(RNS) A California Christian university has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave after he came out as transgender.

Heather Clements taught theology at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years, but this past year, he began referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley. “This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” he said.

During one of Dr. H. Adam Ackley's classes, he tells his students for the first time of his transgender identity. He had just written his preferred name on the board. Photo by Annie Z. Yu

During one of Dr. H. Adam Ackley’s classes, he tells his students for the first time of his transgender identity. He had just written his preferred name on the board. Photo by Annie Z. Yu


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Ackley, who is in his third year of a five-year contract at a school that does not use the tenure system, said university policies seem to be silent about transgender issues, except that “Humans were created as gendered beings.”

“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 said. “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.”

APU spokeswoman Rachel White declined to discuss Ackley’s employment, citing confidential personnel matters. Ackley planned to meet with a university lawyer on Monday (Sept. 23).

Ackley said he and APU have agreed to part ways and the university said it will continue to pay him through the academic year. But, he said, the university wants other professors to take over his current classes. He also said that his insurance was denied when he sought hormone treatment and “top surgery” for his chest area.

“They’re giving me privacy to transition but denying medical treatment to do that,” said Ackley, who is 47, has two children and is in the process of getting a divorce.

APU is an interdenominational evangelical university of about 10,000 students and 1,200 faculty located northeast of Los Angeles. It is one the largest member schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

APU students have 700 supporters so far for a change.org petition supporting Ackley and calling for the school “to create a safer environment for students and faculty.”

Transgender issues remain a sensitive and often misunderstood topic within religious circles and larger society. As the news trickled out on social networks Thursday, Ackley said he saw people making various assumptions.

H. Adam Ackley says, "As I continued my social transition at the end of my sabbatical before coming back to campus, I sought compromise: I cut but continued to die my hair." Photo courtesy Rodney Clements.

H. Adam Ackley says, “As I continued my social transition at the end of my sabbatical before coming back to campus, I sought compromise: I cut but continued to dye my hair.” Photo courtesy Rodney Clements.


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“People assumed that I’ve done something, some sex act,” he said. “I’m not violating any sexual conduct and it’s embarrassing that it’s implied. I live a very chaste life.”

Ackley said that he accepted his transgender identity earlier this year after the American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” from its list of mental illnesses. After being on sabbatical in the spring, Ackley said it wasn’t until this school year when he met with university officials about the change to inform the human resources department.

He was ordained in 1999 in the Mennonite Church but transferred his credentials to the Church of the Brethren in 2009.

In a YouTube video posted Friday, Ackley wrote in a slideshow that he was raised in an “unconditionally loving family of Christian grandparents and hippie parents who allowed me to be myself — assigned female gender at birth but kept thinking I was a little boy, trying to be like my grandpa. …”

“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 wrote that he became a baptized Christian at 18 and was ordained a deacon, and “as I began to contemplate seeking a mate as an adult struggled to conform to the female gender I’d been assigned at birth — but still in men’s clothes.”

“I tried to conform to Christian womanhood as best I could,” he wrote, posting pictures of his engagement portrait, the night before his wedding (described as “the last night as myself”) and as a pregnant mother.

His first marriage ended in divorce, and during his second marriage, he said he was told by spiritual directors, spiritual support groups, psychological professionals and medical doctors to try harder to conform to a female gender. “Yet treatment with hormones, therapy and prayer to make me more female led to physical, psychological and spiritual deterioration,” he wrote.

He said that as he was “privately struggling against Christian shame as a transgendered person, I secretly carved crosses on my body hidden by my clothing.”

Using pictures to show what he did to his body, he said, “Told by my spiritual advisors and then spouse that recovery, sanity and preservation of my family required me to deny my now recognized transgendered identity, I once again struggled with self-medicating self-injuring and self-starving of the female body during a suicidal relapse.

“… This is what Christian transphobia does.”

He then ends with pictures of him smiling with his children. “This is what the power of the resurrection does: healing and new life — with my children,” he wrote.

In a 40-minute sermon at La Verne (Calif.) Church of the Brethren on Aug. 18, Ackley said he had never identified as a female but “I tried to be because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be,” he said, describing himself as a male eunuch.

In his sermon, Ackley said he struggled with depression and anxiety, but that the church has been there for him.

“I tried to be the best Christian woman I could be … but I have to accept something difficult about myself,” he said. “I’ve never been fully myself, I’ve always been living a lie, not exactly on purpose but that was the best truth I knew at the time.”

42 Comments

  1. A brave soul feared by the Christian masses who won’t take a stand, as Jesus would, for the marginalised. The Christians fight against the marginalised and seek to shoot them down, only to make themselves feel superior.

    All it does is put those Christians to shame.

  2. I’ve met a lot people in positions similar to Prof Ackley: well-qualified, likeable, intelligent individuals who perform without incident at their job for a long time. They try to make the transition to their target gender; they have no ulterior motive in doing so, except to be comfortable in their own skin. Without any change in job competency, suddenly they’re fired from their job for unnamed “confidential personnel matters”.

  3. The decision make by the school was the only sane decision it could make. A Christian school cannot allow itself to be forced into morally and psychologically absurd positions in order to pander to unhealthy phantasies. In this case the man was chair of theology and philosophy and could not help but impart morally evil behavior to his charges. Mental illness is mental illness no matter what the patient may believe.

    • It’s not mental illness, nor is it morally wrong. Yes, it may be classified as a “gender disorder”, but the solution has always been hormones to change your sex, or an operation. If you know anything about psychology, then you’ll know that treatment is always done in the best interest of the patient, so your claim about it being psychologically “absurd” is absurd in itself. Their gender and sex has no bearing on their ability to teach the information. You’re a very bitter and misguided person, hopefully you’ll accept other people for who they are one day.

  4. Allan Wafkowski, It is persons like you, who have a mental illness called “Judgemental Pharisee” ( Matthew 23: 13, 24, 28) and going by your understanding… your ‘Mental illness is mental illness no matter what the patient may believe’. Hope you don’t have any “charges” that you can impart your morally evil behavior on.

    • Aren’t you condemning me for what you yourself are doing? I think so. The question here is whether there is objective truth. Christ said yes. You say no. I choose to believe Christ.

      • And when you believe Christ, does Christ tell you that testimony on being faithful and true must conform to your expectations, or is it allowed to shock and surprise you? I hear Ackley following a path where his received knowledge on how to be faithful (“be compliant with social norms of womanhood”) was contravened by what his body told him, and and by what he knew deeply from birth. Christ tells us to follow him, not the pharisees and scribes who tell you what God actually means. I think Ackley’s model is a better model. And calling you out as judgmental (which you are—you just use “mental health” and “Christian school” as a mask for it) is not as judgmental as what you have said about Ackley. You judged. Ackley has done no harm to his students, only to social norms that Jesus was pretty adamant were not his central message.

  5. First of all I am transgender and evangelical Christian. I also attended Point Loma Nazerine University which is in the same conference as APU. What this University did was wrong morally and legally. APU accepts government funding and so they are covered by the EEOC decision last year granting transgender individuals protection under title seven of the Civil rights act. I wish I could talk with him, and direct him to contact the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. He doesn’t need to stand for this kind of treatment.

    • Your comment is interesting. After a very brief introduction revealing that you are a Christian who chooses to live in a sex other than the sex God gave you, as if the mere fact of announcing your choice amounts to assurance of objective truth, you then glowingly move on to the tyrannical intervention of government as if it were a positive thing. It is only a positive thing for those who want to force aberrant behavior on those who know better.

      • Allan Wafkowski,

        APU is free not to seek any funding from the government. When they accepted the government funding, they agreed to play by the government rules. Whether or not those rules are tyrannical is irrelevant. Plenty of religiously-affiliated institutions of higher education forego government funding. APU did not.

  6. Hi. I went to Biola, another Christian University in Southern California. Allan, your comments (which in their unloving and stabbing remarks are quite hateful and abhorent) are thankfully in the minority in this comment section. I read through this entire article and the ensuing comments and realized that I had to speak up. I myself am straight, but I have multiple friends who are LGBT, and constantly struggle with their believe in the redemption of Christ, and the unloving manner in which the church treats them as humans. I brought up where I went to school not to flaunt that Biola would handle this situation better, but to point out that my doubts concerning the church and religion mostly stem from what I have come to see as a large parting from the greatest commandment given to us by Jesus. Love. Allan, are you commenting on this out of love, or are you commenting to make others feel or see that they sinful and damnable creatures. If your reason is the former, then you’ve done a horrible job of relating your beliefs and I would love to hear more about why you believe you comments represent the truth. If your aim was to illiterate the damnable actions and beliefs of others, I’d just like to point out that there is no difference between you and them. We’re all sinners and damnable; get over it. Lastly, it seems a pretty large leap of faith to claim solid knowledge about a subject (matters concerning LGBT people) when it is quite impossible to find meaningful and comprehensive text about those issues in the BIBLE (which I didn’t see you using to back up your sweeping statements, though I guess I should be happy you didn’t try to take Biblical text out of context as would be the easy temptation in this sort of situation).

    • Ren, you are judging by your own measure, not that of Christ. You have taken on the worst of theological relativism. Following your Christianity of feelings over law, there is no objective truth; everything is changeable including the law of God because feelings are always changing.

      You said ” I’d just like to point out that there is no difference between you and them”. If by that you mean we are all sinners in need of redemption your statement is true, but you forget that we have the ability and obligation to carefully follow the Law of God. If you believe that there are no Scriptural texts that repudiate the LGBT lifestyle you have not looked closely enough.

      Love? You speak of love. Christ told us what love is, it is obeying the Commandments of God. There is no redemption without acceptance of the Law.

  7. I guess I have to do a lot of prefacing like everyone elAllan’s m straight. I wo22, with, and have many friends that are gay. I won’t ever tell someone they are sinning “just so they know” but if I’m asked what God thinks, I’ll be perfectly honest. “Hurting the students” and “social norms” keep getting into the discussion here. I’m assuming we are Christian, so what students or society thinks shouldnt be in the debate. What God thinks should. Would God create a female in a males body on purpose? Of course not. You could argue that her(/his) state is a result of the fall. I was created in a flawed sinful way as well. My mind demands that I have sex with every woman I find attractive, as often as I can, whether or not they consent. Now if secular science decides that doing so is healthy for me (what with me being from animals and they doing that), does what God’s word says now become void? Should I even try and have the two mixed together? Or does truth lie in what God says and not what men decree? Sin, at is base, is wanting more than what God has given us. Satan wanted more than he was given. Eve thought God was holding back “the good stuff” from her. If God has given me a body and it conflicts with my mind or what the word of God says, I have to lay what I want at the cross and be a living sacrifice. She may have to live in turmoil if she chooses what God says. That’s why Paul says to count the cost. Its a battle against our flesh. If we want “Easy God”, try Buddhaism.
    @REN Your comment about not giving scripture to back up Allan’s claims, Lev 18:22 Lev 20:13, 1 Cor 6:9, Romans 1:18-32, 1Tim 1:8-10. Those are the ones that are pretty straight forward

    • Daniel,

      You seem to be saying that if it were not for your commitment to following your religious beliefs, you would be a rapist. Please, spend as much time at church as you possibly can. Do you have an accountability partner or anyone else like that? I really fear for the danger your community might face if you ever experience a moment of weakness. Especially when I consider that, generally, all people of faith experience moments of weakness or crises of faith at some point.

      Best case scenario, you are exaggerating a LOT. Because I promise you that psychologically healthy men do not harbour the desire to have sex without consent.

      • You cannot possibly understand that if you are not a Christian. The Virgin birth happened once. But of course in our brave new world a supposed eunuch can have babies. That is because Heather is a woman, and even with all of her hormonal treatments she still looks like a woman, and sound like one.. Too bad she’s not comfortable with her real self. She has some serious problems to be sure, and it’s not losing a job.

  8. Wow, the letter flow up to this point has all the cantankerousness of the letter flow after a yahoo! article, but with better spelling and grammar.

    Moral relativism? Heavens, no, the rules of morality never change. That’s why we still condemn the charging of interest on loans as per 13th century papal bulls against usury, forbid divorce per Jesus in Matthew, let girls marry at 12 or 13, and are okay with slavery — I mean, hey, Paul accepted it as a given, so we should too, right?

    Transgender? I don’t “get” it either, but then, that is not required for me to accept a person who feels he or she was assigned the wrong gender as my brother or sister in Christ. And does anyone seriously believe that leaving this professor in place will inspire others to make the same choices he has?

  9. Oh, one more thing. “Daniel,” you wrote

    “Would God create a female in a males body on purpose?”

    I don’t know, but I do know that He creates Siamese twins, single-birth babies that turn out to “contain” a twin who never separated off but appears instead as a growth inside the baby that was born, and babies of questionable gender assignment, so a female in a male’s body, maybe. I also know that a huge number of fertilized eggs simply fail to attach to the uterine wall and are washed away. Was God being “wasteful?” For me to ponder but not to question, and again, my understanding is not required, and even less to condemn this transgendered person because I can’t understand why God might have posed this dilemma for him!

  10. Tom (parent of APU student)

    It seems to me the main issue being discussed involves truth and toleration. A smart person once observed “There is a very big difference between tolerating others because nobody has the truth, and being convinced of the truth that we are to love those with whom we disagree about the truth.”

    I think the truth in this matter is that a private Christian university has the right to choose its professors. As a parent, I made a choice about my daughter attending APU versus attending, for example, UC Berkeley, where the goal seems to be to churn out as many pagans as possible.

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