A Southern California theology professor was asked to leave his job at a Christian college after coming out as transgender.
The professor taught at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years as Heather Ann Clements, serving for some time as the school’s chair of theology and philosophy. But when the scholar returned to campus this fall, he asked the school to recognize his masculine gender identity and his new name — Heath Adam Ackley.
The school promptly asked him to step down.
Ackley will stay on contract until the end of the academic year, but the university is trying to find a substitute professor to teach his classes in the meantime.
“I did not get a sense directly from the individuals with whom I was speaking that they had a theological problem with transgender identity,” Ackley told RNS. “I did get the message that it has to do with their concern that other people, such as donors, parents and churches connected to the university will have problems not understanding transgender identity.”
The professor also said that when he tried to seek hormone treatment and “top surgery” for his chest, his insurance was denied.
APU is a private evangelical Christian university northeast of Los Angeles. In its mission statement, the school says it encourages students “to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life.” The school promotes biblical standards for sexual behavior, stating that sexuality can be embraced as long as it falls within the context of a marriage between a man and a woman.
But for most of his life, Ackley said that he struggled to reconcile evangelical Christian teachings about gender with the way he felt inside.
In a YouTube video, the 47-year-old professor said that he was raised by “unconditionally loving” Christian grandparents and “hippie” parents. As he entered public school, he said he started to become confused about the female gender that was assigned to him at birth.
“As for many transgender people, my experience of puberty was especially confusing (non-conforming) and I became anxious, depressed and hopeless,” he wrote. “Gender-bending in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a popular cultural trend that I embraced to get through my teens.”
He was baptized into Christianity at the age of 18 and then became an ordained minister. He tried to conform to the idea of Christian womanhood as best as he could, but he struggled with the idea of getting married to a man.
He posted a picture of the night before his first wedding, which he described as the “last night as myself.”
When that marriage failed, he tried even harder to conform to what was expected of him. Her spiritual mentors and medical doctors told her that “trying harder to live as a Christian woman must be God’s will.”
But the hormones, therapy and prayer that were aimed at making him feel better just led to “physical, psychological and spiritual deterioration.”
When he finally came to terms with his transgendered identity, he was told by his spiritual advisors and second husband that he should deny that identity for the preservation of his family.
That’s when he started using blades to carve crosses onto his body.
“I once again struggled with self-medicating, self-injuring and self-starving” during a “suicidal relapse,” he wrote. “That’s what Christian transphobia does.”
Ackley finally found relief when the American Psychiatric Association crossed “gender identity disorder” off its list of mental illnesses in January. He said his doctors took him off his psychiatric medicine. He finally felt validated.
Ackley is in the process of divorcing his second husband, choosing to let go of his married name “Clements” and return to his maiden name “Ackley.” His friends now call him Adam in honor of the biblical Adam, who was created from the dust of the earth.
Ackley also looks forward to getting gender reassignment surgery.
Despite losing his gig Ackley says he has received a lot of support from his peers and former students. Hopefully he’ll find another good gig — maybe he can start a church helping other people going through similar experiences.
Would you be open to hearing sermons taught or theology taught by a transgender minister/professor?