Becoming Marni

Edmonton transgender advocate Marni Panas' journey transitioning into her true self

by emil Tiedemann

IF you can, try to imagine growing up in the wrong body. Imagine having the mind, the heart, the soul of one gender, but the physical frame of another. Imagine being trapped behind a veil for most of your life, no one able to see you wholly. Most of us have never had to imagine such a thing, because most of us are born into the body we were meant to encompass. Most of us, but not all of us. 

Beautiful inside and out, transgender advocate Marni Panas

“In September 2012, I was looking at a picture taken of me on a beach in North Carolina,” remembered transgender advocate and social activist Marni Panas. “And I cried and cried and cried. For the first time in my life, I saw ME looking back. It was one of the most profound moments of my life.” It took her more than 40 years before she was able to find herself in the mirror, to see beyond the mask that bound her own authenticity. That’s because Marni was born Marcel and designated male at birth.

“I knew from the age of six or seven that I didn’t fit in to what was expected of me as a young boy,” Panas recalled. “Yet I tried so desperately to be the boy that my parents wanted me to be; always searching for validation and acceptance.” 

When Panas was around 10, she began dressing up in her mom and sister’s clothes, honing her talent for keeping secrets that would likely devastate her small town family. “I would dress up whenever I could,” Panas recalled. “As my collection of female clothes grew, so did the volume and complexity of my secret. Yet I still never made the connection to my gender.” 

Marni with her family, wife Laurina and son Alex

Panas’ comprehension of why she wanted to dress in girls’ clothing was not able to develop, given her circumstance. “I grew up in a relatively small town where I wasn’t exposed to diversity of any kind, in a time when we only had three TV stations, let alone the Internet,” Panas said. “I never heard words like homosexual or gay growing up. I didn’t hear the word transgender until in my 30s…I never knew who I was; I just knew who I wasn’t.” 

When Panas was 25 she met Laurina. “I knew there was something very special about her,” Panas said. “I knew I couldn’t start this relationship with such a secret; I told her a month into our relationship. She didn’t judge me one bit. She accepted me for who I was and we began our life together. I suppose she probably knew longer before I ever did that I would get to this point in my journey. Eventually, we would marry – we will celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary this July.” 

Panas and Laurina also had two young sons together, Andrew (who sadly is “among the angels now”) and Alex; and both Panas and Laurina are adamant about ensuring that Alex offers acceptance and appreciation for all things that make everyone unique. They bring Alex along to LGBTQ+ celebrations and public appearances, providing him an onset of appreciation, knowledge and respect for the very community he was born into. 

Marni has been very active in Edmonton's equality rights for transgender people

After she shared the truth with Laurina about who she was inside, Panas found support in others as well, discovering the Illusions Social Club in Edmonton, where she met other cross-dressing men. “After years of wanting to, but always being too scared to venture out the door, my wife gave me the nudge that I needed,” she said. “I sat in a room of 30 other people like me. And for the first time in my life I felt like I wasn’t alone.

“For the next 10 years I explored my femininity in the safety of Edmonton’s LGBTQ+ community. I found a home in the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose, where I reigned as Empress and found the world of my dreams…as Marni. But living two lives, keeping this secret hidden from the rest of my world became impossible to bear.” 

It was after she looked at herself in that photo from the beach in North Carolina that Panas knew she had to take the next step, and transition into her true self. “I returned home from vacation to tell Laurina. She said, ‘this is something you have to do, I just don’t know if I can be on the other side.’ And so began the real part of my transition. It would take the next 18 months to become the person I was truly meant to be. And Laurina is on the other side…and we are happier and closer as a family than we have ever been.” 

Marni at Edmonton Pride with Oiler Andrew Ference

Of course, there were new obstacles that would arise as a result, like how her family and friends would react to Panas’ transition. “As I expected,” she admitted, “my parents had not received the news well at all. I’ve heard from my mom on few occasions since I told them almost two years ago. I haven’t heard from my father since. I have compassion for the profound grief they have been experiencing in the loss of what they envisioned for their child who is now their daughter. 

“A couple of my closest, life-long friends felt that they could not accept me for who I am,” Panas continued. “Those friendships ended. I suppose those friendships were probably over long before I ever told them I was transgender.

“But the very few people I’ve lost in my life, I have experienced the gift of countless amazing, kind and compassionate people who have become a welcome part of my life. The many friendships that remained grew more rich and deeper in meaning. My professional relationships thrived. I have wonderful in-laws. Laurina’s dad, who had only three daughters and no sons, told me how excited he was because ‘I never thought I’d ever have a daughter-in-law.’”

Some of the superheroes of Pride, including Mayor Don Iveson (left)

But it wasn’t just the people in her life that Panas had to consider. She also had to consider her own Catholic beliefs, as many folks would consider her transition to go against the word of the very God that she believes in. 

“The God I was taught about is loving, kind and welcoming. I don’t believe man could possibly know ‘God’s plan’…all I know is that by trying to live my life by being kind to others, I’m doing what God asks of me. We do not need spiritual ‘leaders’ to give us permission to be kind and compassionate to others. And when you provide the opportunity for others to be kind, they almost always usually are. The people of my church certainly have been so to me and my family.” 

Panas has since excelled in her personal and professional life, proving that her decision to transition was not just the right one, but the only one. She now works at Alberta Health Services’ Engagement & Patient Experience, where she is often called upon to educate health care professionals on creating inclusive and safe environments for all patients, families and staff, and in particular, those who identify as LGBTQ+.

Marni with RCMP officer Marianne Ryan at #yegpride

Panas also regularly speaks to the public about her struggles to fulfil her own destiny, making her an award-winning public speaker in addition to her work as a social activist. 

She has become a visible member of the transgender community of Alberta, a province long thought to be intolerant of people like Panas. “I do believe that Alberta has, in fact, been a leader throughout the world on equality for transgender people,” Panas proudly boasted. “There are only a few jurisdictions where I could have a birth certificate which matches my gender identity without having to ‘prove’ anything.”

Panas is referring to the progressive decision the Alberta government made in relation to modifying one’s birth certificate to reflect their gender identity, even without reassignment surgery. “This piece of paper had a profound effect on my life and existence as a human, let alone a transgender woman. 

Marni & son Alex with Edmonton Eskimo quarterback Mike Reilly

“But we still have work to do. There are still many barriers in healthcare, schools, for youth and people at risk. We still need to have protection for gender identity and expression explicitly stated in the Human Rights Act.”

It is those “at risk” people that Panas has made a priority in her life, knowing through her own struggles how difficult, frustrating and confusing it can be for someone who feels he or she is not in the physical body that matches their emotional, mental and spiritual state. “You are not alone,” Panas tells others who feel like she did, like she does. “You don’t have to do this alone.

Proud son, proud parent!

“The hardest part about this journey is finding self-acceptance and self-love. Once you stop seeking validation from the world and begin to find it within, it’s then that you can find self-determination and true happiness. Find your truth, whatever it is. Whatever it looks like and feels like to you. You do not need others to tell you who you are. Only you can truly know. But you owe it to yourself to be who you are.” 
Marni's story on Global Edmonton (2014)

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