How Bobbi Ullinger learned to rethink doctrine, navigate the politics of faith communities, and embrace her gender fluidity as a blessing.
Bobbi Ullinger’s voice cracks slow like frozen water. She’s perched on a stool, a cold beer wrapped in one hand—brown hair peppered gray flipping out at the base of her neck; a subtle blush and a pair of gold hoop earrings. She’s close to a good cry at the thought of redemption, or forgiveness, or some combination of both.
Bobbi is talking about God—or, rather, the moment she knew God had chiseled out a home for her, and that it had been there all along, waiting. With one open palm pressed to her chest, Bobbi blinks away tears. She fleshes out the map of a pilgrimage, and tells the story of her homecoming.
It was the coldest January on record, and Bobbi was in Chicago for a conference hosted by Q Christian Fellowship, an organization designed to counter the brutal abuse and rejection LGBTQ+ people often experience within communities of faith.
During the opening worship service, people who had endured rejection and torment at the hands of their own faith communities gathered to perform a collective act of worship.
For Bobbi, that act of worship was a thing of both beauty and sorrow. “I realized that if anybody in the world had the right to be pissed at God, it was the people in this room,” Bobbi says, looking down at her shoes—a perfect pair of black heels. “But here they were,” she says, “all standing and singing at the top of their lungs—singing praises to the Lord.”
It was, as Bobbi describes it, a tender and hallowed vision, to bear witness to a group of people so viciously hurt and yet so ready to be present again, to offer up the softest parts of themselves to a God whose church had so often left them feeling damned or dismissed. It was then that Bobbi knew: These were her people, and this place was her home.
“I just remember thinking,” Bobbi says, the smallest quiver in her voice. “This is what redemption looks like.”
Bobbi isn’t talking about the redemption of the people in the room but the redemption of the church itself. This expression of shared anguish allowed Bobbi to move forward, one step closer to a place in which love might grow again.
Bobbi and her wife attend LGBTQ+ student organization meetings on Kent State's campus. Bobbi brings cookie platters, and knows all the kids by name. “I'm there to listen, and bring perspective," Bobbi says. "They’ve given me so much more than I could ever give them," she says. "They’re really pretty incredible.”
Bobbi smiles with her eyes and nose and forehead when she talks about these kids. She tells me they try on language like clothing, giving themselves space to see what fits, and allow for shifts and missteps in the process.
For Bobbi, it wasn’t so easy. She had to find her way back home, through a few different congregations, through her wife and her children and grandchildren, and through a few thousand hours of prayer. It was slow. And sometimes, it was terrifying.
Genderfluid identities, and the people who claim them, have always existed. And now, more than ever, people whose gender presentations and expressions shift, or move along the spectrum, have access to language that allows them to name and address this element of their identities with dignity and care. But Bobbi didn’t always have access to that language.
“I knew when I was little that I was different,” she tells me. “I didn’t have any idea what it was, and I couldn’t explain it. I just knew it was something I had to hide,” she says. “And I got really good at hiding it.”
Bobbi’s gender tends to be fluid and her pronouns circumstantial. Today, she’s presenting feminine and using she/her pronouns. Tomorrow, or even a few hours from now, she might feel differently.
“And I never really experienced dysphoria in the way that most people describe it," Bobbi says. "For me, it’s more like a kind of mental itching powder, or a sense of being off balance.”
Labels are a double-edged sword. They can be helpful in figuring out who you are. But if someone else uses labels against you, They can really become detrimental.
For years, long before the internet was the way it is now, back in the days of bulletin boards and chat rooms, Bobbi searched for answers online and for other people who were asking the same questions. “I could never really find anything other than porn,” Bobbi says. “And I knew that wasn’t me.”
Bobbi crosses her legs at the ankle, folding her glasses into one palm. “For a long time,” she says, “I thought I was the only one.” She runs a thumb over the hem of her dress, fixing her eyes someplace on the ceiling. “I was in such denial of myself,” she says. ”I thought I was a freak of nature.”
But there were others; and after decades of painful isolation, Bobbi found them. In one of those chat rooms, over ten years ago, Bobbi first saw another person use the word bigender. When she read it, the heavens opened up. “The light shone down,” she says, laughing. “There was a choir of angels.”
“For the first time in my life,” Bobbi says— her eyes pooling, a grey sky melting rain onto window frames behind her—“I realized there were other people in this world like me.”
When Bobbi and her wife got married, they chose to join a congregation they could walk to. They didn’t have a car then, or much of anything else, and that congregation became their home for more than 30 years.
Bobbi’s wife didn’t know about her gender fluidity then, because Bobbi herself didn’t even have the language or tools to speak it out loud.
For most of her life, Bobbi was certain she’d be sent spinning into hell at the end of this life. Even before she could mark and name her identity, she was certain there must be some terrible punishment waiting for her at the finish line.
She made a few deals with God, and broke them all. She allowed herself to half-embrace the fluidity of her gender, so long as it didn’t affect her relationship with her wife, or with God. But it did.
Back then, before she came out even to herself, so much of who she really was was still untapped; this part of herself still waiting in the shadows to make an appearance.
Bobbi runs one finger beneath her eye, still teary at the thought of redemption, and talks about certainty and all its sinful trappings.
“We cannot possibly be certain of anything,” Bobbi says, delicately adjusting one earring. “I think it was Saint Augustine who said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty,” she says. "It’s the doubt that makes our faith necessary in the first place.”
It took years for Bobbi to redefine what her identity meant within the context of her religious schema, and to reconcile the fluidity of her gender with the framework of Christian teaching. Eventually, a very specific interpretation of scripture landed her here—to a moment of happy uncertainty.
Ten years ago, Bobbi stumbled across the Gender Tree, a website built and operated by Sandra Stewart. The Gender Tree is a kind of time capsule—an emblem of a precise moment in Bobbi’s life. It was one of the first places that pointed toward some holiness in who she was; or that posited transness and gender non-conformity as a blessing rather than a curse.
“At the time,” Bobbi explains, “Sandra Stewart was a seminary student. She was deconstructing Bible verses—breaking them down word by word into their original Greek or Hebrew—and showing that they didn’t really mean what we had always thought they meant,” Bobbi says. “Reading those translations, for the first time, I thought, 'Maybe I won’t go to hell for this. Maybe this is okay.'”
Bobbi and her wife had five children and spent almost thirty years together before Bobbi was able to come out as trans.
"When I finally told her, she said, ‘Let’s figure out how to work through this.’ And that’s what we did.” Bobbi’s voice drops, low with gratitude for such undying acceptance.
When trans and gender non-conforming people come out, their loved ones sometimes feel blindsided. Bobbi’s wife did struggle at first, but they spent time in therapy, listening to one another, and learning to navigate this element of Bobbi’s identity.
Bobbi’s wife is her biggest advocate, and her best friend, after all this time and through all this change. The peace Bobbi found in herself was in part because her wife found it too.
“I finally realized that the sin isn’t being transgender,” Bobbi says. “Being transgender is a gift. The sin is in failing to use that gift for good.”
Three years after she attended her first Q Christian Fellowship conference in Chicago, Bobbi’s congregation callously refused to embrace her.
When she came out to her pastor, a friend of hers for more than ten years, he said he understood. But when Bobbi wrote a letter for the church newsletter addressing her gender fluidity, the pastor shot it down.
“He said it was inappropriate,” says Bobbi. “So I proposed teaching a class to help explain my identity as I came out.” The pastor shot that down too. “Suddenly,” Bobbi says, “he was fighting me every step of the way.”
Bobbi knew she needed to come out. She and her wife had decided to pursue mentoring LGBTQ+ youth, and Bobbi knew those kids would see right through her if she didn’t come out to her congregation first. After weeks of uncomfortable negotiations, Bobbi made her move.
She showed up at Sunday service dressed as Bobbi. Nobody there had ever seen her present feminine. She was 52 then, and terrified. Bobbi sat in her car, elbows propped against the wheel, turning it all over in her mind, wondering if she could even make it to the doors.
She made it to the doors, and then down the aisle and into a pew. And in the end, the responses she received were mostly positive. Most people understood what it meant to be gender non-conforming; some even approached Bobbi, explaining that their children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews identified as LGBTQIA+.
Bobbi was, and remains, deeply grateful for that initial support from her faith community. And yet, she knew that her church could no longer grow with Bobbi, or provide a safe space for her to live out the truest version of herself. So they left.
Leaving, I can hear in the cracks of her voice, was profoundly painful. “They were my family,” she says. “It was devastating to be pushed out.”
In search of a congregation that could learn to grow with Bobbi, and love her along the way, she and her wife stumbled across the Church in Silver Lake. For Bobbi, it was a beautiful surprise to find a home again. At the Church in Silver Lake, Bobbi isn’t the only gender non-conforming person. There are others, just like she always hoped there would be, before she could even name herself.
Participation in Faith Communities Among Trans Identified People
Reasons for Leaving Faith Communities Among Trans Identified People by Race
Religious Identities Among All LGBTQIA+ Identified People
If you or a loved one are an LGBTQIA+ identified person struggling to navigate life in a faith community, these resources may be helpful.
There are a few photos of Sandra Stewart on the Gender Tree site—thick sweeping bangs and dark painted lips; her wife, reclining in a canoe somewhere in California. She gives sporadic updates for nearly a decade. Eventually, the updates stop. But the pages remain—a map of Bobbi’s own becoming.
Stewart breaks down the word hamartia—which is commonly translated as the English word sin. But it its original Greek, Stewart says hamartia literally translates to the phrase “missing the mark.” As in, arrow and bow. As in, aim and target. As in, a failed attempt.
Bobbi's story is filled with failed attempts, and successful ones; a long and complicated personal history of missing the mark before hitting it right at the center. There were so many moments Bobbi lived in the dark; missing marks by denying herself and her identity—by living a life that never quite fit.
So much of who Bobbi is now is rooted in those reciprocal relationships; Bobbi ministers to others and receives multitudes in return. Those relationships are part of how she’s learning to hit the mark again.
I finally realized the sin isn't being transgender. Being transgender is really a gift.
“I met a young LGBTQIA+ person who came from a mostly unsupportive family, in a mostly unsupportive school,” Bobbi says. “She came to a meeting full of LGBTQIA+ people, and when she walked into the room, she said she finally knew it would be possible for her to live past thirty,” Bobbi says, her eyes welling. “She’d always assumed she would kill herself long before then. Seeing us made her believe she could live.
Bobbi has dozens of stories like this one. She tells me about a Baptist pastor named Danny Cortez, who spoke in support of LGBTQIA+ identified people after his own son came out as gay, knowing he would most likely lose his congregation. She tells me about a woman named Linda Robertson—a staunch, fundamentalist, evangelical Christian who tried for years to make her son straight. When her son died unexpectedly, she started a support group for other moms struggling to rectify their Christian doctrine while loving and supporting their LGBTQIA+ children.
Robertson’s group asked Bobbi to join when they started getting mothers of trans and gender non-conforming kids. They didn’t have all the answers, and they hoped Bobbi might be able to help.
“Ever since then,” Bobbi says, “I’ve been a Mama Bear, even though I’m a dad. And they’re fine with that,” she says, smiling. “They just get it.”
Bobbi’s life is filled with these encounters—trading love and service over and over, sometimes with total strangers. Today, Bobbi deconstructs scripture and offers political context for the Revised Common Lectionary. She talks about LGBTQ+ representation in faith communities and the real world implications of queer Bible studies.
Bobbi is pointedly wise; and every gentle counter or correction feels more like an act of love. The slow, unravelling joy in her soft voice is a reminder that sin really is only missing the mark; and the beauty of grace, or mercy, or real forgiveness is that we are always allowed one more shot. There’s something hopeful in that reminder, in the thought that all our second and third and fourth chances are already promised.
Bobbi is making the best of those chances, using her trans identity as a means of ministry, and learning to see the print of her creator’s thumb etched into her very skin.
These days, Bobbi is wrapped in that bare kind of redemption she first saw at the conference in Chicago’s bone cold winter; and she’s learning to live that redemption every single morning when she wakes to see the sun.
Bobbi isn’t afraid of those failed attempts anymore, and she isn’t afraid of fire or brimstone. She’s learning to hit the mark, to draw back the bow and aim with deeper clarity, with finer skill.
It’s Christmas Day, and Bobbi’s wife is clipping coupons. They sit across from one another at the kitchen table. “We’re going shopping tomorrow,” she tells Bobbi, thumbing through sale ads.
“Am I going as Rob, or as Bobbi?”
Bobbi’s wife doesn’t hesitate.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “We’re going shopping. You’re going as Bobbi.”
At first, Bobbi’s children struggled to embrace her femininity. Her younger daughter came around quickly, but her oldest daughter married the son of a Mennonite pastor and struggled for nearly a decade to reconcile her faith with Bobbi’s identity. “She’s very fundamentalist,” Bobbi says. “And for a long time, we were afraid she would keep the grandkids from seeing us.”
Bobbi’s daughter didn’t keep her children from seeing their grandparents. But for a long time, her children were only allowed to see their grandfather when she was presenting as masculine. This summer, Bobbi’s grandkids met her as Bobbi for the first time.
So much of the coming out process is dependent on patience and the passage of time. And Bobbi’s youngest son, who is now one of her most passionate supporters, initially wrestled with the implications Bobbi’s gender expression posed to his own identity.
“My first career was in the fire service,” Bobbi says. “I was the macho firefighter dad who could fix anything and wouldn’t take any crap from anybody. Now, all of the sudden, I’m wearing a dress. I think that’s what was difficult for him.”
For almost a year, Bobbi’s youngest son just wasn’t ready. He needed time, she says, to negotiate the loss of that image of his father; the image on which he’d built his own masculinity.
Sitting at the dining room table, still clipping coupons, Bobbi smiles. Her wife never looks up, and they sit in comfortable silence, still lost in stacks of glossy advertisements.
Bobbi yells down the hallway to her youngest son in his bedroom. “Hey,” she says. “You want to go shopping in the morning with me and your mom?”
Bobbi waits a minute. And then yells again. “I’m going as Bobbi,” she says. And there was only silence.
The next morning, Bobbi’s son waits in line beside her with a mountain of clothes draped over his elbows. Something catches his eye.
“Hey, Dad,” Bobbi’s son says. “Look at…”
Bobbi is presenting fully feminine, and using feminine pronouns. Her son’s face goes red. “He realized he’d called me Dad, in front of all these people,” Bobbi says, laughing a little.
The cashier smiles knowingly, catching a glimpse of acceptance or healing here in the checkout line. His face still blushed, new jeans nearly dropped, dragging on the floor, Bobbi’s son apologizes. She tells him he doesn’t need to.
“I’ve always been your dad,” Bobbi tells him. “And I always will be.”
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