In Their Own Words: Professor of Theology Paul Giurlanda Has Seen a Major Culture Shift When It Comes to Acceptance. He Helped Make That Happen.

When Giurlanda became the first faculty advisor for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance in 1985, they met off campus. Now, the College celebrates its LGBTQIA+ graduates each year. “It was impossible to imagine that when I first arrived here," he says.

by Hayden Royster | October 27, 2023

In Their Own Words is a series in which we introduce you to the Gaels you need to meet—students, alums, faculty, and staff—and let them tell their stories, in their own words.

Meet Paul Giurlanda: a former Christian Brother and longtime professor of Theology and Religious Studies who is retiring after 45 years at Saint Mary’s. Giurlanda was the first faculty advisor for the College’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which later evolved into the PRIDE club. At each year’s Lavender Graduate Celebration, one faculty or staff member is awarded the Paul Giurlanda Award for an “exceptional commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community.”



Detroit, Michigan 

The journey to Brotherhood

When I was eight years old—this was around 1954—I had an experience that changed my trajectory. I remember walking down the hallway of St. Juliana Grammar School in Detroit and being hit, suddenly, with two penetrating insights. One: I’m no better or worse than anyone else on earth. And two: God is everything. I remember hearing it, almost, as casually as if someone had just told me, “The sky is blue.”

Around that same time, I had another key insight: I was gay. That was clear to me from an early age, and it terrified me. I figured I’d be a single person all my life, because in those days, being gay was illegal. But I still remained Catholic. Then one morning, a De La Salle Brother came into my high school class to share about how, you know, “being a Brother is very cool.” It was like the heavens opened up. Everything clicked. That’s it, I thought. I could be a Brother. 

Paul Giurlanda teaching in classroom in 1974
Paul Giurlanda in the classroom, a few years prior to joining Saint Mary's / Photo from Christian Brothers Academy Yearbook 1974

Reaching the crossroads

As a Brother, I went on to get my MA at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, which the Christian Brothers helped me finance. Coming from the East Coast to San Francisco was an experience; there were so many more gay people, even Brothers, who were pretty open about it. It was eye-opening, definitely.

When I finished the program and wanted to pursue my PhD, the Brothers essentially told me the finances weren’t there and that I should go back to teaching high school. After being in higher ed, that sounded exhausting, to be frank. But I’m someone who will do what I’m supposed to do, even if I’m unhappy. I remember a professor of mine pressing me on that. “What is it that you actually want?” she asked. I’d been living with the Brothers in Moraga at the time, and I said, “I would like to get my PhD and teach theology at Saint Mary's College.” And she said, “Okay. See if you can make that happen.”

Everything seemed to fit. I was able to transfer from the East Coast District to the San Francisco District, begin teaching at Saint Mary’s in 1978, and get my doctorate at GTU. It was like all my dreams were fulfilled—except, of course, finding someone I could share my life with.

The right person at the right time

Throughout that whole period, I struggled to reconcile my theology with myself. There was still this drive in me to be with one special person. Finally, in 1985, I resigned from being a Brother. At the time, homosexuality remained incredibly taboo. The country was only a few years into the AIDS crisis; the official teaching of the Catholic Church was that homosexuality was a disorder. So I was not publicly “out.” But some people knew. 

That same year, some students had gone to a Psychology professor and asked if they could start a support group for gay students on campus. My name came up: I had a little condo in Oakland, overlooking Lake Merrit. So I agreed to host these students. They called it the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which met weekly. They’d arrive at night, under the cover of darkness, you know. These were students from across the campus, basketball players and artists.

Over the years, people have told me, “Oh, what a courageous move you made.” But it’s funny, what people call courageous: When you're doing it, it just feels like something you have to do.

Growing bolder

By the 1990s, I was a bit more outspoken. In May 1993, I published a piece in America Magazine, the Jesuit periodical, called "What About Our Church's Children?" Essentially, I challenged Catholics to reckon with the impacts of its teachings on homosexuality. Young gay and lesbian Catholics were growing up isolated and fearful. “Perhaps more than any other topic I can think of, this is an area where those who don't know speak, and those who do know find themselves voiceless,” I wrote.

Around that time, one member of GALA really pushed for the organization to be on campus. I was skeptical, I’ll admit. But he was adamant: “We've got to move.” So he convinced me to get the ball rolling. GALA started meeting on campus, secretly, as they applied to become an official club. A faculty letter was sent to Associated Students in support of the club. Within a year, GALA was official. 

"It’s funny, what people call courageous: When you're doing it, it just feels like something you have to do."

Lavender Graduation Celebration 2023 group photo
Genuinely proud: At each year's Lavender Graduate Celebration, one faculty or staff member is awarded the Paul Giurlanda Award for their "exceptional commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community.” / Photo by Gerry Serrano

The changing of the tide

Once we were a club, the challenges weren’t over, of course. We still bumped up against hateful people. But much of the student body was supportive, along with the faculty. It was honestly remarkable. 

Young people today don’t realize, I think, how dramatically the culture has shifted over the last few decades. I can't think of any other cultural change that has happened so quickly. To go from being told we’re disgusting and awful to being genuinely proud and comfortable in oneself… It was impossible to imagine that when I first arrived here.

On 45 years in Moraga

When I look back at my time here, what stands out is just how much fun it is to work with young people. You're there helping them form their attitudes towards so many things in life, and especially when you're younger, you're doing it alongside them. When I came here, I was 32 years old; I was mistaken for a student more than once. Over the years, I’ve changed and grown a lot—theologically, philosophically, personally.

I retire at the end of this semester, and it occurred to me recently that I will never again be deferred to the way I'm deferred to in the classroom. You're assigning the book, and you’re the guide. The students trust you and are open to what you have to say. I’m going to miss it. I’ll miss being with people who are in a malleable period of their lives and helping them along their journey. It's a great gift. And it's a great honor.


READ MORE: Saint Mary’s 16th Lavender Celebration Recognizes All LGBTQIA+ Graduates Have Accomplished

LEARN MORE about the Center for Women and Gender Equity and resources offered for LGBTQIA+ identifying community members. 

Hayden Royster is Staff Writer at the Office of Marketing and Communications for Saint Mary's College. Write him.