“I secretly carved crosses on my body” : To be Christian and Trans Today

A professor at a Christian university was fired after fifteen years of teaching, all because he came out as a man.

Religion News Service published an article Friday detailing the experiences of 47-year-old Adam Ackley, who came out in a sermon a month ago at LeVerne Church of the Brethren. In his sermon,  Ackley said that he was physically unable to continue living as a woman, “I was dying last year because I couldn’t live that way anymore.”

He added, “I was so scared, and I was so sad. And today, those things don’t’ confine me.” “Today ” he said, “I get to be the best Christian I can be.”

Ackley’s sermon argues that Christianity teaches acceptance of all people, regardless of gender. Ackley preached, “God’s love breaks down any barrier inside of us, or between us.”

As Ackley noted, trans acceptance amongst Christians is up, with even the stalwartly crazy Pat Robertson arguing that man could be born into a woman’s body and vice versa. (One could argue that Robertson’s obsession with demonic possession and the body/soul divide make it easier for him to accept that it could be right to change a body to fit the inhabitant, but that’s another article)

Unfortunately, this ideal trans-friendly Christianity was nowhere to be found in Ackley’s treatment by Azusa Pacific University, where he taught. Azusa Pacific reached an agreement with Ackley: they will pay him through the end of the year (as a way of getting out of their remaining three years of contractual obligations to him), but they are immediately removing him from a teaching role, getting other professors to fill his classes.

Ackley’s immediate removal shows something crucial about how Azusa Pacific perceives him: instead of treating Ackley like a person they disagree with, they are treating him as if he is so diseased by being trans that he cannot teach at their institution for another moment.

Indeed, despite the acceptance of conservatives like Robertson, for many conservative Christians, the public presence of trans people disrupts their ideology of the family.

The evangelical movements of the 1980’s pushed for an establishment of Christianity that was, in the words of scholar Sara Diamond, “focused fairly narrowly on questions of proper family structure and moral, that is, sexual behavior.” This modern evangelism, against the “free love” of the sixties, a rising divorce rate, and a growing public presence of homosexuals, articulated that family could not exist without a male and a female parent.

Of course, the ideology that a family cannot exist without the complimenting male and female roles, called “complementarianism”, necessarily shames anybody who does not neatly fit into these roles. It condemns single parents and homosexuals. It shames men and women who do not conform exactly to their gender roles. As Mark Driscoll’s recent book “Pastor Dad” proves all too well, it can also shame wives who have to work and husbands who are unable to.

Perhaps most of all, it shames trans people, because even greater than the sin of not conforming to the ideal gender roles is the sin of skirting those gender roles entirely. For a conservative Christian, the very presence of transsexual person challenges the notion that genders have defining characteristics of all. Perhaps this is why Ackley’s university couldn’t stand to keep him around for even one more year: his very presence would challenge their deeply-held beliefs.

Of course, this shame weighs heavy on non-conforming Christians. Nowhere is this more clear than in Ackley’s admission that he, before transitioning, would “carve crosses” on his body, as part of “self-medicating self-injuring and self-starving of the female body during a suicidal relapse.” It’s a telling image of the real damage contemporary Christianity can inflict on its gender non-conforming adherents.

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