Photo from Fresno Community United Church of Christ website. Sophie Gilbert is a member of

Rite of Passage

On November 30, 2014, I received the rite of baptism at Community United Church of Christ in Fresno, CA. It was my third baptism: the first took place at a Methodist church in Illinois when I was an infant, and the second at a Catholic Church in the Philippines to prepare for my wedding. The first was for my parents, who believed it would set me on the right spiritual path. The second was for my wife and I before we entered into our marriage and life together. The third was purely for me and my relationship with my Creator. We had not always been on the best of terms. For much of my life, I had much anger toward God for creating me as transgender. I was sure God meant to curse me. At my third baptism, though, I stopped trying to fight a battle I could not win and accepted God’s plan for me.

I was in my early thirties before I ever spoke with anyone about my feelings of being a woman with a male body. Before that, only silence. Just me, alone with my thoughts. I had made a conscious choice to stay silent on the subject. I was seventeen and I desperately wanted answers, but I did not know how to ask the questions. I thought that God hated me, and I had to stay silent in order to survive. More than a decade would go by, and the silence became deafening. It refused to go away, and in time it held so much power over me.

When I finally realized that the silence would kill me if I did not act, I found my voice and shattered the silence. In time, I learned to explore my true nature, though old ways of thinking held on like a lead ball chained around my neck. An important step for me was finding the United Church of Christ, which taught me that not all churches teach their congregants to hate people like me. My first UCC minister, Rev. Stacy Richards, became my first teacher, leading me to discover that all those messages of hate I had been hearing did not come from God. They came from misguided people. God’s love had always been there, but my own swarm of negative thoughts kept me from noticing.

When I found the strength to cast all doubt away, I sought Rev. Chris Breedlove’s help. I began to live as a woman and started on the path of authenticity. I began attending Rev. Breedlove’s church, Community United Church of Christ, for support. Hormones transformed my body, and Community UCC reinforced the fact that God loved me, transforming my thoughts. I grew spiritually, and my transition to womanhood moved forward.

When I was ready, I chose the date of my final step in my transition, my debut as Sophie at work. It would be the hardest step, and I needed the power of all the support I had cultivated to see me through. Rev. Breedlove proposed a baptism for me on the Sunday before I took that last step. That baptism would confirm to me I was worthy of God’s love.

The day arrived, and I received the rites of baptism. As I felt the water touch me, I could feel that last chain being snapped, as if divine bolt cutters had descended from heaven. Free at last. I took in the symbolism of this sacred rite of passage. Immersion in water was like a symbolic death, and rising out of the water like a rebirth. The old self dies, and a stronger self is born. That is what happened to me in that moment. My false, contrived self was washed away, and the woman inside me emerged. She had always been there, waiting for her chance to live. She has a stronger presence, a stronger voice. She is loving and compassionate. And she is now armed by God for battle. The Bible tells us that Abram became Abraham, and the nonbeliever Saul was struck blind and later regained his sight as Paul, disciple of Jesus. The congregation of Community UCC witnessed the birth of Sophie.

On the following day, the battle began. I walked into a very conservative community and dared to teach as my true self. I knew what was likely to happen, but I still did it because it was the right thing to do. The old me, full of self-doubt, would not have done it. When they pressured me to resign, I still did not back down. I held my head up and kept going. That summer, I went on seventeen job interviews. I refused to surrender. Finally, I was hired in San Jose. I now have better working conditions, greater pay, and better benefits. They tried to stop me. I fought back. I am now better off. Thanks be to God.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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