Imagine living every day of your life knowing you’re not the person everyone thinks you are. You keep a secret so devastating it threatens to destroy you. The people closest to you—family, friends, colleagues, have no idea the war that wages within you. You want so much to let it out, to shout to them and to the world but you don't because of the fear, the shame, and the humiliation that looms over you.
Now imagine, one day, the catalyst appears and you finally grasp the courage to take control of your life. You’re ready to divulge your secret knowing full well that doing so will change your life forever. It has the potential for destroying your relationships, career, but you do it because it’s your life and you have to be true to yourself. You take the leap and once you do, you never look back. And as it turns out, now that you are free to be who you really are, your life is better and more fulfilling than you could‘ve ever imagined.
Just ask Marlo Bernier, actress, producer, writer, and director, who as Mark Bernier, spent a tour of duty in the Air Force and later performed on many of Baltimore's stages as well as in some very popular television shows such as Cold Case, Homicide: Life on the Street and Las Vegas, and she’ll tell you that making that decision was the best she’s ever made. Marlo Bernier was not born at the moment she transitioned, rather she's always been there, hidden beneath a facade she never felt comfortable with in a body that seemed to belong to someone else.
Marlo had no idea what was happening to her but she knew something was different. At the age of four, she tried on girls' clothing and as she says, "not in the size way but in the psyche-way." She swished around her Nana's living room in lingerie in front of her family as they cheered her on thinking it was just another silly childhood phase.
She recalls a kindergarten memory: "There, in the middle of the room was a box, a large, rather tall cardboard box and open at the top. Inside were bunches of clothes, yes boys and girls things, grown-up stuff mostly... I remember so very clearly how girlish I felt when my hands landed upon that dress, buried deep somewhere among the contents of that box. I thought absolutely nothing of putting it on and dancing around and again receiving acceptance, not scorn, nor disapproval."
For Marlo, this wasn't a passing phase, it felt natural. "Grabbing the skirt out of the box was innate within me. I did not think 'Should I?’ I just did it. It was that easy and felt normal to me."
As a teenager, Marlo's mother knew she was going through something but had no idea, so she suggested Marlo talk to a therapist. While the therapist was kind and reassured her everything would remain confidential, Marlo was terrified. She wanted to tell him her truth but couldn't bring herself to do it. Instead, she remained silent and no one was the wiser. Therapy accomplished nothing and she didn’t return for more sessions.
Therapy as an adult proved life-changing when, 16 years later, her psychologist in Baltimore, who specialized in transsexualism and gender identity issues diagnosed her as a “textbook transsexual.” Marlo felt triumphant. Finally, someone else had recognized it but oddly enough when it happened it was not as earth-shattering and cathartic as she believed it would be.
"So, there I was in his office, no couch, no tables, just a couple of leather Brahmin lawyer-like chairs. I tell him my story, 50 minutes later he delivers his diagnosis; it is evident that you are a textbook transsexual. It was chilling to actually hear it for the first time, out loud. I believe I wept, yes I wept. Then he hands me a tissue and says; alright, tomorrow I’m going to make a call and refer you for Hormone Replacement Therapy."
Marlo received the diagnosis she'd been waiting for but instead of liberating her it had the opposite effect. She was terrified. Before she left his office, his parting words to her were; I wouldn’t wait any longer… if I were you.
Overwhelmed and exhausted, Marlo took a trip to New Hampshire to visit her parents. She had hoped it would bring her a sense of comfort at a time when she desperately needed it. One night, as her father slept, Marlo and her mother sat at the "Truth Table" which was as Marlo describes, "the nerve center of all that was really good and for certain, a comfort zone of sorts," a place where things were discussed. She was apprehensive at first, attempting to divulge her secret in a roundabout way until finally she gathered the courage and told her mother the truth.
It was done. Marlo said the words she'd wanted to for years. She tried to help her mother better understand by offering recollections of childhood experiences in which signs had been revealed that there was definitely something different about her. Marlo anxiously awaited a response which, as it turned out was not what she had hoped. While her mother had heard her, she had not actually listened and in the end while Marlo was assured of her mother's love, she was not assured of her acceptance.
And all Marlo had ever really wanted was acceptance.
It would be 10 years before Marlo would once again deal with her transsexualism. When she did, it was with the help of a therapist, Allyn Miller, in Woodland Hills, California, with whom she felt an immediate connection. Miller would ask her, "What kind of woman do you envision yourself being?” and the answer, though it took some time to formulate, was quite simple: "The same kind I was as a man; kind.”
In 2007, Mark Bernier had begun the transition and by mid-2009 had begun living full-time as Marlo Bernier. Marlo is fortunate to have the support of many friends and family, people who have embraced her and love her now as they have always done. However, not everyone has been so accepting and she leaves her door open in the hopes that someday the people she cares about, who have found it difficult to accept her true self, decide to become a part of her life again. She remains hopeful.
"I'm lucky to have had people who transitioned along with me. Well, at least over 95 percent of friends and a certain portion of family have been accepting to varying degrees. I made a conscious decision to not presuppose how people would react. I have been and continue to be very fortunate by the kindnesses countless friends and family have shown me."
Marlo is the same person she's always been and believes it's imperative to feel comfortable in one's own skin, without any pretense or false aspirations. Though she accepts her past and that it is a part of who she is, she no longer lives in that world. Her experiences throughout her entire life have shaped her into who she is today and she is proud of that. She is neither ashamed nor delusional, she is in fact, accepting.
"I didn't transition from male to transgender-female; but rather, I transitioned simply from male to female. Now my past is my past (meaning, my transsexual past—at least for me) and of course because of the news of the show and its being brought to life, there will come with that, those who want to label me; Marlo Bernier—transgender actress/filmmaker et al (when all I ever wanted was to be treated and received as any other woman—and which I have been. And let me be clear on this, I am in no way saying that I am ashamed of that label, or any of those terms, it just goes with the territory, I suppose."
Marlo Bernier is kind, smart and funny. Her energy is infectious and you can't help but notice how happy she is with her current place in life as well as with her newest adventure, one of her biggest projects yet, a new original TV series called Myrna, which is based on her life and experiences.
Myrna, a groundbreaking series is collaboration between Marlo, Jennifer Fontaine and Ted Campbell who previously worked together on other critically acclaimed projects. It’s backed by the creative team at Jackie Frost Films, Less is More Productions, and Scorpio Rising Films. They’ve begun pre-production, including crewing-up and location scouting for the pilot, having recently secured all of the funds necessary for their shoot days (principal photography to begin mid-August 2014). However, they are still fundraising the additional $15,000 required for all post-production plus a Hollywood premiere, scheduled for October 2014 when they will deliver the pilot entitled, "You're Not Done Yet," to networks for consideration. (Take a moment and click here to support them in the final stage of their fundraising efforts.)
Marlo describes the crux of the show: "After a successful career in front of the camera and on the stage, an actor sacrifices everything when she finally confronts her true gender identity and transitions from male-to-female. We follow Myrna as she struggles to find work as an actress, wrestles with a manager who still wants to send her out as her former-famous self, Michael, and deals with the drama & comedy of her friends' reactions as they make an effort to come to terms with Myrna and her life-altering transition."
The pilot, co-written by Marlo and Ted Campbell, is a mixture of real-life inspired humor and drama about us coming to terms with who we really are.
"Myrna is pro-life and pro-humanity," Marlo says. "It's not just about a boy who is (actually) a girl, it's about the human connection and how we all strive to live life as who we really are. Our hope is that our audience will grasp that Myrna is a person and that these are people with different journeys on the outside, perhaps. However, at our respective core we are all symbiotic and I hope that people will find a way toward a greater understanding, and in the very least find their way toward compassion.”
When asked if Myrna is part of the healing process, she says that it is but not in the cathartic sense one might expect. Her work on the series has given her the hope she can continue in the profession; doing the work she's always loved and is confident that the experience will make her a better writer, filmmaker, and actor. Her desire is that her work lives on long after she's gone.
Marlo once recalled a poem her Nana had taped to the refrigerator. It was Langston Hughes' "Dreams."
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
"Simply for me," she says. "The essence of this poem is contained in its opening line; Hold fast to dreams—and so I did, somewhere deep inside me, I held on and I am still holding on."
Marlo is strong and determined not to lose faith in herself, her dreams, and the world around her. She’s a woman who once lived on the precipice, afraid and unsure, terrified of what lay ahead, and who eventually found the strength within herself to conquer her fears and to live her best life.
Fear is powerful and all too often it makes people go through life without really living because of that ever-looming possibility of failure, rejection or humiliation. Marlo hopes that telling her story through Myrna's eyes helps us to deal with that and more. At its core, Myrna is a story about all of us. Her fight is our fight, her anger is our anger, her pain is our pain, and her joy is our joy.
—Follow Jessica Clackum on Twitter: @JessicaClackum