Theology professor set to leave university over transgender identity

Photo by: Annie Z. Yu

Clements relayed the news to his students in class Friday morning. For the first time, he told them about his transgender identity and his preferred name: Heath Adam Ackley. Photo by: Annie Z. Yu

After Azusa Pacific theology professor Dr. Heather Ann Clements came to terms with her identity as a transgender man this year, administrators are struggling to decide how to properly respond to what may be the first publicly transgender professor at APU.

Clements now identifies as a man and goes by “Heath Adam Ackley” or “H. Adam Ackley” on social media profiles.
On Thursday at approximately 6 p.m., he announced on his public Facebook profile that he had been fired because of his transgender identity:

screenshot Clements FB post.png

Clements announced his new employment status on Thursday around 6 p.m. He later deleted the status and acknowledged he had not been careful enough about his word choice.

But as rumors spread, Ackley later decided to delete the status, and posted a new one that stressed a mutual agreement between himself and the administration that APU may not be the best fit for him.

“I should have worded it more carefully. … Usually when I’m doing my little check-in thing, I’m being brief. I wasn’t going to say, ‘Oh here’s the last two weeks of dialogue and every single conversation I had – let me give you a recap,'” Ackley said. “If I was going to err, I should have erred on the side of being too wordy like I usually do. But I was thinking about my family, and I just put it out there.”

After struggling with sexual identity his entire life, Ackley accepted his transgender identity this January after the American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” from the list of mental illnesses in its manual, known as DSM-5.

“You can’t change someone’s gender by giving them psychiatric medication. If they’re born transgender, they’re always going to be transgender,” said Ackley, who spent more than 30 years battling depression and anxiety and taking psychiatric medication for his alleged mental illness. “APA has finally realized that … so I was taken off all the psych meds at the beginning of this year. I was told I am sane, and that I am a guy – I’m just a transgendered guy. And that’s all I had to hear.”

His family and close friends now call him “Adam,” and he is currently in the process of legally changing his name to “Heath Adam Ackley,” dropping his married name “Clements” and going back to his original initials and maiden name, H. A. Ackley.

Last week, Ackley approached Dr. Teri Merrick, chairwoman of the Department of Theology and Philosophy, to inform her of his gender change. Ackley said Merrick, whom he described as a sister in Christ, asked him if he would like to dialogue more with colleagues about how to move forward with Clements’ gender change.

“And it made total sense. As soon as she said that, I said, thought, of course, of course I shouldn’t just coldly treat this purely as an HR matter,” Ackley said. “But neither have I wished to draw attention to myself. … It’s been very confusing to me. There really isn’t a roadmap for how a transgender person does this, nor of course for how a Christian community does this. We’re trying to deal with this in Christ and not just as an HR issue.”

Ackley said Dr. Mark Stanton, the university provost and a clinical psychologist, has affirmed Ackley‘s transgender identity, so Ackley does not feel any “quibble” about his gender.

“But [my transition] triggers the issues of gender and sexuality about which this community and especially its wider constituents are confused,” Ackley said. “We’re trying to put boundaries around it so people can learn. This is a learning environment, not a political one. … I think the university is trying to help you have a learning environment as free from distractions as possible.”

Dr. Scott Daniels, dean of the School of Theology and a pastor in a “fairly conservative denomination,” pointed out that the question of transgender people in leadership is “still in conversation” among both independent and APU-connected communities and denominations.

“The big challenge has been the classroom, but all the other things seem to have fallen into place in ways that have felt honest and loving and gracious,” Daniels said.

Ackley affirmed Daniels’ statement and said the main thing now is to proceed in a way that “minimizes student suffering.” And although he is in agreement with the administration, Ackley does not think that suddenly leaving is the wisest and best way to serve his students.

When Ackley relayed the news to some of his students Friday morning, many were shocked. Some thanked him for his honesty. Some asked for more details. Some cried.

“I don’t know if I will be permitted to come back Monday,” Ackley told his students. “If I do, we’ll stay on track. If I don’t, keep up with your reading anyway.”

Maureen Taylor, executive director of strategic communication for APU, said Friday night that Ackley’s teaching assignment is still a subject of discussion and negotiation.

Junior psychology major Maria Rangel teared up in class at the news, and was still almost at a loss for words after class ended.

“Her classroom was like the safest place to be. From the beginning she was telling us this is a safe place, even if you don’t have fully formulated thoughts, if you want to say something just say it,” she said. “I’m so inspired by her strength and the image she gives off, which is pure love and grace. She’s so strong in her faith.”

Junior nursing major Natasha Hanright said she heard about the news Thursday night but had hoped it was just a rumor. A former Buddhist, Hanright converted to Christianity at APU but became an atheist due to what she described as “hate” she received for her Buddhist background.

“In that classroom [professor Clements] brought me so close to loving God again, as close as anyone could have ever had,” Hanright said. “She accepted me. She made me want to love God.”

As the administration mulls over appropriate next steps, Daniels said although there have been recent shifts in the psychological community, there are still strong convictions regarding gender identity in the evangelical community and the transgender question is still largely uncharted theological territory.

“I think in the right context Adam could serve as an important voice in helping bring some clarity into that conversation, helping the church have that conversation in ways that are maybe more robust and thoughtful,” he said.

Dr. Kimberly Denu, special adviser to the president and provost, has worked on diversity issues with Ackley and said this is an example of “living and learning together.”

“I think this is difficult stuff. Real life gets messy, but that’s where the body of Christ rises to the occasion,” Denu said. “This is a great opportunity for us to show love in action.”

Ackley will remain on contract through June 30, the end of the school year, but may be released from teaching duties. Until then, he hopes to be able to help his students’ potential new professor pick up his classes, and he reminded his students that he will always be close by.

“I want to continue to be as involved as you want me to be and as involved as this institution is going to let me be in your theological world,” he told his students.

On Monday, president Jon Wallace sent a campus-wide email that referenced “thoughtful conversations” with Ackley and avoided using pronouns, instead referring to him as a “faculty member.”

“[Ackley’s employment status] remains an ongoing conversation and a confidential personnel matter,” Wallace wrote.

Ackley’s access to Sakai, APU’s online classroom system, was cut off Sunday evening but restored Tuesday morning, according to a student. As of Tuesday, Sept. 24, Ackley was still teaching his classes and told students he will continue to do so until further notice, according to students in his class.

(See: Students on campus respond to transgender professor)

This post has been updated with additional information, including a statement from president Jon Wallace.