Dr. H. Adam Ackley has a list of credentials most of us will never achieve. But the most impressive is his sheer tenacity. In 2013, in his late 40’s, a renowned professor of theology and the chair of the theology and philosophy department at Azusa Pacific University, Ackley came out as transgender.
It was the year Ackley said he went “from being a mentally ill woman to being a sane, transgendered man,” according to an interview he gave to the Huffington Post. As difficult as it is to approach and address one’s gender identity, Ackley said, “If you’re born into a community of faith you really don’t know how to navigate that.” So for years he not only tried to be the good Christian woman he was told he needed to be, but conform to the traditional gender role of being a woman in an evangelical Christian environment.
As a woman, he married his first spouse and lost that husband to cancer. He then married a second spouse and had two children, but the weight of the mental conflict between who he was inwardly and how he presented himself outwardly began to take its toll. Ackley dealt with the cognitive dissonance through medication and alcohol. It didn’t take long before he was hospitalized, with organs shutting down, and people stopping in to say their final goodbyes. With his team of physicians doing all they could do to save his life, it was a second team that stepped in to help.
Ackley described the mental conflict to his new team of therapists. “You’re not mentally ill,” the psychologist told him, “you’re a transgender man.” With the recommendation of the psychologists and support of the medical staff, Ackley stopped taking all of the drugs prescribed to him and began to transition into his new life. He regained his physical and mental health, even though he knew his life was about to undergo drastic changes.
He shared his impending name change with a supervisor at the college and within 24 hours he was asked to leave. “I thought my community would be happy,” he said, “but it was pretty hard to get the message that we preferred you insane and dying than healthy. I didn’t think they were so entrenched in a view that you can’t be a gay person and be a Christian that they would have condemned one to death for it. And never in my wildest dreams did I think homophobia in that community ran that deep.”
When asked how this experience has changed his view of God, Ackley said, “It hasn’t changed as much as it’s deepened.” He went on to say, “I feel like my journey out has been a journey to reconnect with a very overwhelmingly deep sense of God’s grace.”
Ackley considers himself fortunate to not have grown up in the legalism and judgment of the evangelical faith, but spent time in the Evangelical United Brethren Church as a child, which he says was “steeped in progressive evangelicalism and grace-filled.” Later, as a new Ph.D., he taught Hebrew and church history at a Pentecostal African-American Bible College and learned to work with people who held more strict evangelical views than he did.
“I worked very hard at those relationships,” he said. “I worked much harder than anyone I’ve known that worked at a liberal, political and academic background to make myself at home and be able to communicate peaceably.”
Of his time at Azusa Pacific University, Ackley said, “The only issue that we disagreed on in 15 years was the issue of same-sex covenant marriages in the church.” It was an issue he found contradictory even as a young Bible student in the era of Anita Bryant and AIDS. He attended Claremont University to get answers “as to why Christianity was suddenly becoming homophobic.” His study of the Hebrew Scriptures only confirmed, he said, that, “homophobia was based on mistranslation and taking things out of context.”
Ackley didn’t see himself, at the time, as part of the group he was defending. Now, not only was his view different than those of his friends, colleagues and fellow believers, he was considered an outsider. “I did not grasp the toll that homophobia takes on the people that hold it and the people who are affected by it until I came out myself,” he said.
His resolve to help the church change the way it views LGBT people has only been strengthened. “What I do in my private prayer life when I feel resentful and frustrated is pray for [the church] to be released from fear. This strikes me with grief because these are my friends, these are my brothers and sisters in Christ, these are people I’ve shared my life with for 15 years,” Ackley said.
He continues to take a public stance on LGBT issues, volunteering his time to help organizations address the lies and misinformation so often proliferated by conservative Christian groups. He has written over 30 Biblical commentaries and over 40 pieces for Huffington Post. He has consulted with groups, such as SoulForce Equality Ride House, the ACLU’s LGBT Project, and serves on the Board of Director’s for Safety Net, a non-profit advocacy resource organization for LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities.
Safety Net serves LGBTQI students at Azusa Pacific University, Westmont College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Cedarville University, Bob Jones University, Wheaton College, and George Fox University. The website, onesafetynet.com, offers resources, contact information for students and staff seeking support, and promotes education for Christians on gender and sexuality.
Dr. Ackley recognizes his experiences and education are vital in the on-going battle of ideals between the conservative church from which he came, and the LGBT community to which he belongs by default. “I feel like I was given this Ph.D. from this prestigious organization, I have almost 20 years of service as an ordained minister, and I try to use those in service of the community,” he said. His intention is not to stroke his own ego, but to point out that he is in a unique position at this time in history to positively affect the way the church at large addresses those who are transgender.
The confidence and fortitude with which Dr. Ackley speaks belies the turmoil he has undergone in his journey to wholeness. However, he is a true inspiration for the many men and women who take part in the evangelical faith and who have yet to reconcile that faith with their own gender and/or sexual identity.
Photo – Courtesty of Dr. H. Adam Ackley