Content note: Religious transphobia, cissexism, misgendering, mental health ableism.
My first post for Political Research Associates (PRA), where I’ve been doing some research as a fellow, is now up at the PRA blog. It looks at Azusa Pacific University’s recent firing (though the university isn’t calling it that) of Dr. Heath Adam Ackley, a scholar of theology who informed the university last month that he is a transgender man and is in the process of gender transition. I put Dr. Ackley’s struggles with Azusa Pacific in broader context of increasing evangelical attention to transgender issues, particularly the growing sense among some conservative leaders that transgender-specific theology is pretty flimsy and inadequate compared to their theologies of sexuality/sexual orientation. I also argue that, while some leaders are trying to develop and flesh out specifically transphobic theologies (e.g., Southern Baptist leader and theologian Russell Moore), there may be potential room to move or persuade other evangelicals whose transphobic beliefs are less firmly rooted in specific gender theologies.
In addition to raising the issue of employment discrimination against transgender people, Dr. Ackley’s ordeal points to the pivotal moment the Religious Right has arrived at with respect to its theology and messaging on transgender issues. Responses from APU and Christian media reflected conservative Christians’ general opposition to transgender rights, and continued conflation of gender identity with sexual orientation (per APU’s statement, their disagreement was over “human sexuality”). Even so, the range of responses showed that the Religious Right’s theology specific to transgender issues remains rudimentary and in flux, in ways transgender communities and supporters may be able to productively leverage.
Christian media coverage of Dr. Ackley’s story included actively hostile commentary from the usual suspects. Life News and WORLD Magazine insisted on referring to him by his former name and as “she/her.” Life News and the Christian Post both implied that Ackley’s gender identity is a mental illness, stressing the inclusion of “gender dysphoria” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V [or DSM-V]. Christian Post also pointedly noted that one of Ackley’s student supporters at APU is an “outspoken lesbian.”
But other responses were less overtly inflammatory. APU carefully avoided any use of gendered pronouns in both of its public statements, and referred to him as “Dr. Ackley,” rather than by his previous name. In comments to APU’s student newspaper, Dr. Scott Daniels (Dean of APU’s School of Theology) stated that, despite “strong convictions regarding gender identity in the evangelical community,” the church’s stance on transgender issues is “still in question,” even for those like him who are clergy in “fairly conservative denomination[s].” Daniels continued: “in the right context Adam [Dr. Ackley] 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.”
You can read the whole thing at Political Research Associates.
Other reading related to Dr. Ackley’s story:
- Dr. Ackley on ‘Violating ‘Christian Values?’ What Did Jesus Say?
- Becky Garrison on Coming Out as Transgender and Christian