‘I used to think being me would be a barrier’: transgender woman honoured

WATCH: An Alberta woman is being honoured with a humanitarian award for paving the way for transgender people. Su-Ling Goh has her story.

EDMONTON – Marni Panas is easy to like. She’s friendly and chatty and funny. On Wednesday, International Human Rights Day, she’s receiving an award for paving the way for transgender people.

Marni is being honoured with a humanitarian award from Edmonton’s John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, where she will make a speech about her life. She’ll be charming and completely win over the crowd.

But Marni wasn’t always so confident and outgoing.

Marni was designated male at birth, and named Marcel. In small-town Alberta, Marcel didn’t fit in. He often chose “girl” toys and was told he was too “emotional.” The other kids ignored, even rejected, him.

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“I liked to play with the girls, and I liked what the girls had to share with me, but of course the girls didn’t want to play with the boys, so I was quite alone,” Marni recalls.

Then in 1996, Marcel met the love of his life, a woman named Laurina.

“She was just raised in an environment that you don’t judge, that you accept all people for all they are.

“I think that’s why maybe I was attracted to Laurina in the first place.”

Marcel told Laurina about his struggle with gender identity. The couple married and had a son, Alex. Over the years, Laurina not only accepted, but encouraged her husband’s love of performing as drag queen Marni Gras.

“The validation that I was getting for people telling you ‘You’re beautiful’ and being the most popular person in the room… Those are things I never got growing up for sure. But, on the other side of it, the pendulum would swing and I would be this very angry man at home.”

That anger started to push his wife and son away. After 14 years of marriage, hiding the truth became impossible.

“It’s at that point when it becomes all too consuming,” says Marni.

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“Keeping that secret is much more difficult than actually living your true life.”

After many hours of counselling with a psychologist, Marcel and Laurina sent an email to family, friends and colleagues, explaining gender identity dysphoria. Here is part of that email:

“Being in a body that does not match my mind and heart has caused me great loneliness and despair.

“March 21, 2014 will be my last day in every part of my life as a man. After a brief vacation with my family, with the incredible support and leadership of my employer, Alberta Health Services, I will return to my current position at the Stollery Children’s Hospital as a female on Tuesday, April 8, 2014. My name after March 21, 2014 will be changed legally to Marni Marcelle Panas. It would be appropriate at that time to begin using my new name and the proper pronouns for my true gender when referring to me (e.g. “She”, “Her”, “Ms.”).”

Marni Panas with her friends. Supplied: Marni Panas
Marni Panas - as drag queen Marni Gras - with her family. Supplied: Marni Panas
Marni Panas with her family. Supplied: Marni Panas
Marni Panas with her son. Supplied: Marni Panas

It was a big change, but it didn’t change much. Most of Marni’s friends have remained friends. Laurina still loves her spouse. And eight-year-old Alex still calls her “daddy.” Marni fondly recalls a day when she and her son were playing basketball on the driveway and some neighbourhood kids walked by.

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“And [Alex] walks over and says, ‘She’s my daddy, she’s my daddy.’ Wow. And of course I went in and I cried. Because he just… he just gets it.”

Marni’s worst fear is that Alex will have to face cruel questions or comments about her. But she and Laurina are raising him to be strong and confident. Leading by example, 43-year-old Marni recently attended her high school reunion and gave a speech about what she has learned in life. The former classmates who once rejected Marcel gave Marni a standing ovation.

“What I’ve discovered was that by being true to me and being authentic – that has created so many more opportunities. It’s not a barrier, but a strength to move forward.”

Marni speaks regularly to students and health professionals about her transgender journey. Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our series, Marni will talk about the issues related to health care for transgender people.

On Thursday, Marni will be interviewed on the Global Edmonton Early News.

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