The Publishing Post
Birthday By Meredith Russo And The Representation 0f Mental Health In Transgender Literature
By Becca Binnie
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t always mean that someone will struggle with their mental wellbeing; however, it does mean that they are at greater risk of experiencing poor mental health. A report published by Stonewall in 2017 found that two thirds of participants who identified as transgender and who took part in the questionnaire had experienced depression in the previous year. This harrowing figure shows how vital representation and conversations about transgender mental health are.
Meredith Russo is a transgender female author, whose novel Birthday was published in 2019. The book follows the lives of Morgan and Eric and using dual narration tells the story of one day every year for six years. Throughout the six years, we are told about Morgan’s struggles with her mental health as she tries to construct and embrace her authentic self.
‘I’ve tried not to think about it, but over the last year, more and more, everything just feels kind of… grey.’
Russo’s narrative technique is compelling for many reasons. Firstly, it portrays the longevity of suffering with mental health. Morgan’s story starts on her thirteenth birthday when she knows she feels uncomfortable in the body she was born into. The story sees Morgan battle with her feelings as she tries to find a way to be happy.
Secondly, the novel watches Eric, a childhood friend of Morgan’s, struggle to provide the help and support Morgan needs. Eric feels helpless as he watches Morgan’s mental health deteriorate. However, by the end of the novel an optimistic tone is cast over the pair’s future as Eric proves to Morgan that she is loved and valued.
By Morgan’s sixteenth birthday, her mental health is in an extremely low place. The theme of suicide is poignant in the novel and tragically in wider society too. A national survey on LGBTQ+ mental health, carried out by the Trevor Project in 2021, found that more than half of transgender and nonbinary respondents aged between 13 and 24 in the US alone had seriously considered suicide. Despite their age, these tragic findings prove that more needs to be done to show struggling transgender individuals they are not alone.
Morgan’s narration reflects the everyday struggles of a transgender individual as she is constantly reminded of her ongoing internal struggle with identity. Early in the novel, Morgan flinches when a close family friend uses the word ‘boys’ in a casual manner. For cisgender individuals, this kind of gendered vocabulary is often taken for granted. But for the transgender community, sweeping gendered statements work to remind individuals, like Morgan, that she does not feel like her authentic self.
As the novel progresses, Morgan feels increasingly alone. Unfortunately, this loneliness extends into society. A Stonewall report on the trans community published in 2017 revealed that one in seven transgender people aren’t open about their gender identity to anyone in their family. Furthermore, only one in four transgender people said that all of their family members who know that they are transgender were supportive. With these figures alone, it is clear to see how stories of similar experiences, in which transgender individuals can relate to, could hopefully combat the loneliness or helplessness felt by those stuck in unsupportive or hostile environments.
Although Russo’s novel is a fictional piece, it gives a real and emotional picture of the specific adversities transgender individuals may face in society. In a world where the transgender community still must fight for basic human rights, representation in literature, both transgender authors and books inclusive of transgender experiences, can show members of the transgender community struggling with their mental health, that they are not alone.
Alongside this, cisgender individuals, including myself, should actively seek to learn from and listen to stories of trans experiences in society to enforce positive change.
‘She deserves to be seen.’
In addition to Birthday, check out Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl and Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After for more fiction that embraces transgender main characters and their experiences with mental health.
To learn more about the transgender community's experiences within society, check out these non-fiction works with transgender authors; Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.
Moreover, if you are struggling with mental health please reach out and ask for help. Mermaids support children and young people up to the age of nineteen suffering from gender identity issues and their families and supporting professionals. The Samaritans are available year-round, everyday working to make sure people know they are not alone.