H. Adam Ackley Speaks
You don’t have to understand each other to love each other.
That’s the message that writer, speaker, consultant and transgender advocate H. Adam Ackley shared with a large audience in the Casa Loma Room Feb. 17. He was introduced by Prof. Fran Grace, who first met Ackley 15 years ago.
“H. Adam has a unique story to share,” Grace said. “His story is saving lives.”
Ackley, who identifies as a transgender gay man, began his lecture by giving a brief explanation of his name. Born Heather Ann, it was important to Ackley to keep the initials, and he was drawn to the Biblical name “Ha-Adam.”
“I am connected with all of humanity,” he said. “I feel first and foremost that I’m a human being.”
The audience was given a glimpse into Ackley’s life through a slideshow of photos from childhood to today. As a young child, he explained, he was “free to be you and me,” and to dress as he pleased and keep his hair short. He was certain he would grow up to be a man, and emulated his grandfather.
“I was happy,” he said. “But at puberty…when you start to grow up and turn into what you didn’t want to be, the dysphoria hits hard.”
To cope, Ackley began to drink at 12 and embraced the “gender-bending” fashion trend of the late 1970s. In 1984, he became a Christian, and went on to earn a PhD in philosophy, religion and theology from Claremont Graduate School and work as a professor at a Southern California evangelical college. Wanting to start a family, he married his first husband in the 1990s.
“I really thought I had to go stealth to have a family,” he said. “I feel blessed to have experienced carrying, bearing and nursing children. I celebrate that.”
Throughout his adult life, Ackley was prescribed psychiatric medications, and continued to drink. In 2012, he was down to 112 pounds and suffering from chronic malnutrition and dehydration.
“It simply due to the chronic stress of trying to live as a woman,” he said.
Ackley was overjoyed in 2012 when the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) stated that transgender identity is no longer classified as a mental disorder. After working with a supportive therapist, he decided it was time to change his life.
“I was told I didn’t need medications, and to just live as a transgender man,” he said. “Why was I forcing myself to live as a woman?”
He received pushback from many, including his mentor in addiction recovery. His second husband divorced him, and he lost his house and job. That didn’t take away from the joy that he felt finally being himself.
“That little kid that had to go into the closet could grow up,” he said. “I’m grateful. It’s not really my gender that changed…what changed is I’ve stopped living in fear. Now I live life in real love.”
Ackley also shared sobering statistics about transgender men and women: 47 percent attempt suicide, 57 percent are rejected by their families, and 19 percent are homeless.
“Hatred and fear of transgender people is the very thing that leads to the fact that the murder rate and hate crimes are higher for them than all other groups targeted for hate crimes combined,” he said.
Ackley explained that he didn’t go through this alone; his two daughters also had to get used to his new life, and also experienced painful moments.
“My six-year-old daughter’s best friend can’t play with her anymore,” he said. “That really bothers her. She used to come over to our house play with her every week when I was drunk and dying, but she can’t now that I’m trans.”
Ackley answered questions from the audience and also several that had been submitted in advance by students. When asked the best way to support transgender men and women, his response was simple: listen.
“You don’t need to police someone’s gender,” he said. “Try not to determine each other’s gender. Just listen; that’s the biggest thing.”
He also shared his thoughts on how to support a transitioning parent, the need for gender-neutral bathrooms (“It’s humiliating to have to use a bathroom that’s not yours, and for trans women, it’s not even safe"), and how to help children who might question their gender identity.
“Let the child lead,” he said. “If they’re going through a phase, let them. So what? It’s not contagious. You can’t have it stick to you like a leech. You won’t suddenly become transgender if you weren’t.”
God made transgender people with joy, love, creativity and grace, Ackley said, and there is room for everybody.
“You’re not alone,” he said. “Whatever your gender identity, you’re not alone.”
Posted: Feb. 19, 2014
Written by: Catherine Garcia