Azusa Pacific University in California

A professor at a Christian college has left his position as head of Theology after coming out as trans-gender. Professor Heath Adam Ackley (47), formerly Heather Clements, had taught at the Azusa Pacific University (APU) for 15 years as a married woman. Following a divorce he began the complicated process of gender reassignment. Ackley then came out to his students in a sermon entitled, ‘Come as You Are! God’s Good News for All People!’, and was shortly after asked to prematurely leave the college, just halfway through his five year contract.

Speaking about the incident, 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 seem to have abandoned ideals of morality and equality in favour of a colder, financial line. The college appears not to have a direct issue with Ackley’s choice, but an indirect issue, influenced by a fear that the wider community won’t accept his choice. I can’t help but personally mourn the passing by of this opportunity for APU to have understood the art of tolerance. Instead the college has gone for the safer, simpler, and more out-dated route.

This incident certainly raises concerns as to the acceptance of trans-gender individuals, especially in religious communities. APU’s website does have a page dedicated to its beliefs on human sexuality, but intriguingly, the issue of trans-gender people is not directly raised. Heterosexuality is described as ‘God’s design’, and Homosexuality as ‘expressly forbidden’, but a view on trans-gender is notably absent.

Perspectives on the trans-gender issue in relation to Christianity vary, mainly due to individual interpretation of the Bible. A prominent televangelist, Pat Robertson, recently said in response to questions about gender reassignment that: ‘I don’t think there’s any sin associated with that’. Ackley acknowledged Robertson’s statement in his 40 minute sermon. However he also expressed how difficult it is to be identified as both trans-gendered and a Christian. The phrase ‘Christian transphobia’ has been used to express this struggle, which at points caused Ackley to become depressed and at times even led to self-harm. The fact that there is an entire sub category within transphobia with Christian motivations at its core is admittedly a worrying sign of the religion’s world view.

In this case Christianity has come under close scrutiny in relation to the issue, due to APU’s status as an evangelical college. But the wider attitudes toward trans-gender people seem not to be much different. Up until the shockingly recent date of 18 May, 2013, editions of the American Psychological Association featured ‘trans-gender’ on its list of mental illnesses.

The eventual acknowledgment that trans-gendered people are sane marks an important step forward in their battle for acceptance and equality. But progress seems slow, perhaps due to trans-gender as an identity being largely overlooked, with other issues such as homosexuality and gender equality taking the forefront of debates. Clearly there is a very long way to go before trans-gender people get full acceptance.