Being In the Wrong Body Every Day: Gender ID Commentary in Levithan’s YA Novel

David Levithan’s YA novel, Every Day, harkens back to the show Quantum Leap. Remember when Scott Bakula would jump to a new person’s body every week, and have to live out their lives until he solved a problem?

Only in Levithan’s book, there is no explanation, there is handy hologram to help the protagonist out, and there is no obvious problem to solve. There are only days to live out. The protagonist, who calls his or herself “A,” leaps into a different body every night at midnight. This has happened all of A’s life. A does not have a home or family that belongs to A.

“I wake up. I have to figure out who I am.” Imagine that happening to you as a teenager every day. The magic of the premise is in the lack of explanation, exhibiting the same poetic lack of explanation as Groundhog DayIt’s not about figuring out why, but figuring out how.

One can’t help but associate this narrative with the narratives of those who identify in real life as being “born in the wrong body.” Levithan writes often about LGBT issues, and Every Day does seem at times to be a veiled campaign to get readers into the shoes of those with gender identity issues.

Much of the story does exist for its own sake, using this sic-fi scenario to explore general questions about what it means to be human, and what it would mean to experience humanity differently, from a different angle, through a different lens. “A” ponders how people see one another, the enormity of the universe, outer versus inner appearance, the ephemeral nature of every day, every moment.

As Levithan has said in an interview, “it is uncomfortable to love somebody who alters themselves so frequently.” A is a character who, every day of their life, has woken up in the “wrong” body, one they know is not their own. A is a character without a gender identity: As he/she leaps from body to body, sometimes A is a boy, sometimes A is a girl, and sometimes A is attracted to one or the other. A begins to fall for a female, but experiences these feelings in the bodies of both boys and girls. As A says on page 154, “there are a few things harder than being born in the wrong body[…]There were days I felt like a girl and days I felt like a boy[…]It is an awful thing to be betrayed by your body[…]You feel it’s a battle you will never win…and yet you fight it day after day, and it wears you down.” This is bound to make readers consider the struggles of those who consider themselves in the “wrong” body, those who feel like a girl in a boy body, or a boy in a girl body.

There is a prevailing message in the story that love can conquer boundaries, that love changes the world for people, that people have possibilities that must be explored and allowed. There is a very subtle campaign to establish that love, even romantic love, is not about gender, that identity is fully up to the individual, regardless of the space and world they occupy.

But there is something potentially problematic with using such a medium to establish what you believe about identity. Science fiction is a splendid genre that helps open our minds to possibilities, but it is not a genre that should directly tell us the truth about reality. It a genre in which the rules of science and reality, so far as we know them, are different.

Star Trek does not tell me there are aliens or that it’s possible to “beam” a person from here to there, but it does help me imagine an optimistic future where humans can work together to explore the universe. The Matrix helps me understand how we can let our own systems work against us and enslave us, but it does not tell me whether I am actually sitting in a tub of goo experiencing an elaborate hologram.

“A” has no gender, but even more so, A his no single body. This is beyond science fiction. It’s a compelling “what if” story that causes us to examine how we see a number of issues, but we can not base values on “what if” scenarios.

Gender identity is a complex set of issues to work out. The stories of others, real or fictional, can help place us in the shoes of those who experience different struggles, but stories do have their limit in telling us what is true, what way of living in reality we should value. The work of the sciences—psychology, biology, sociology—these assist us in discovering the truth (and the facts) about what people go through.

There are startling implications for declaring that someone experiencing gender identity issues has been “born in the wrong body.” What is wrong? What has gone wrong? If your body exhibits its own gender, but you begin to feel another, what does it mean to assert that you have the prerogative to “leap” into another mode of existence?

[spoiler alert]

A learns something about love in the story—love can not always conquer all for its own sake. It can only conquer for the sake of others, and sometimes in the name of something greater than us. After all, A can not remain with Rhiannon. A chooses to let Rhiannon fall in love with someone else. A’s decision is a selfless act based on the realization that the limitations of A’s identity do not make a relationship with Rhiannon possible.

Conventionally radical romance principles dictate that A and Rhiannon should shove everything else in their reality aside and do whatever it takes to always be together. But others would be hurt, and their own identities would be harmed, as they had been already. There is something greater at play than their happiness as a couple. A concedes to that, and selflessly arranges for Rhiannon to meet someone more suitable for her—namely, a person who’s identity is attached to their body. In a typical science fiction romance, readers might expect A and Rhiannon to navigate these scifi miracle and unite forever. The narrative almost tries to. But the miracle of selflessness persists above the miracle of imagination.

Though we are working with a fascinating science fiction premise, our protagonist accepts a fundamental truth about reality that even in a science fiction world we must concede to. Crossing these boundaries of reality do not always yield the results we want to be a reality. Due to the nature of A’s unique identity, love for A is not and can not be defined by a romantic relationship, but by living out his/her days in service of other people. I can’t help but take that lesson in particular. Our society has come to define love as a feeling between two people that should romantically be acted on and celebrated as a thing between the two of them. That is one kind of love, yes. But as a broader ideal, love is a selfless regard for others, one that can become so powerful that acts of self-sacrifice can be lived out.

A realizes that he/she may not ever be able to find a romantic pair. This does not prevent A from living a fulfilling life. A may seem “cursed” with a kind of loneliness, but this does not mean that there is something wrong with A, or that A is in the wrong body every day. Whatever it means in this fictional universe, A demonstrates that love is something beyond two people, and that is doesn’t even have to involve sexuality at all. This has further implications for how we apply our imaginations to the ethics of human relationships, not by using scifi to justify attitudes toward relationships, but to understand where our limits are, even in our imagination. To be selfless is to think not on the self, not even on the identity of one’s self, but to come to terms with one’s call to do good in the universe.

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