Father Figure

Priest, activist, Latino and more, Joseph Palacios discusses his roots and reasoning

Joseph Palacios is a man of God.

He’s also a doctor of sociology, a Mexican American, a Fulbright scholar, a presidential appointee on the board of visitors of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and a professor at Georgetown University.

Joseph Palacios
Joseph Palacios
(Photo by Todd Franson)

“I teach introduction to sociology, introduction to social sciences, Latino sociology, religion and society, culture and power in Latin America, social justice analysis, urban studies,” he says. “It’s lots and lots of basic courses.”

These may be just the basics for Palacios, but it’s obvious he has well-rounded interests and an intellect to match.

Not so obvious, perhaps, is that he is gay. Honoring his vows as a Catholic priest, Palacios is celibate, but gay nonetheless. And while his sexual orientation doesn’t find expression via libido, it does find it in the way that seems to make Palacios happiest: community involvement.

As vice president of The Center, the D.C. area’s LGBT community center, and as a board member of the new Catholics for Equality, Palacios’s gay identity is as central to his being as are his other components.

As an openly gay priest, Palacios is a bit of a rarity. His enthusiastic intellect, sincerity and altruism also make him something of a rarity. And it’s probably what makes an hour’s conversation with him seem like a gift.

METRO WEEKLY: Because we’re in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to start by asking what that means to you.

JOSEPH PALACIOS: It was a very early time, as a freshman in high school, that my Chicano identity – as we would refer to it at that time in California – began to blossom.

When I was in high school, I went to Catholic boarding school, St. Pious X prep. I was coming from Los Angeles, an urban kid, and I’m in the middle of the Central Valley. In 1965, César Chávez had organized a march from Delano, Calif., to Sacramento. They actually passed near the school. We did an annual passion play, and we went out to the farm workers in a flatbed truck and did the performance.

Throughout high school and then college, I was a Chicano activist. That goes back to my deeper roots, regarding my father and his work. He worked at a country club in Hollywood. I used to think of it as “urban farming,” because he was the grounds manager for this golf course. Out of that, we had a landscape business. He got clients from the club. As a kid, I was at the homes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, doing work, because they were members of Lakeside Country Club. From the age of 9, I was working with my dad cutting lawns, doing trees. I worked hand-in-hand with Mexican immigrants. My dad was sixth-generation Texan, but I grew up with a strong social consciousness.

When I got to high school, this consciousness became very much a part of me and I’ve been an activist ever since.

MW: Did you meet César Chávez?

PALACIOS: Yes, I met César Chávez, subsequently, when I was in college. I helped organize a big rally for him at [University of California,] Santa Cruz, where I went to college.

MW: Were you excited to leave home for boarding school?

PALACIOS: Oh, yeah. I said, “If I can find a way to go to school free, would you let me do it?” I found a way to do it. I won a scholarship in my eighth-grade class.

MW: Were you tested as a child, examined for aptitude, intelligence, that sort of thing?

PALACIOS: Just IQ.

MW: Was it in the normal range?

PALACIOS: It’s high. I’m clever! [Laughs.] No, I like prizes. This is horrible, but I got used to it. In high school, I won the prizes. In college, I won the prizes. Grad school, I won the prizes. My mother’s family really prized education, and I grew up with this notion that your way to succeed is to have a higher education. When my mother won a scholarship to go to secretarial school, my grandfather let her go, which was unheard of in the ’40s, that a girl could leave home. My uncles, on my mother’s side, were the first Mexican Americans to go to Texas Tech University. There’s this love for education. My father, unfortunately, due to the Depression, couldn’t advance in education. But my mother’s side did, so I grew up with the value of this deep in me: The way to get ahead was to study hard, and somehow I did it.

MW: During your school years, since you’re gay, there must have been a time –

PALACIOS: College.

MW: That’s when you started thinking you were gay?

PALACIOS: I go over to UC Santa Cruz in 1969 as a freshman. And Stonewall hits in ’69. There I am, in the middle of it, and all of a sudden we’re forming a gay student group.

This was a very liberal school. We were just at the forefront of everything. And student-driven – students could do anything they wanted. I helped start MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, which is the Chicano student organization. My first kind of orientation was Chicano movement, anti-war movement.

I had an opportunity to go to Mexico when I was a sophomore. I spent two quarters in Cuernavaca and Mexico City doing a project on liberation theology. While there, I met some gay students, Americans, who I just fell in with, who were going to the same institute I was.

MW: Did you know they were gay?

PALACIOS: Yeah.

MW: Did you know that you were gay?

PALACIOS: Yeah. It just came out. I wanted to study for the priesthood and I admitted that I was gay, but wasn’t willing to explore. I was gay and not sexual. So my gay identity was a very spiritual, kind of political identity.

I got back to school, the spring quarter of my sophomore year, and that’s when I was really having to face this. Back at home, who am I? I went into therapy for the first time ever and started working with a psychologist. She was very helpful. I emerged from that, coming out with my friends and everyone was very accepting.

MW: Which actually came first, your desire to be a priest or the notion that you might be gay?

PALACIOS: I’ll tell you what happened. I’m saving myself for the priesthood and, toward senior year, I start realizing I don’t want to go on. I’m gay. And I really would like to have a boyfriend.

I left college and went to grad school at UC Berkeley in sociology. I started classes in ’73. Berkeley at that time was very troublesome. At that time, after the anti-Vietnam War movement, Berkeley was in shambles. There was a lot of tension, classes were tense. The feminist movement was really at its peak. The gay movement was really just beginning at the university. I identified with the gay students, but being gay and being Latino, there was a tension there, too. I got so tense that I got a job and started working. I was doing affirmative-action work, human-resource work. I had a business career from, like, ’74 to ’81. I worked at two large corporations in San Francisco. I bought a home. I got interested in making money. And I did have a boyfriend for several years.

During that timeframe, in my work, I’d run up against value conflicts with management, particularly in one large company. I landed a really high middle-level job at this multinational corporation. I was 26 when I got that job. I had to do civil-rights complaints, work with women and minorities at the various plants and locations we were at. I would do the investigation, write a report and make a recommendation. I often got feedback, “You’re not doing this in the company’s interest.” I had a boss, the corporate legal counsel for this big company, who said, “Joe, the way you think, you really should be a Catholic priest, because you’re constantly looking at the side of the employees.” I came back with, “I’ve learned over time that no one files a complaint against this large company unless there’s truth behind it.” At that time in the ’70s, people were very wary about making complaints. I got so entangled in this by 1980 with this company that I resigned. We reached a settlement in the resignation. They were very generous to me – that’s why I can’t really name them.

That was a chance, from ’80 to ’81, to review my life. I had money, so I could do things without worrying about work. I started getting involved in local politics in Oakland, Calif. I ended up running a political campaign, a City Council race in Oakland. We lost, but I got rewarded with a job with the state of California. I worked for a year in the California National Guard doing public relations.

MW: Were you in San Francisco when Harvey Milk was assassinated?

PALACIOS: I was working in San Francisco at the time, yes. I remember quite vividly being in my office in the financial district. Someone was listening to the radio, and the news report came out. “Harvey Milk and the mayor have been shot.”

Immediately after work, at 5 o’clock, I converged – like a lot of people – down to the Market Street area, City Hall. There was a big vigil. And I was at Harvey Milk’s memorial at the opera house. A lot of things in the movie Milk were very vivid for me. I lived in Berkeley, but I was always in the city.

Long story short, I quit the corporate sector, did this segue, this transition time, went to Los Angeles where I grew up, lived with my mother. I was in therapy, and I made a decision to study for the priesthood. In ’83, I entered seminary in Los Angeles and went straight into theological studies – the fast track.

Joseph Palacios
Joseph Palacios
(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Was there a certain turning point that took you back to Los Angeles?

PALACIOS: Yeah, there was. I had hit a bottom in the sense of who I was. I had hit bottom in the sense of alcoholism. I drank. It runs in the men in my family. My father died of alcoholism. Basically, I had time to have another chance.

MW: I can see how the late ’70s, early ’80s in the Bay Area could be overwhelming.

PALACIOS: It was very taxing, emotionally draining. Fight, fight, fight, fight. And then your heroes die. There are points in time when you get politically exhausted. I felt the way I was channeling my energy was becoming less constructive and more self-destructive. I went downhill.

I really owe it to my family, because they received me back home really well. I had made some bad decisions. I had gotten my settlement from the company and I had a lot of money –

MW: And you were young.

PALACIOS: And I blew it. I lost a lot, and I hit the bottom. Young, in the Bay Area, and my relationship with my boyfriend was falling apart. The whole thing was coming down. My boyfriend really did not want to have much to do with me anymore because of this crash.

So many people had really serious issues in their late 20s. Drugs, alcohol, unstable relationships, going through this big cultural revolution – and we were the experiments. Some of them failed. Some of them didn’t. Some people flourished.

But this is history. I don’t have any regrets. I had a chance to re-establish myself, and I did. I went back to L.A. Interestingly, my parish there had a new pastor, Father Ryan. He was an incredible friend. He was an intellectual. And he said, “Joe, go for it. Go to seminary and try it out. You have nothing to lose.”

So I did. I went to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. They asked me when I entered the seminary if I was gay. I was honest. At the time I entered seminary, there wasn’t this whole discourse on “intrinsic moral disorder” in the church. That only came in ’87 when Ratzinger became head of the Congregation [for the Doctrine] of the Faith and started writing his anti-gay doctrine that’s now become… doctrinaire. At most seminaries, especially mine, no one talked about sexuality at all. The majority of my classmates were men who had teaching careers, lawyers, people who had been working – people like me. Most of them had had experiences – boyfriends, girlfriends – but no one talked about it. It was like you entered [seminary] and closed the door behind you. You didn’t talk about anything in the past, because you could have liability.

MW: If I was going to seminary, I think I would prefer it that way.

PALACIOS: You’re there, focused: You’re going to be celibate. You have this commitment you’re going to make, and go forward. I always thought it was interesting that the straight guys never talked about women ever. Gay men know how to shut up – we’re trained to do that. But the straight guys? No one said anything.

MW: Considering the conversation with Father Ryan that you may as well try seminary, that you had nothing to lose, when did you realize you’d made the right choice?

PALACIOS: I think it was my first year. We had an experience of a long retreat, two months at the San Fernando Mission. I had a chance to do a lot of reflecting. My dad is buried in the mission cemetery. I went to his grave every day. There I came to terms through a really great spiritual director who’s now archbishop of San Francisco. He helped me realize that I was an alcoholic, and as soon as I left that retreat I entered AA and have been sober ever since.

It was during that time that I saw I could make a commitment and I wanted to be a priest. I really thought I had a passion from my youth that was consistent. I was able to say, “I can make a commitment to celibacy. I love the work.” When I was ordained in ’87, I was sent to an African-American parish. My first two years of priesthood were just incredible. I was able to use my gifts as a priest. I got to go back to back to my activism. I did a lot of community organizing. I worked in the black community, then more with the immigrant Latino community, and the Filipino community. I was tapped to teach at Loyola Marymount University, in the pastoral institute, to teach leadership skills. I really got into so many aspects of the liturgy, parish development, social justice, community activism, teaching, chaplaincy at high schools, doing retreats.

Then I entered the Jesuits in ’92 to really have the capacity to finish the doctorate I never finished and to go into higher education, to teach.

MW: Does anyone give you flak, telling you that you’re not gay since you’re celibate? Particularly on the right, someone might say you’re “choosing” not to be gay by being celibate.

PALACIOS: Here’s how I would address it: I came out before I had sexual experiences. I later had sexual experiences. I had a boyfriend for several years. When I then chose to be celibate, it didn’t mean that my gayness disappeared. I look at being gay like being Latino. I see it as a mystery. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture – I just know it is.

I’ve asked myself, why am I so motivated now to be so involved in the gay community? I could just sit back like so many other gay priests. In 1998, when I was at Berkeley in grad school, we received the news that Matthew Shepard had been murdered. Actually, first he’d been tortured. Some graduate students in my department approached me and asked me if I would help – because they knew I was a priest – at the graduate theological union, where I was living with the Jesuit community, to get word out to the religious community to help them with the vigil they wanted. I said yes.

That day when we were going to have the vigil, he actually died. So it turned into almost this wake for Matthew Shepard. Being with all these men and women, friends of mine, gay men and women, undergrads, graduate students, people from the graduate theological union, all together with candles, it was like a turning point. I said, I can’t be in the closet anymore. I had submerged myself when I entered seminary and I was still there, submerged. I said I am now going to be committed. It was like a moment of clarity. Jesus would be with Matthew Shepard. And every other gay kid in small-town America, in the world. If I’m going to be a priest of authenticity, I have to be with my people. I’d been with the Latino community all along. Now it’s my moment to serve the gay community in a new way – as well as the Latino community and the general Catholic community. But I can’t live in the closet like this anymore, in terms of my identity.

Then when I got to Georgetown in 2001 to teach, I thought the most wonderful teachers I have had know who they are. They’re authentic people, and that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be an authentic person, like Christ was. So when I think of the person of Christ, Jesus was the one to allow the person in a vulnerable position, the marginal person, or the person submerged, to be the full, authentic person that person was to be. To me, that’s the Christ-like thing to do: To be there to help people become authentic. And the mystery of sexuality, to me, is a mystery. I know it’s real, though. It’s real. And this is the Catholic thing for me. I believe in the body of Christ, in the Eucharist. The gay boy, the gay girl, the vulnerable one: They’re the body of Christ. I need to allow them, to help them, to achieve their authenticity. That’s the core spiritual thing, “to thine own self be true.”

Pilate said to Jesus, “Who are you? Are you the son of God?” And Jesus says, in some of his last words, in a sense, “I am the way, the truth and the life. I came to speak the truth.” That to me is what the Christian life is about, to be truthful to yourself. Sinner, needy, vulnerable. All those things are just the human condition. If I’m told to shut down, I can’t have a relationship, I can’t be the person I am – to me, that’s the greater sin. To not allow a person to flourish is true sin.

MW: You’re on the board of the new group, Catholics for Equality. How will this group differ from groups like Catholics for Choice or Dignity/USA? What is its particular niche?

PALACIOS: Catholics for Equality emerged after several discussions with groups like Dignity, New Ways Ministry and other progressive Catholics, to think through what is the niche that’s necessary right now. We reached the conclusion that there was no Catholic political organization that could mobilize pro-equality Catholics for LGBT rights. So Catholics for Equality is founded as a political-mobilization organization. We’re strictly political, hoping for cultural, social change along the way.

MW: You brought up Ratzinger’s gay doctrine earlier. Now he’s the pope. How do you reconcile being a gay activist within a hierarchy he leads?

PALACIOS: Excellent question. I was trained by a wonderful professor of social ethics that we’re there to neither preach an ideology of the church, nor are we to commit to set an agenda. We’re there to take the gospel on Sunday and interpret it in a good way, a scholarly way, present contextual situations, and let people form their own consciences regarding things.

Personally, I would never get up in a pulpit and talk against the teaching of the church on homosexuality. I wouldn’t get into “intrinsic moral disorder,” pro or con. In fact, I don’t know of a single gospel that would address this, because there’s nothing in the New Testament regarding homosexuality. As an official of the church, so to speak, I do teach what’s official. I remember our training on birth control. You teach the Humanae Vitae, but you also tell people, “There are other ways of thinking about it. This is what’s in the public eye.” Don’t treat these people like they’re sheep or idiots. You can’t tell people what to do. You have to let them form their conscience.

I am for civil marriage, and it doesn’t affect my church. My church can do whatever it wants. I’m not going to marry a gay couple in the Catholic Church, and I understand that. Catholics are able to distinguish between civil rights and church stuff. I’m not, personally, campaigning for gay marriage in the church. I’m campaigning for civil marriage. There’s a big distinction there.

MW: Would you be the officiant of a same-sex marriage outside the Catholic Church?

PALACIOS: That’s an interesting dilemma, because I actually have the state power in the District of Columbia to marry people. I could.

I’d have to look at the couple. I would want the couple to go through the same as I would a straight couple. I’d really want to know what the marriage means. I don’t take marriage lightly. Who knows? I hope and pray – and this is just from a citizen angle and a gay person’s angle – as marriage moves forward, there will be really adequate marriage preparation for gay couples, that they do have solid preparation — that it’s not just a contract and then end up with the same divorce rates, or higher, as straight people. The bright side is there are so many gay people who want to have really great marriages. They get the seriousness of it. Otherwise, they would just live together.

MW: I was going to ask you about condom use, in that Hispanic Heritage Month ends on Oct. 15 with National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, though you’ve already spoken somewhat about contraception.

PALACIOS: It’s an interesting dilemma – or oddity – for gays, given that the church teaches that gays should not have sex, period. So putting on a condom doesn’t make that much difference anyway. It’s like a two-strike thing. [Laughs.]

Let me answer that in a very emphatic way: So much of the natural-law teaching that the church uses for sexual ethics is material that is scientifically unfounded. People know this. So they just bypass natural-law teaching regarding contraceptive use because it’s not the lived experience of people, and science knows that most of this has no reality to it.

MW: Is there anything you’d like to add before we end?

PALACIOS: It’s interesting, where I am in my career. I’m almost 60 years old and I’ve had a life of fine education. I’ve had many opportunities to travel. As I said, I’ve won all these scholarships and had a lot of opportunities. I’ve had a business career. I’ve worked in a politics, went to seminary, been a parish priest, a university professor, a writer, Fulbright scholar, presidential appointee. It’s like, you know, I could’ve had enough with all this. But at the depth of this is the passion. I want to be an agent of change, allowing people to flourish. If I can be of that capacity on a pastoral level, the politics is personal. So, to me, to allow human rights in the gay community to really flourish means, personally, I have to have an investment in this. It can’t be abstract.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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