Mark Palermo, early Presbyterian gay leader and activist, was born on October 24, 1952 to Emil & Phyllis Palermo. Emil worked for the U.S. Postal Service first as a clerk and later on in security services. Mark’s sister Eileen was five years older. The Palermo family lived in the Roseland neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.
Influenced by his dad’s work at the Post Office, Mark became fascinated with maps at an early age and spent hours studying and memorizing streets. As an adult, he had the distinct ability to recite the name and location of every street in the city of Chicago. He was socially active in high school, participating in several clubs and the National Honor Society. He graduated from Fenger High School in 1970. During these years the Palermo family attended Roseland Presbyterian Church. Mark was active in the youth club and the choir there.
Mark studied English and Spanish at Chicago State University where he graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1974. He taught at Carver High School in Chicago from 1974 to 1980. He moved to Senn High School where he taught ESL from 1980 to 1994 and was the attendance coordinator and homeless liaison from 1994 until he retired in 2008.
After his family moved from Chicago to Dolton in 1976, Mark was one of the founders of Orland Park Presbyterian Church and served as Clerk of Session there. He was a member of the Presbytery of Chicago’s Church & Society Committee where he gained a new and deeper understanding of social injustices.
In 1977, Mark was a commissioner to the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in Philadelphia. As a closeted gay man at the time, he attended the hearings on the Task Force on Homosexuality. There he heard coming out stories from a number of gay and lesbian Presbyterians and encountered members of the group, Presbyterians for Gay Concerns (PGC), which had formed in 1974. Mark quietly came out to PGC founder David Sindt and Chris Glaser, an openly gay member of the Task Force.
Returning to Chicago, Mark got involved with the PGC chapter there. His continued leadership in the Presbytery of Chicago was affirmed when he was elected moderator in 1983, at the time the youngest-ever moderator of that Presbytery. He played a key role in organizing the Mid-Winter Conference for the renamed Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in 1985. In 1988, he became a member of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church which had a long history of support and advocacy for LGBT persons.
Mark also served on the Executive Board of PLGC from 1986 to 1992. He was one of three co-moderators, along with Mitzi Henderson and Jeanne MacKenzie, of the organizing committee that helped bring about the creation of the More Light Churches Network in 1992. He also served on the advisory committee of the ecumenical Open Hands magazine. Mark was not reelected to the PLGC Executive Board in 1992 in a contested election. He participated in PLGC's work at the 1993 General Assembly, but was disturbed by the negative tone and actions that were prevalent there. Mark thus decided to withdraw from national Presbyterian activism at that time.
In the following two decades Mark was actively involved in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago where he lived and worked. He was a highly-respected faculty member of Senn High School for his work with high-risk students to reduce truancy and to provide services to homeless students. He was also an active member of the Edgewater Historical Society. He continued his church activities at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church and then became a member of the downtown Fourth Presbyterian Church in 2001. After his retirement he began to spend more time in Palm Springs, California. In April 2015, Mark participated in a reunion gathering of early PLGC activists, “Rock Stars and Prophets: Generations of Justice and Love” at the Stony Point Conference Center in New York where he recorded the video interview below. Mark died suddenly after a heart attack on August 10, 2015.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from an obituary by Ross Forman in The Windy City Times, a memoriam by Barry Smith on the That All May Freely Serve web site, and an interview with Eileen Boehler, Mark’s sister.)
Biography Date: September, 2015
Mark recorded an interview (duration 8:43) during the Prophets & Rock Stars gathering on April 8-11, 2015 which can be found on this page: http://tamfs.org/interviews/
Presbyterian Church (USA) | More Light Presbyterians (formerly Presbyterians for LGBT Concerns) | Activist (religious institutions) | Chicago | Illinois