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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

James Hormel, First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador, Says "Be True to Yourself Above All"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge James Hormel (right) was the lifetime achievement grand marshal in the 2010 pride parade. - STRANGEDEJIM / FLICKR
  • strangedejim / Flickr
  • James Hormel (right) was the lifetime achievement grand marshal in the 2010 pride parade.

James Hormel was born in Austin, Minnesota, where his family, builders of the SPAM meatpacking empire, lived in a 26-bedroom home. Living in a mansion contributed to Hormel's feeling of being different, but it was mostly about being gay at a time when that wasn't discussed or accepted. Hormel tried to live a conventional life - marrying, having five children, and becoming dean of students at the University of Chicago Law School. But eventually he moved to New York, then San Francisco, came out, got involved in politics, and set out to be the country's first openly gay ambassador, a goal he achieved when President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to Luxembourg after a seven-year battle. Hormel, who lives in San Francisco, has written the story of his life, Fit to Serve (with Erin Martin).

Hormel talked with us about supporting Nancy Pelosi over a gay man for a Congressional seat, being accused of advocacy for pedophilia, the support he got from Luxembourgers, and how the truth really does set you free.

Why did you chose to start out the book with Pat Robertson's attacks on you when he accused you of promoting pedophilia?

It does present in a very stark way the challenge that I faced in the process. All of a sudden someone whose competence for this position has never been questioned is challenged on the basis of things, which are totally false and outrageous. I thought it was important to make that statement from the outset.

You lived in Chicago, worked at the law school, were married and a Republican. Then three years later you were in New York, a Democrat, and unemployed. What sparked that change?

I guess one really has to go back to the time. It was the mid 1960s and change was happening across the country and around the world in a way that was extremely dramatic and to an extent, I was caught in that time. Over the years of my marriage, it became increasingly clear to me our inability to communicate was central to the diminution of our relationship. That inability had to do with me not being able to talk about inner feelings, which I had denied even to myself. Ultimately, things just had to change. Meanwhile, I was getting a fresh look at the political situation, most particularly our involvement in Vietnam. I was working as an administrator with an academic institution where my job was to, among other things, serve as the disciplinarian for students, which became increasingly distasteful to me as I became more and more inclined to see the students' point of view about a lot of things.

You supported Nancy Pelosi over Harry Britt, a gay man, for Congress. What was the backlash to that?

It was a challenging time for me. This was a major opportunity as the LGBT constituents saw it to elect someone in that constituency into the halls of Congress. Many of my colleagues were supporting Harry because of that. I had worked with Nancy Pelosi and I knew her fairly well, and I knew how dedicated she was and how able she was at seeing her way through the political process. I had had a limited experience with Harry, which had led me to a different conclusion. I could foretell there would be enormous difficulties should he become a member of Congress, and people would start beating up on him, which I had no doubt they would.

I felt that the interests of the constituency would be better represented by Nancy than Harry, and members of the community either tried to persuade me otherwise or shun me or ignore me or make comments that were demeaning. I understood where all that was coming from. It was a terrific opportunity or appeared to be, but it wasn't one that I felt would ultimately serve the constituency. So I made my decision and stuck with it and here we are.

You write that you were able to afford the risk of trying to be an ambassador. What do you mean by that?

What I mean on a broad level is there was little for me to lose at that point. People knew about my sexual orientation, so I didn't fear exposure. I didn't have to worry about losing a job, as many people did and still do -- I digress to tell you there are 30 states that do not have protection for people on the basis of their sexual orientation with regard to employment. I didn't have to worry about my income or where I lived, so there was all that freedom that might not have been there for other people, so I could afford in that sense to take a chance on some sort of public appointment. Whether it happened or not, at least there would be some sort of public statement involved in doing that.

What did you learn going through the process of being confirmed as an ambassador?

Partly I did learn how naïve I could be. I'd prepared, for example, to meet with Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Republican of Arkansas. I was prepared for every question except the ones he asked. The ones he asked took me completely by surprise and in reflection it was really shocking. He challenged me on issues where I should have been challenging him.

He asked you if you would disavow the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and said the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library contained materials that promoted pedophilia. What did you think?

I would have thought those sorts of questions would have been beneath him, but apparently, there was very little that was beneath him. He asked me question after question that had nothing to do with my competence or ability to serve. He asked me questions about my feelings about the Roman Catholic Church that inferred that my being gay disqualified me from public service. And I really resented that and wasn't quite prepared to deal with them.

The title of the book is Fit to Serve. And that title comes from the fact I was being challenged that way, not on my fitness to serve, but on the basis of people's prejudices and desires to disconnect a political constituency.

You talk about being in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic struck, and you say it created political opportunities. What political opportunities were created?

In the early days, HIV was found mostly in gay males, so people were exposed against their will to the knowledge of their sexual orientation, and it drove people into political activity. Outside of San Francisco there was a great resistance to doing anything about AIDS so there was a sense of frustration that increased focus on that political activity.

What do you feel proudest of in your political career?

The proudest moment for me was being sworn in as an ambassador because at that moment I became the highest-ranking member of the administration who was openly gay. That was a big deal at the time. That one moment represented the culmination of a decade of effort for a constituency that had not even been recognized as such since our government began.

It seems in Luxembourg your being gay wasn't an issue.

When I got to Luxembourg, I immediately started getting calls from the prime minister and the mayor to meet with them, and people were actively pursuing a social connection and the only way I can interpret it was they were going out of their way to welcome me. They were very much aware of the challenges I had faced. When I arrived, the negative attention I had received actually made it easier for the government there to work with me because they were eager to show they weren't the rabid people they had been portrayed. They were, I think, personally offended because the Senate had prevented them from having an active ambassador.

Anything you really want people to know about the book?

The book traces a life that takes me to so many different places both physically and within, and I guess the message from all of that is that one benefits by being true to oneself, and when you discover what those truths are, then things become easier.

When I was young I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to be one of the boys, I wanted to fit in, and I pursued a very conventional pattern to do that, and it didn't work. So I was challenged to find out what was going on with me really and truly. And I learned I was different in so many ways, and it was not appropriate for me not to express that. It was liberating, and I expect that if you talk to people who have come out who have been through a process of hiding, they will tell you that coming out was the most liberating thing they've ever done.

James Hormel appears at 6 p.m. Monday (Nov. 28) at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market (at Second St.), S.F. Admission is $7-$20.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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