Beliefs

Transgender theology professor asked to leave California Christian college after coming out

A California Christian college has asked Heather Clements to leave the school after he came out as transgender. As of Friday, the professor is still listed on the school's website.

A California Christian college has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave Azusa Pacific University after he came out as transgender.

Heather Clements taught theology at the school for 15 years, but this past year, he has begun referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley.

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 die my hair.” Photo courtesy Rodney Clements.

Ackley, who is in his third year of a five-year contract, told RNS that he and APU have agreed to part ways as 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 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 years old.

APU spokesperson Rachel White declined to discuss Ackley’s employment, saying that the issue is ongoing and personnel matters are confidential. Ackley said he is meeting with a university lawyer on Monday.

Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical university of about 10,000 students and 1,200 faculty located northeast of Los Angeles. To his knowledge, Ackley said there is nothing in the university’s policies about transgender people, just 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.”

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

“This year has been a transition from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” he said. He has two children and is in the process of a divorce from his second husband.

As the news trickled out on social networks Thursday, he said he saw people making various assumptions.

“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, who is 47, said he has received offers from other Christian and non-religious institutions to teach or consult.

In a YouTube video posted Friday (Sept. 20), 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 as 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, 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 the gender that was assigned to him at birth. “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 Church of the Brethren on Aug. 18, Ackley refers to Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson’s recent comments on people who are transgender. “Thank you! It’s not a sin,” Ackley said.

“I have never really identified with being 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, originally titled “The Genderqueer Gospel” but changed to “Come as You Are! God’s Good News for All People,” 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.”

A California Christian college has asked Heather Clements to leave the school after he came out as transgender. As of Friday, the professor is still listed on the school's website.

A California Christian college has asked Heather Clements to leave the school after he came out as transgender. As of Friday, the professor is still listed on the school’s website.

Ackley argues that mankind was broken apart but in Paul’s letter in Galatians “there is neither male nor female but we are one in Jesus Christ. What was broken has been restored.”

Ackley notes that the church has three gender inclusive bathrooms. He focuses on Jesus, putting his twist on the parable of the great banquet, suggesting maybe Christians would be pulling in people who are in their pajamas or in drag.

“It’s the place where you can be yourself,” he said. “It’s about breaking bread with those who live and love as they are.”

In 2001, he wrote the book “Women, Music, and Faith in Central Appalachia: Studies in Women and Religion” and co-authored “Daughters of the Mountain South.” He was ordained in 1999 in the Mennonite Church but transferred his credentials to the Church of the Brethren in 2009.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

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