Last summer, an evangelical university professor in the USA was asked to leave his post after coming out as transgender.
Heath Adam Ackley (formerly Heather Clements) was a member of faculty at Azusa Pacific University for 15 years and has been Chair of Theology and Philosophy as well as being ordained in her church, but when he asked the University to recognise his new name and gender he was asked to leave.
“People assumed that I’ve done something – some sex act,” he said. “I’m not violating any sexual conduct and it’s embarrassing that it’s implied. I live a very chaste life.” Despite vocal support from students at the University, other members of staff were immediately asked to cover his classes.
“I tried to be the best Christian woman I could be… but I have to accept something difficult about myself,” he said. “I’ve never been fully myself; I’ve always been living a lie.”
Sadly, such a reaction is not uncommon among evangelicals and is just as prevalent here in the UK. As Elaine Sommers writes, “Whilst there are some wonderful examples of ordained transgender people in the Church of England, they are few and far between. Lay people face problems too. I know of organists, choir directors and others whose positions have been terminated when they disclose that they are trans. Others are excluded from communion or may be asked to leave, which is devastating for them.”
Elaine continues, “There are also many trans people, and I am one, who have no desire to live permanently as the opposite gender. If such a person decides to be more open about it, this can bring a strongly negative reaction, especially in a more conservative church, where transgender may be seen as a moral issue. My decision to come out was therefore difficult, but I didn’t anticipate just how dramatic the response would be. Having served as a worship leader, songwriter and in overseas mission over many years, news about my transgender identity resulted in me being excluded from all positions of responsibility with immediate effect. And after many months of discussion, negotiation and prayer, the situation did not improve. With heavy hearts and a sense of rejection, my wife and I left our church of over thirty years, but by God’s grace we found a fellowship which welcomed us with open arms and surrounded us with love, in full knowledge of my trans nature. This was a lifesaver.”
So what can church congregations do to help and encourage trans people? First of all, don’t assume that there are no transgender people in your midst. If your church is of medium size, say one to two hundred, you probably have several already, but they are keeping quiet for fear of rejection or ridicule.
The Church has become accustomed to hearing the voice of gay and lesbian people. Sexual orientation has been debated at length, but how often do we consider transgender? The common response from trans Christians who have tried to share their story is: ‘no one listened.’ When Accepting Evangelicals wrote to the Evangelical Alliance to offer our help in considering transgender issues, the reply we received was sobering: ‘I note that you feel that it is a subject that merits more dialogue, study and understanding. Whether or not this may be the case I can advise you that the Alliance has no plans to conduct such a study in the near future.’
On the other hand, groups such as Accepting Evangelicals have sought for many years to encourage acceptance of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the Church, and are now speaking out with transgender people as well. Last year, when the new Archbishop of Canterbury met with a number of LGBT people, including trans representatives, he indicated a willingness to listen.
For others who are ready to listen, there is now a Transgender section on the Accepting Evangelicals website – www.acceptingevangelicals.org/transgender -or you could listen to Heath Adam Ackley’s ‘coming out sermon’ on YouTube – see below.
Written by Benny Hazlehurst & Elaine Sommers