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Riley is 16 and they have just changed high schools because they were getting bullied at their old private school. Now they are starting public school and they hope that people will be more tolerant there. Riley is gender fluid, and they explain that some days they feel like a girl and other days they feel like a boy. While that sense of identity is more internal, their appearance also does not conform to traditional gender norms -- when people at school look at them they are not sure whether Riley is male or female. It is not long before one of the players on the football team taunts Riley and threatens them. But they also start to make friends, and they have to work out who they can trust. Riley is seeing a psychiatrist who is the only person who knows their secret. One recommendation the professional gives is to find a way to express their feelings, so Riley starts a blog and works through some issues there. Soon the blog gets followers, and after a few dramatic interactions, it goes viral. This changes Riley's life.
Riley's father is a congressman running for reelection, and this puts particular pressure on Riley to be cautious about coming out. The revelation could have a dramatic effect on the election and the politician is very focused on winning. So there's a lot of risk in having a blog that goes viral. Yet Riley also finds it very satisfying to interact with the blog's followers, especially when it seems that the blog helps others. Riley has a great ability with language and eventually realizes that working towards improving the lives of those who are gender queer. Although Riley hates the political life they see, but flourishes when making a change in the world.
But most of the plot of Symptoms of Being Human is about Riley's struggle to come to terms with coming out and finding a community. Good friendships come and with the help of those friends, Riley grows happier with their life and is able to stand up to others. The bullying Riley encounters gets more intense, and there is plenty of drama, but it works out well in the end. At the same time, Riley is acutely conscious that very often people who are don't fall into straightforward gender categories have very difficult lives, and can become homeless or some end up killing themselves. This novel mainly aimed at young adults has plenty of educational information for those who want to know more about gender fluidity. It also has a strong story which keeps the reader turning the pages.
The performance of the book is by Tom Phelan, who according to an article in Pride.com, also does not identify as either male or female. The performance is full of charisma and helps the reader feel Riley's emotions strongly.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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