of this book. Riley feels like a real teenager, and the way they dodge language about their biological sex and instead explore the pure psychological experience of being genderqueer/gender fluid is expertly done. I’ve heard there’s a film adaptation in the works and I doubt film can go half as far to openly experience the wonder and horror of gender dysphoria and a quest to find one’s place in the world at such a young age.

Unlike many narratives surrounding LGBTQ youth, this story gifts its protagonist with supportive (if misguided) parents, a decent level of privilege (one of the few physical details we get about Riley is that they are white) and wealth, and a support network of hard won friends. It does explore the other side through a subplot involving a follower of Riley’s blog who gets beaten within an inch of her life after coming out as trans to her parents, but for the most part the focus is on Riley and their journey to self acceptance and attempts to help others in their position accept their gender fluidity.

The writing style is smooth, clear, and consistent. It really feels like a teenager talking to me as I read, and I found myself sucked into Riley’s experiences as I read along.

5/5, well executed work that deserves its success. I’m glad the author decided to help fill a much needed niche in the LGBTQ+ sphere of fiction.

Freedom: A Struggle With Definitions

So many writers across the centuries have tackled this topic, and given recent events with the Trump administration, more journalists and friends have attempted to add their own marks to it than at any other time during my lifetime. Between Twitter and Facebook diatribes about the difference between freedom of speech and freedom from oppression and articles exploring the meaning of various freedoms as expressed in a 250+ year old document written by men who couldn’t possibly imagine our current lifestyles and predicaments, I feel like almost every facet has been covered.

What’s left for me?

Personally, I’ve noticed there’s a struggle in the current discourse when it comes to defining the word freedom. Even the dictionary seems unclear on this point. Currently, Webster’s Abridged has two working definitions, as follows:

1) the quality or state of being free, such as
            a: the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action

            b: liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another; independence
            c: the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous

      d : unrestricted use

  • gave him the freedom of their home

           e : ease, facility

  • spoke the language with freedom

            f: the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken

  • answered with freedom
            g: improper familiarity
            h: boldness of conception or execution

2 a: a political right

      b: franchise, privilege

Examining these definitions, it’s easy to see why the discourse gets so locked up. Often, when two people are discussing freedom, much like the word respect, they’re arguing between the freedom of or to do something versus the freedom from having to deal with said thing.

Thus, a member of the Christian hegemony can argue that their freedom of religion is being repressed, when truly what they’re saying is that they wish to guarantee their freedom from having to deal with conflicting beliefs or people who do not live lifestyles in accordance with their beliefs.

Often, in law, a term will be defined at the beginning of a legal statement for the express purpose of making sure there’s as little grey area as possible in interpreting the law. I believe this is a good part of what’s missing from our current discourse on freedom. Defining the term at the beginning of a discussion, as freedom of or freedom from, and then proceeding is the easiest way to find a middle ground, if that’s what one is interested in.

That said, I don’t believe freedom of necessarily trumps freedom from. Your freedom of expression should not allow you to incite violence against me, and in most cases the laws agree with me. But when it comes to discussing things like hate speech, discrimination in the workplace (especially in areas which, for example, may only have one bakery that happens to be owned by a fundamentalist Christian who happens to disagree with a patron’s desire to have a wedding cake baked for their gay wedding) and discrimination against women in health care, it’s nearly impossible to reason with the side that argues their freedom from trumps the freedom of pursuing happiness for the people they desire to discriminate against.

Our Constitution was a fantastic document for the men who wrote it, but from the beginning left out rights for indigenous peoples like my ancestors, people without enough wealth to own land, people who identified as women, and people with more melanin than the average European. As such, as much as we like to think it’s the gold standard for the values in this country, it’s hard to argue that it can stand on its own when discussing where the law should protect members of society versus where cultural pressure is the only way to change things.

The womxn’s marches, Black Lives Matter, Free Puerto Rico, and the gay rights movements have all proven those holes need to be filled. And in the end, social pressure hasn’t been enough to change everything. The Supreme Court had to step in and force domestic partnerships and homosexual marriages to be recognized on a federal, and therefore EVERY state, level. The freedom of gay men and women to marry trumped the freedom Christians desired from having to deal with the paperwork such marriages generate.

The freedom of speech does not trump freedom from oppression. And when one digs deeper, into the rights of transgenders to change the sex on their birth certificates or the freedom legal medical marijuana patients seek from government monitoring on a patient list, it’s easy to see why these terms can easily become drowned in the mix.

Ultimately, freedom can never be absolute, or there would be no society. Denigrating terms harm people for generations.

Respect is often as nebulous as freedom when one attempts to define it, but it’s usually meant in one of two ways: being treated like a person, and being treated like an authority. Often those who demand respect before they will grant it mean they won’t treat another human like a person until that human sees them as an authority.

The respect most of us seek in this discourse is the freedom to be treated as a human being, and the restriction of the “freedom” others perceive as their right not to do so. The majority of the proponents of freedom from restriction desire for their belief structures to be respected as authorities, so that minority groups lose their respect as humans.

Many readers will dismiss this assessment as liberal drivel, but I hope those who don’t, those on the conservative spectrum and in the centrist aisle can see what I mean. When one discusses freedom or respect, it’s important to understand denotatively what each party means before the discussion can continue.