I live in the binary. Basically, I tend to categorize things into two piles. Things I like and things I do not like. Good things and bad things. Smart people and dumb people. Women and Men. Democrat or Republican.
To some extent, I think it’s human nature to put a label on something. Labeling allows our brain to categorize and better sort information to pull at a later time when we might need it. There’s been a big movement in the mainstream visibility of trans* individuals, largely due to Caitlyn Jenner and her fame. However, people who identify as gender non-conforming or gender fluid have not gotten as much public attention. I’ve been really interested in looking at how fiction approaches this topic, and this weekend I read Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin as my first foray into these types of books.
Symptoms of Being Human is the story of Riley Cavanaugh, the child of a California congressman. Riley is gender fluid, some days feeling masculine, other days feeling feminine, and other days feel a bit of both. Riley is struggling with these confusing feelings while also trying to survive high school and being thrown into the spotlight through her father’s public service. This book is the story of a teenager just trying to figure out which way is up.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Working with college students and known some individuals on both a personal and professional level who have struggle with their gender identity, I wasn’t exactly new to the topic. However, Garvin writes this story with such sincerity that I felt a little of what Riley was feeling while navigating the world. As you read along with Riley’s struggles and online blogging (!!!) life, you get a glimpse into how hard it really is to try to live up to others’ expectations.
Although there are many things that I could highlight in this book, I want to talk about this concept of the binary and categorization. A couple of chapters into the book, Riley misgenders a classmate. When I first read the scene, I was kind of horrified. Riley spent the first couple of chapters trying not to spiral out of control as people referred to Riley as “it” and other completely inappropriate pronouns/names. And then Riley is (although not to the same extend) passing on binary judgement of others. I stopped reading at this point, because I was attending a conference and had to go to some sessions. As I reflected on what I had read and discussed the book a little with some of my colleagues, I hoped that Garvin would spend more time addressing Riley’s own use of the binary.
When I returned to the book, I found that Garvin did just that. Riley reflected on using the binary to describe Bec, who later turns into a love interest, and comments on how prevalent the need to categorize is in our society. This is the point I want to drive home. Sometimes what is right is not what is easy. And it’s really easy to try to put others into convenient predetermined boxes. I think this book helps the reader recognize the danger of categorizing people. It’s something I have to actively work at not doing, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Until Next Time World…
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a non-gender specific word to use? Something not he or she? I would really like that and find so useful as I’m sure many people would. Sounds like a good book you found!
Yeah it was a really good book! There are actually a lot of pronouns that are gender non-specific, but since they’re not taught in school they aren’t well known. And even though I know them, I still fumble over not saying which of the two options within the binary my brain puts them in. Frustrating. Here’s a link about pronouns: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-specific_and_gender-neutral_pronouns#Alternation_of_she_and_he
I’m also putting more things on the Gender page located under “The Issues” for people to read if they’re interested.
Thanks! I actually read a book recently, SF of course because it seems SF is where binary gender is often tossed out no questions asked, that used “xe” when the gender was uncertain. I personally use “they” a lot especially when writing which can be awkward but it is better in my opinion than s/he and variations.
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