As a 7 year old, I was usually allowed to dress myself. So I chose to run around with my hair in Jerhi curls, frayed blue jeans and a t-shirt. To the world, I looked like a girl, but in my heart, I was planning on growing up to be a man.
This was long before I discovered the word transgender.
But on the day of my Baptism I was forced to fit into a rigidly defined gender-specific ritual. I arrived at the church on the day of my baptism with my grandmother in her old, beat up Volkswagen Rabbit that had pieces of cardboard covering the rusted through holes of the floor. We made our way downstairs to the church basement where nearly 2 dozen had gathered in a room and were waiting to get baptized.
I recognized many of the folks from baptism rehearsal the day before. The well-lit room had a chalkboard on the wall, a big oak desk, and walls lined with dusted boxes. I discovered candles and Christmas decorations in the boxes nearest me as I curiously peeked through the tops and carrying holes to entertain myself.
“Alright, everyone we only have a limited time to get dressed. Just as we rehearsed, let’s get back here in 10 minutes,” a modestly confident, tall and slender woman wearing a long white dress and bright, purple lipstick announced as several of the adults disappeared down the hall to the bathrooms to change their clothes.
I started toward the door.
“Teasha, come back here…where do you think you’re going?”
My grandmother reached out her heavy arm and blocked me from moving further. “Take off your clothes,” she said. Her brown eyes were serious.
I stood there embarrassed and resenting. I was wearing thick, white tights and a white lace dress that had a pink ribbon sewn around the middle for a belt. My shoes were made of a shiny, white plastic that squeaked when I rubbed my feet together.
I closed my eyes, took off everything as quickly as I could and handed the items to my grandmother. She tucked my clothing items into a nearby paper grocery sack, yanked my arms up and pulled a long, white, cotton gown down along my arms and over my head onto my skinny torso. I reluctantly pressed my lips together and knew not to complain about my clothes.
Children were seen at church, not heard, and because of past conversations with my grandmother on this very topic, I knew no one was interested in hearing about how much I hated wearing girls clothes—especially on the day of my baptism.
After getting dressed, we were escorted up the creaking vinyl stairs to the warm, stained-glass sanctuary with royal red carpet that matched the foam seat cushions draped across the wooden pews. We were welcomed by several hundred black and brown people who were scattered loosely throughout the polished room. As we filed into the 3 rows that were tucked to the right of the pulpit, my attention and heartbeat relaxed into the choir’s gospel tune.
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water
God’s a-going to trouble the water…
I had never seen a baptism before but during rehearsal I learned that the preacher was going to dunk me into the bathtub-sized pool and then, when he brought me back out of the water, I would be a member of God’s holy family and my sins would be washed away. I didn’t understand the concept of sin at the time, but God was very important to me and I was excited about being a part of God’s family.
When it was time to come forward, I was invited by an usher to stand at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the baptismal pool.
When it was my turn to take the steps toward the pool, I walked up to meet my pastor who helped me climb into the cold water. I felt foolish wearing a gown and standing in a bathtub with my pastor who was also wearing a gown—except his was black and looked slightly heavier than mine.
The pastor positioned me to stand alongside him facing forward, he placed one hand behind my back and one hand on my head.
“By the profession of your faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit!” My heart raced as he thrusted my body backwards into the water.
I came out of the frigid water to see the arm of an usher extended for me to grab. The usher lifted me out of the tub and guided me down the carpeted steps to my grandmother and one of the other church mothers who were both standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting to cocoon me into a large, white towel.
“Here you go, baby,” my grandmother said as she handed me the brown paper bag containing my church clothes.
I dressed quickly once we entered the basement. I didn’t feel any different immediately after my baptism, but my skin seemed more sensitive and I was keenly aware of the clothes I was wearing and how ashamed I felt because I couldn’t wear slacks and a dress shirt or a suit like other boys at church.
It would have meant so much to me to be able to join the family of God in a way that embraced my whole self. If someone would have asked me what clothes I felt comfortable in.
Maybe you can make space for children and families in your church to wear what they feel comfortable in. Then not only our baptismal fonts, but also our pews will be filled with people of all genders worshiping God with their whole selves.