The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything
Transphobia; Physical assault;
Riley Cavanaugh from Symptoms of Being Human is the first gender fluid character I’ve seen in any form of media as any type of character (main or supporting, that is). When I couldn’t find anything explicit about the author being gender fluid or trans-identifying in any manner himself, I had a moment of concern that the story would scream with ignorance. That fear died very quickly because I was just excited to be reading about a main character that was also trans-identifying. And at the end of Symptoms of Being Human, I am very pleased to say that that fear was proved to be misled.
The best part of the way he wrote this character, is that you never find out for sure what gender Riley was assigned at birth, which is irrelevant for people in real life as well. There are also no pronouns used for Riley anywhere in the book. You might think that sounds awkward, but the story is in the first person, so the reader doesn’t really notice until they try to talk about Riley. (And forgive me for assuming pronouns, but I’m going to use they/them for Riley because I can’t go without pronouns in this review without it sounding awkward.)
Other than this seemingly minor detail that makes me very happy, Riley is a very real person. They struggle with anxiety and depression, as many LGBT+ members do, and they, unfortunately, face bullying and harassment from those around them that just don’t understand. I think every reader can relate to Riley’s issues with fitting in somewhere and even trying to hide when we feel uncomfortable because that’s such a human experience.
Through most of the book, the plot stays open. As a reader, I kept asking questions like, “what could happen next?” and “where are these characters headed now?” There was no main goal set at the beginning. Riley never said anything like “I am going to find a way to come out to my parents” or anything. There were a lot of sub-plots, like Riley trying to find friends at a new school, starting an anonymous blog, and trying to find a “purpose” as suggested by Doctor Ann. I can understand how this would be frustrating for readers, but I enjoyed to open possibilities of what could happen next.
I am a strong believer that minority groups deserve to have their stories told in ways where their identity isn’t plot. While stories that don’t center around the oppression of a character’s identity are nice, I do believe that some stories like this are necessary. We still need a few stories that bring these struggles to light. We still need stories that introduce the idea of a type of person that many still have not heard of. And I am very happy with the way that this story has accomplished this.
Final thought: I’m giving Symptoms of Being Human five stars. I’m in love with the characters, and I’m very satisfied with the accurate narration of the human experience in this story. It certainly earned its title.