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First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador Reflects on Being ‘Fit to Serve’

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Also See: Perils of Being Gay Around the World

James Hormel's hands shook as he fumbled with a video labeled "Pat Robertson." It was 1998, and Hormel, an openly gay presidential appointee awaiting confirmation to serve as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg from a Republican-controlled Senate, dreaded watching the reel of the rightwing Christian televangelist.

Robertson was exactly the type of person who'd inadvertently pressured Hormel to remain "closeted" for so many years. The not-so-subtle conservative preacher proudly touted his disgust for homosexuality and was notorious for making outrageous accusations (more recently suggesting that God punished Haiti with the 2010 earthquake, something the almighty apparently also did with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which Robertson said was retribution for America's tolerance of abortion and homosexuality).

What would Robertson say about Hormel — the homosexual grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods, which includes the iconic Spam meat products — whom President Bill Clinton had nominated to serve as America's first openly gay ambassador?

Popping in the video, a copy of a broadcast that appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network that morning, Hormel heard the word "pedophile."

"A wealthy tycoon with ties to homosexual groups that promote sex with children may soon be a United States ambassador," said one of Robertson's co-hosts.

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In his new memoir "Fit to Serve," James Hormel, the grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods and a former U.S. envoy to Luxembourg, talks about becoming America's first openly gay ambassador.

Hormel sat frozen on the couch, dumbfounded by the malevolent accusations — every one a blatant lie.

In his quest to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, Hormel had to answer to Congress for more than just his credentials; he had to answer for his sexual orientation.

A Minnesota native, Hormel had spent the first three decades of his life hiding from society and himself, shameful of his feelings for other men. But by age 65, he had become a symbolic figure in the gay rights movement, enduring a nasty smear campaign in the hopes of shattering a glass ceiling.

Stories such as the Robertson anecdote and many more about Hormel's transition from a closeted young man to diplomat to gay rights leader are detailed beautifully in his memoir, "Fit to Serve." Co-authored by Erin Martin, the book hit the shelves in November and "enables people to see how the lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender [LGBT] constituency is struggling to gain its own first-class citizenship," Hormel said.

"I wanted to tell a story about what it's like being gay in a society that is hetero-normative, and how people make assumptions about others because of misconceptions about what kind of choices homosexuals have in their sexual orientation," Hormel told The Washington Diplomat.

Hormel rails against the belief among some religious hardliners that homosexuality is a choice. Hormel's personal experience taught him otherwise. He spent most of his life trying to be straight. He even married and had five children.

But some things have a way of coming out. And in the mid 1960s, during his late 30s, Hormel decided it was time to stop living by other people's rules and to shed the constant dread of discovery.

At the time, many people likened homosexuality almost to a plague — feared and not discussed. Some congressmen even claimed there were no gay people in their districts (reminiscent almost of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boasts that Iran doesn't have any homosexuals).

When they weren't ignored, homosexuals were often taunted as they still can be today, with insults such as "faggot," physical threats or worse. Growing up, Hormel said he felt he was "marked" as gay in his hometown of Austin.

But with the support of his children and ex-wife, he joined the gay rights movement to fight LGBT discrimination and hatred with education. He helped found the Human Rights Campaign and used part of his inheritance to open the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Library to preserve documents and books about LGBT history. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, he also donated millions to various organizations to combat the disease.

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Photo: Skyhorse Publishing

Some may wonder why Hormel, a stakeholder in a giant food conglomerate and a former dean at the University of Chicago Law School, would pursue an ambassadorial bid, which he first did in 1992 when Clinton nominated him to the top diplomatic posting in Fiji. That nomination bid sputtered after the GOP takeover of Congress a year later. So why go under the political microscope with a successful private sector career to fall back on?

Senate confirmation is his answer. "I thought it was important to put senators to the test in facing the issue of gay rights," Hormel told The Diplomat.

In his memoir, he writes that the confirmation process would "oblige 100 U.S. Senators — and, in all likelihood, the media and the American public — to decide whether a gay person was fit to serve as a direct representative to the President."

It was a win-win, he argues: If the Senate confirmed him, he'd open doors for hundreds of gay people seeking high-level positions. If he lost, he'd bring into focus the discrimination gay people faced.

But Hormel ran into a few unexpected obstacles. After Clinton declared his intentions to nominate Hormel to Fiji, the Pacific Island nation, which outlawed sodomy, implored the president to pick another candidate. Clinton caved after Paula Jones filed a sexual harassment suit against the president and nominated someone else, perhaps to avoid the congressional headache.

Still on the shortlist of names for potential nominations, however, Hormel waited. And waited. And waited.

As the years passed — five years since he sought the Fiji appointment — he served as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where he spoke before the body about HIV/AIDS. He also worked as a U.S. delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.

And he waited some more. Finally, in October 1997, the White House nominated Hormel to be U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Then came the smear campaign.

"People cooked up stories to vilify me and turn me into a political pariah," Hormel wrote, reflecting on the time span following his Luxembourg nomination.

Opponents accused Hormel of harboring a "gay agenda" because he was a high-profile activist. They called him anti-Catholic after he was found in a 1996 video laughing during San Francisco's LGBT Pride Parade at a comic troop wearing nun habits.

One of Robertson's colleagues found a brochure from the North American Man/Boy Love Association at the Hormel Center of the San Francisco Public Library and claimed that Hormel himself had put the pamphlet in the library. (Hormel denied the accusation and has since retorted that even "Mein Kampf" sits in public libraries.)

Although his opponents were successful in delaying Hormel's confirmation — Republicans Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma blocked the vote after accusing Hormel of blasphemy against the Catholic Church and criticizing his activism — they failed to keep him from the Luxembourg post. Clinton used his recess appointment powers to bypass Senate confirmation, and in June 1999, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright swore Hormel into the position.

Looking back, Hormel called the process "arcane." Although he wasn't able to force the Senate to vote on his confirmation, Hormel believes his campaign further dented the glass ceiling for LGBTs in the United States by allowing an openly gay man to serve in such a high-level position.

"All the nonsense in Washington over my nomination, the carrying-on, the hand-wringing, and the nasty behavior, the charges, the accusations and the dirt that didn't stick — none of it mattered," wrote Hormel in his memoir while reflecting on his Luxembourg experience. "All the distinctions that had been assigned to me and used to define me fell away.... No one considered my race, my gender, my religion or my sexuality. I was an honorable person representing an honorable country."

The gay rights movement has made tremendous strides since Hormel's childhood — in part because of people like him.

"I had my childhood in a space where sexuality wasn't discussed," Hormel recalled. "There were no references to gay people in any public way. It was as if gay people didn't exist."

But over the decades, attitudes — and society — have changed.

In the United States today, it's illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in the workplace. Same-sex marriage is now recognized by a handful of U.S. states, including New York and Washington, D.C. In September, the infamous Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy that effectively prohibited gays from serving in the U.S. military was officially lifted after a years-long battle.

On the diplomatic front, just last month the White House put into place the first U.S. government-wide strategy to combat human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad, building on the steady progress that the State Department has made in tackling gay rights issues.

The strategy would, among other things, use foreign aid funds to promote the protection of LGBT rights, enhance efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, pressure foreign governments that criminalize homosexuality, and enlist international organizations in the fight against discrimination, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke at length about LGBT rights in Geneva on International Human Rights Day.

Clinton, calling the issue "one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time," also announced $3 million toward a new Global Equality Fund to support civil society groups working on gay rights. "A great deal of work lies before us. But many of us have seen firsthand how quickly change can come. In our lifetimes, attitudes toward gay people in many places have been transformed. Many people, including myself, have experienced a deepening of our own convictions on this topic over the years," said the secretary of state, under whose tenure domestic partner benefits were extended to gay and lesbian members of the Foreign Service. (Former U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, a gay man, resigned in 2007 to protest discrimination against same-sex partners of Foreign Service officers, who were awarded few benefits.)

At an earlier event co-hosted by the State Department and Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in celebration of LGBT Pride Month, Clinton reflected on the diplomatic push to advance gay rights, both at home and around the world.

"[I]n March, the United States led a major effort at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to get other countries to sign on in support of a statement on ending violence and criminalization based on sexual orientation and gender identity," she said. "And in the very next session of the Human Rights Council ... the council passed the first-ever U.N. resolution recognizing the human rights of LGBT people worldwide ... and we made it absolutely clear that, so far as the United States is concerned and our foreign policy and our values, that gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights."

While the situation for the LGBT community has certainly improved, discrimination is still alive and well — and Hormel is not shy about calling it out. Gay marriage is still illegal in much of the country and is not recognized by the federal government, and although the military has repealed DADT, the question of shared benefits for gay partners remains.

Of course, the situation in the United States is not nearly as bad as the treatment of homosexuals in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Iran, where sodomy can be punishable by death (see sidebar).

But in the United States and around the world, there are still plenty of people who believe homosexuality is an abomination against God. "Those so-called fundamental Christians say things that Jesus would have never said," Hormel pointed out, with an emphasis on "never."

But Hormel is optimistic and believes intolerance toward the LGBT community in the United States will fade out over time, especially now that DADT has been repealed and many courts are planning to consider whether bans on gay marriage are constitutional.

Education, he says, including books like "Fit to Serve," makes all the difference. "Equality can only come from acceptance, and acceptance can only happen when people know who we are."


About the Author

Rachael Bade is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 12, 2014

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