A youthful story of identity and community

Symptoms of Being Human focuses on the struggles of gender identity and the critical importance of community.


Author's website (jeffgarvin.com)

This novel, about a gender-fluid teen, gets five stars from reviewer.

Nicole Lundahl
In the wildly popular genre of Young Adult books, which are targeted to teenage readers through teen protagonists, progress has been made through an emergence of characters, whether it be protagonists or side characters, who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. In the popular fantasy YA series The Mortal Instruments, by Cassandra Clare, there are multiple characters who are gay or who have an orientation other than straight.

There are also books in the YA genre that focus primarily on the acceptance of the protagonist’s sexuality.  Robin Talley, a visitor to the Teen Book Festival in May, published her historical fiction novel, Lies We Tell Ourselves, a book set in the South during the Civil Rights movement and focusing on two girls on the opposite side of the desegregation movement.

BeckyAlbertalli’s  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, for which producers are planning a movie adaptation, tells the story of a closeted gay boy and the struggles he faces. While there is an increasing number of novels that feature characters with less traditional sexual orientation, there are only a few that focus on the struggle of gender identity.

One compelling contemporary book that came out in February of this year focuses on the struggles of a gender-fluid character.

In Symptoms of Being Human, Jeff Garvin tells the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a closeted gender-fluid teenager. While expressing the struggles of being gender fluid, such as body dysphoria, Garvin also addresses problems such as anxiety and panic attacks.  The author also shows the effect social media (and what is said on it) has on a person’s everyday life.  Garvin, furthermore, shows readers how important having a sense of community is, in order for one to accept and be true to oneself.

Riley lives two lives — one online, one not. Online, Riley anonymously shares personal stories about life and being gender-fluid and gives advice to those who ask for it. In the “real” world, Riley is the child of a legislator who is up for re-election.  Riley only opens up to a therapist about being gender-fluid. The book starts with Riley’s first blog post, and the opening lines set the tone of the book: “The first thing you’re going to want know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?” It’s a powerful opening line that sets up the book’s conflict, while also giving the reader a glimpse into the character’s voice. Riley’s narration is one the defining features of this book: it is youthful, sarcastic, and unapologetic.

After the opening, Garvin follows Riley’s first day at a new school, where Riley finds both friends and foes. While facing bullies and their slurs, Riley finds a sense of community in the support the anonymous blog has gotten, as well as in the stories that are sent into the blog.  The friends Riley makes in school provide support against the bullies’ attacks. The author masterfully shows the importance of friendship, and the conflicts that can arise between friends. Garvin realistically tackles the topic of bullying and how it can create tension between friends.

All of the characters are complex, as well as their relationships to the other characters.  Each character provides a way for another character to grow, thus creating a healthy dynamic.  Garvin accurately depicts the vital role of community in Riley’s struggles and shows the importance of having that support. Through Symptoms of Being Human, Garvin helps readers see how important these bonds are to LGBTQ+ people in real life.  Community and pride have been central with LGBTQ+ people, as evidenced by the multiple pride parades and weeks throughout the year for all the different sexualities and genders.

Safe spaces and communities are an integral part of acceptance of one’s identity.  On the contrary, struggle for identity comes from lack of good representation.  Books such as Symptoms of Being Human are examples of good representation, but these novels are few in number — which is why they are so important.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is a five-star book that belongs on an ever-growing bookshelf of LGBTQ+ books.  With a main character who brings both tears and laughter, and a story of friendship, family, and acceptance filled to the brim with conflict, it is a must-read for everyone.