I don’t know H. Adam Ackley, the professor of theology at Christian Azusa Pacific University who was recently fired after coming out as transgender after teaching there for fifteen years, but having gone through my own difficult coming-out experience at Yeshiva University, I can imagine some of what Professor Ackley is going through.

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Dr. H. Adam Ackley tells his students for the first time of his transgender identity. He had just written his name on the board. Credit: RNS/Annie Z. Yu.

Unlike Yeshiva University, Azusa doesn’t grant tenure. If I hadn’t received tenure before coming out, I am sure that like Professor Ackley, I would have been terminated, and for similar reasons. Some may think that religious universities are driven in this regard by fear of God, but there is no verse in the Bible in which God says, “Thou shalt not employ a transgender professor.” No, religious universities, like secular organizations that fire transgender employees, are acting out of fear of human beings: fear that students won’t register for classes with a transgender professor; fear of parents, who might send their children and tuition elsewhere; and fear, above all, of alienating alumni and other donors whose contributions keep the lights on and the doors open.

Like so many fears, these fears, when acted upon, become self-fulfilling prophecies. If religious universities fire every employee whose gender identity or sexual orientation might be objectionable to donors, no one will ever know whether the fears that motivate these firings reflect the real limitations of their communities. Indeed, some Azusa Pacific University students have started a petition in support of Professor Ackley.

Moreover, in firing Professor Ackley, Azusa is undermining its own religious missions. Rather than schooling students to be ever-keener, more courageous, and honest witnesses to God’s presence, Azusa is teaching students that rather than honoring the image of God in which Professor Ackley, like all human beings, is created, they should bow to fear of difference, fear of the unknown, and what Christians call “Mammon” – fear of losing money.

I want Professor Ackley to count me among his supporters; I am here for him. But though Azusa Pacific University may not welcome my support, I am here for the university too:

Azusa Pacific, you are not alone. Very few institutions, religious or otherwise, know what to do when transgender employees come out, and many fear that their institutional viability will be undermined if they employ people like Professor Ackley and me. They fear that even one transgender employee will change their public image – their identity – forever, that they will be known not by the value of the services they offer, the deeds they do, or the contributions they have made, but by the gender identity of one employee. They fear that they will be impoverished, excoriated, and shunned by communities that cannot understand transgender identity or their decisions to tolerate it.

Transgender people know these fears well. They are the fears that keep us from coming out, from being true to ourselves, from becoming people God created us to be. We who have lived by these fears know how small they make us.

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"In firing Professor Ackley, Azusa is undermining its own religious missions," Ladin writes. Credit: Creative Commons/Peter Bulthuis.

As someone who spent most of my life – 45 years – cowering rather than facing my fears of human rejection, I have no right to expect more courage from you than I showed myself. But now that my Orthodox Jewish university and I have lived through my highly publicized gender transition, I can offer you practical encouragement in facing the fears aroused by Professor Ackley’s transition.

My university’s religious identity has not been changed by my transition. Yeshiva University continues to attract Orthodox Jewish students, including many who are quite conservative in their values, and remains a leading and respected voice in the Orthodox Jewish world. Students who are uncomfortable with me are not required to take my classes. This has reduced my enrollment, but it has not prevented me from teaching. Indeed, there are students who seek me out, not because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, but because, as one student confided in me while her father was dying, they know that I have lived through pain and loss, fear and isolation – and that I have come through those experiences with my love of God and humanity intact. Despite my presence on the faculty, and the publicity I have received in the Jewish world, Orthodox parents continue to send their children to our university, donors continue to give, trustees continue to serve on the Board, rabbis continue to teach at our seminary, and Orthodox congregations, schools and other institutions continue to hire Yeshiva University graduates.

When I came out as transgender, neither I nor my university believed this could happen. But God strengthened us to face down our fears, and worked what I continue to see as a miracle: the miracle of a conservative religious university accepting an openly transgender professor on its faculty.

May God grant you and Professor Ackley the courage you need in this difficult time. May Azusa Pacific University bear witness to the God who transcends human fears and failings, the God in whose image everyone connected with your school, including Professor Ackley, is created.


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