Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2019)
Full Disclosure is an intersectional young adult novel that fosters sex-positivity and works to break the stigma surrounding HIV—a prime example of how diversity and inclusion are becoming more pervasive within the YA genre. Written by New York University film student, Camryn Garrett, the novel details the story of Simone Garcia-Hampton who hopes to keep her HIV positive diagnosis under-wraps upon transferring to a new high school. However, she soon develops feelings for a charming boy named Miles, which means if she wishes to pursue a relationship with him, she’ll have to tell him about her diagnosis eventually. To make matters worse, one day she receives a note in her locker, threatening that she either tell Miles about her diagnosis, or the note-writer will tell the whole school. Her first reaction is to hide the truth, but “as she gains a deeper understanding of the prejudice and fear in her community, she begins to wonder if the only way to rise above is to face the haters head-on.”
One of the narrative’s strengths is the dialog it posits around sexuality and shame. Simone and her best friends, Claudia and Lydia, talk frankly about sex, detailing their fantasies, their anxieties, and their fears. However, outside of their bubble, sex is a hushed subject. In an early scene, Simone and Claudia take Lydia to get birth control behind her parents’ backs. After Lydia picks it up, she says to them, “You should’ve seen my mom the other day. She wanted to talk about feelings and changes, and I told her I’m not having sex. Now I’m going to get birth control without telling her” (15). Displaying sex and contraception as secretive cues the reader into why HIV is so stigmatized: its direct link to sex, which is seen as dirty and shameful.
However, even though most assume HIV comes from sex, Simone didn’t get HIV from sex—she was born with it from her biological mother. Although that shouldn’t be seen as shameful, Simone is still judged due to the pervasive negative assumption that follows those with HIV. Also, compared to Lydia, Simone has relaxed, liberal parents who have open conversations with her about drinking and partying—and her Dad (who is a doctor) oddly attends her OBGYN appointments. However, her two fathers still feel uncomfortable talking about sex with her and shut down when she brings it up. “Look, I get that most parents don’t want to think about their kid engaged in sexual acts,” says Simone in a conversation with her friends. “But when it comes to my family, their general openness with everything else makes the awkwardness about sex even worse” (73). Her parents often discourage sex out of safety concerns, but they don’t even want to discuss it as an option with Simone. This demonstrates that the stigma associated with HIV can cause even the most liberal-minded people to avoid conversations about sex.
Throughout these discussions of sex and safety, Garrett interweaves lessons about HIV history to educate readers. I learned those with HIV can live relatively normal lives as long as they take a pill once a day, which will eventually reduce the “viral load” in their blood. Contrary to popular belief, once their viral load isn’t detectible, HIV cannot be passed onto others, and sex is a very real option. Explaining this within the story educates people who likely assume that those with HIV are permanently contagious. However, the reader also sees life before the pill was invented, and where the original fear of HIV came from. In one scene, Simone is the student director of her schools’ production of Rent. She encourages the actors to sing with more emotion because they aren’t empathizing with the characters whose loved ones are dying of AIDS. She makes a speech to the cast, asking them to imagine losing a loved one: “So to find someone who gets it, who loves you, and to lose them because no one cares about what you’re going through—there aren’t words for that” (204). It is through this heartfelt speech that she not only gets the actors to empathize, but also the readers, who may feel the same disconnect from HIV.
Within the discussions of sex and sexuality is Simone’s struggle with her own sexual identity. She often is reluctant to call herself bisexual or pansexual, describing her preferences as, “I think girls—or people who look like girls–are pretty, but that doesn’t always mean I have a crush. Besides, most of the people I’m attracted to are celebrities, and like Claudia said, those don’t count” (43). Simone invalidates her queerness through these comments because others say that her feelings for girls aren’t serious because she still likes boys. Nevertheless, Simone later discovers that her feelings for boys do not minimize her place within the LGBTQ+ community. This is an important theme, as Simone finds herself in two ways: She learns to navigate her sexuality through being HIV positive, as well as through being queer.
Simone discovering her sexual identity is a testament to the diversity present within the novel, which adds a layer of depth to the subject matter. Simone’s best friends are asexual/homoromantic and bisexual. Her fathers are black and latino gay men. Simone and Miles are black. I could go on. Nearly everyone is able to see themselves represented in the story, rather than just those who are cis, straight, and white. With this, Simone discusses how the AIDS crisis was initially ignored because it affected gay people of color, and, “Once it started impacting straight people and white people it started to become important—but only a little bit more” (203-204). This statement reflects how only certain identities are seen as important, but books like Full Disclosure are trying to change that through representation.
Lastly, I admire how Garrett gives the reader hope but does not pretend that discrimination can easily disappear. Those most important to Simone love and accept her, but not everyone. Near the end of the story, Simone makes a compelling speech to those who alienated her. Afterwards, she asks her teacher, Mr. Palumbo, “Do you think any of them actuallyheard what I said though?” He responds, “If even one person learned something, you succeeded” (276). Mr. Palumbo’s statement says it all. There are still people who will fear those with HIV—and it would be unrealistic to think otherwise because systematic prejudices cannot disappear in one conversation. However, the reader walks away seeing how false stereotypes about HIV hurt people like Simone, and they will continue to hurt others if we do not change how we talk about sex and STDs.
What primarily makes this book profound is its audience: teenagers. It stands among the ranks of novels carving new progressive paths such as The Hate U Give, Unpregnant, and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Garrett tackles sexuality, racial issues, and queerness—topics often seen as too “inappropriate” or “mature” for teen audiences. However, young audiences experience these issues first-hand, and these narratives can make them feel less alone. In addition, when teens can empathize with their peers who are different from them, books like Full Disclosure lay the foundations for more accepting future generations.