When Marni Panas was finally able to look in a mirror and see the woman she’d always felt like, she cried.
As a child, Panas would stand in front of them and manipulate her body in various ways so she resembled “what society says a girl should look like.”
But last December, she was finally able to stand in front of a mirror and see her true self: “For the first time I saw me… looking back,” she wrote on Facebook. “There were tears. No more pretending.”
Panas, who was born Marcel, underwent gender reaffirming surgery in Montreal in December, followed by weeks of recovery in hospital beds and away from work. The Edmonton woman decided to share her journey publicly, on social media and in an interview with CTV News Edmonton's Stacey Brotzel, with honesty and humour.
“Netflix and chill,” she wrote about one day. “And by that I mean watching Netflix with 2 jumbo size baggies of ice between my legs!” She shared selfies in hospital gowns, a photo of a box of “souvenirs” (gauze, a vaginal dilator), and details of the lengthy recovery process. “After some ice and rest I finally got to have my first shower since before the surgery,” she wrote. “I don't even have the words to describe how glorious that moment felt.”
While Panas, an LGBT activist, decided to share her experience publicly with her more than 1,000 Facebook followers, she acknowledged that not every transgender person who has chosen to undergo surgery would do the same. While some in the trans community decide they don’t want it, others can’t afford it. Much of the cost is covered by provincial health plans, but the procedure requires months off work and out-of-pocket travel to Montreal or other parts of the world.
“While I'm choosing to be transparent about my own surgical experience ... it doesn't give you a right to ask about anyone else’s,” she wrote.
The details of gender reaffirming surgery are often considered taboo. In a viral clip for the Katie Couric talk show in 2014, trans actress Laverne Cox lightly reprimanded the host for asking about trans model Carmen Carrera’s body: “The preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people and we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we’re targets of violence,” she said. “If we focus on transition we don’t get to talk about those things.”
While gender identity and expression were added to the Canadian Human Rights Act with Bill C-16 in 2017 as prohibited grounds for discrimination, transgender youth are at a higher risk of depression and suicide, according to a growing body of research, including a 2018 study by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. A 2017 Egale report on Canadian high school students found that 37 per cent of trans students had been physically harassed or assaulted because of their gender expression.
In an interview with CTV Edmonton, Panas expressed a desire to use her own journey as a way to help those who are struggling with theirs, adding a message she was once given by an Indigenous elder: “Share your life so others may live.”
“I will continue to speak as strongly as ever that we should not be defined by our genitals nor reduced to what's between our legs. For me, I knew there were places in a binary society I still felt I personally couldn't function in as the person I was meant to be,” she said. “Whether this is a step one takes or not, every trans and non-binary person should have the same opportunities to be healthy, happy and safe in society the way we were meant to be.”