Dr. Heath Adam Ackley, a 15-year teaching veteran at Azusa Pacific University (APU), may lose his position. Last week he revealed to school administrators last week that he is a transgender person who is going through a divorce from as he seeks a legal name change and gender transition.
Ackerly’s precarious employment status point to the ongoing debate in Christian circles over the status of LGBT people in church circles. While the university’s evangelical doctrine clearly prohibits homosexual behavior, their statement on gender does not specifically ban trans people. However, a read of their statements indicates that the only appropriate expression of one’s sexuality at APU is between a man and a woman ideally for the purpose of procreation.
In response, some students at APU followed the lead of a growing number of their evangelical peers by choosing a relationship with a teacher they respected instead of adherence to their school’s teaching on human sexuality. They chose to stand in solidarity with their teacher by launching a petition asking the university to “strive to create a safer environment for students and faculty who have been marginalized by APU’s conservative policies, as well as those who have been victims of spiritual violence on campus.”
The Rev. Mykal Slack, a trans-identified clergy person who describes himself as a “Bridge Builder, Worship Leader and Diversity Trainer” offered these scriptural insights that point to what it means to be a faith based ally:
While the passage goes on to say that Jesus couldn’t minister there in the same ways as he could in other places, it also says that he was able to touch and heal some of the people there who needed that healing. Ackley’s powerful witness to live in spirit and in truth will have incredible impact on at least a few people in the university because they are listening, paying more attention to who the kingdom of God really looks like, and recognizing that how they may be living their lives doesn’t represent the full measure of what it means to have a life of faith. These are at the heart of what good allies, especially allies of faith can do.
In assessing this situation at APU, the Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and the Episcopal Chaplain at Boston University, points to a larger fundamental question, “Why should the very existence of trans professors of theology or of religious studies be so unusual to begin with?”
As the struggle for acceptance of trans people in an increasing pluralistic culture continues, one does find signs of hope. For those looking to be a better ally to the trans community the Rev. Shanon Kearns, a priest with the Old Catholic Diocese of New Jersey, penned some helpful insights regarding what he could use from allies. Also at the Believe Out Loud website, I offer some guidelines for religious leaders who want to welcome trans people into their faith communities.