The Ambassador of Out

James Hormel's memoir is, at its base, a coming out story

Interview by Chris Geidner
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on December 8, 2011, 6:02am | Comments

James Hormel fits the role of a statesman well. Turning 79 next month, the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg is actively engaged in national LGBT politics as one of the significant funders of the movement – but also as an author detailing part of its history.

His story, told in a new memoir, Fit to Serve, is one likely to resonate well beyond foreign-service circles.

Raised in Minnesota, Hormel says he didn't needz to be told in his youth that homosexuality was bad or wrong: ''It was very clear by the way that society behaved that it was bad and wrong, ergo, that I was bad and wrong.''

Fifteen years ago, though, President Clinton named Hormel as an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. The next year, Clinton went a step further and nominated Hormel to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg. Thus began the experience that serves as the centerpiece of his memoir.

James Hormel

James Hormel

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Several Republican senators balked at the nomination, which would make Hormel the first out LGBT ambassador. They attacked him on a variety of fronts, from his apparent laughter at San Francisco's drag-performing Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – anti-Catholic, they said – to the content of materials contained in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library – promoting pedophilia, they said.

When Republicans blocked his nomination through the 1998 elections, Clinton renominated Hormel for the post at the start of 1999. In June of that year, Clinton took advantage of a congressional recess to name Hormel to the post through a ''recess appointment,'' which allowed him to serve in the role despite congressional inaction.

Regardless of his accomplishments, and his continued role in supporting LGBT organizations and research and projects, Hormel's message comes back to that time – time that all LGBT people know well – in the closet.

Speaking about the anti-LGBT messages he and others grow up with, he says, ''We internalize these messages, and once we do that it's a real challenge for us to get beyond, which leads to suicide, it leads to alcoholism, it leads to all the things that people do to remove themselves from the opprobrium that they're getting from society. I feel that all of that needs to be addressed.''

Coming out, being out, he says of his contributions, is the ''most important thing.''

His history, however, shows a multitude of contributions, from being one of the co-founders of the Human Rights Campaign Fund in 1981, to his service as the first out LGBT ambassador in U.S. history, to his continued work funding LGBT efforts across the nation.

METRO WEEKLY: You've just finished with this book, looking at, in large part, your nomination and eventual appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg in the Clinton administration, notably the opposition to your nomination from the right. When you look at where things are at today, and where things were then, what has changed?

JAMES HORMEL: Well, I think that we have made a lot of progress. It really is quite remarkable. It's remarkable that there have been a couple of openly gay ambassadors since me. The numbers of presidential appointments are such that I think the current president has probably done more for the constituency than all the others put together, which is saying a lot. When you look back at when Frank Kameny was fired and subsequently started picketing the White House, we've certainly come a long way.

MW: It's remarkable, to me, the tenacity that you, Sen. Feinstein and the Clinton administration had to keep the nomination going forward, and for Clinton to eventually make the recess appointment.

HORMEL: It was. It was amazing to me that the president stuck with me as he did. It wasn't just in support of the nomination, but it was renominating me when the original nomination expired at the end of '98. I was surprised that he was willing to do that – especially considering what was going on in his life, his political life. Every possible effort was being made to make him irrelevant. It was just remarkable. In that regard, I don't think we've come very far – because that's what the Republicans are trying to do to Obama right now. They're looking for any possible way to make him irrelevant. And that's pathetic. That is not what people are elected to do in public office. They're elected to serve the public, and I'd like to see some more examples of that kind of service coming from our Congress.

MW: When you went through the process of writing the memoir, what was the portion where you ended up writing a significant amount about that most surprised you?

HORMEL: That's really an interesting question, and novel to me.

There may be more than one thing. The first that comes to mind is the book became much more autobiographical than I had originally intended. And that was partly because of Erin [Martin]. She said, ''Look, people need to know where you're coming from. And, your background and history are a very important part of the story, so we need to tell it.'' And we ended up dwelling on things, some of which are very personal, that I hadn't intended or expected to talk about.

I was having dinner last night with one of my daughters who lives here in the District, and she was commenting how she was learning things about me that she didn't know. Which I thought was interesting.

MW: That sounds like a successful memoir.

HORMEL: Then, we came to the last chapter. It is a wrap-up, as well as a look ahead, and we kept revising it because things kept changing all the time. I found that I was talking about things like coming out and how important it is, how essential it is, how it is probably the single most important act that a gay person can perform in exercise of his or her freedom. It not only affects how other people view us, but it affects how we view ourselves.

MW: Looking at now-Judge Paul Oetken, versus your experience, receiving 80 votes for a lifetime-tenured position….

HORMEL: But we still, on the other hand, have a judicial nominee [Edward DuMont] who, after a year-plus of waiting around, withdrew his name because it wasn't going anywhere – which I find amazing.

MW: You are still one of the prominent gay funders out there, coming out with this memoir, involved in politics. What does that sort of a situation tell you?

HORMEL: Well, look at the book. The title of the book, Fit to Serve, tells a story itself. I really do think that people need to be judged on their merits. And being gay shouldn't be a demerit – or a merit. It's just a fact. It should not get in the way of a person being available to do that job. We've come to recognize this, finally, with respect to military service. Finally, people realize that what we were doing was licensing people to lie about themselves, which is a terrible thing to do. ''As long as you lie about yourself, it doesn't matter.'' That is exactly the wrong message to send to anybody.

So, we got beyond that. Now we need to get beyond it in terms of federal appointees, and I'm sure that the next round under an enlightened administration will be a cabinet position of some sort.

MW: Is that a nudge toward what should happen if there is a second Obama administration?

HORMEL: I think that one has to look at all the circumstances. You don't do something that is not realistically viable. If you have a Senate like the current one – which is made up almost half of members of a party which have as their purpose to defeat the president no matter what – then they're not doing their job and they're making it very difficult if not impossible for the president to do his job. If he's up against that sort of thing in a second term, he's going to have to look at what makes sense and what doesn't. And, in some cases it might make sense to put up names which will not succeed, because it puts people on record.

I think that's important. I really wanted to get to the Senate floor, for that very purpose. And we knew we would win.

MW: Where do you think LGBT politics are today?

HORMEL: The attorney that the House Republicans have hired to defend the so-called ''Defense of Marriage Act,'' [Paul] Clement, said that gay people are so powerful in the political process that they don't need any protection, which I think is fascinating. It's absolutely mind-blowing that he would say something like that. It shows you how specious the arguments are to preserve that act.

But, I do think the LGBT constituency has reached a position where it's noticed. It wasn't noticed when this whole process began. Not at all. It was noticed when the Human Rights Campaign Fund filed its first financial report and showed that it had raised a bunch of money. That seems to count here in Washington. That was back in 1982. That was back before we had publicly identified members of Congress who were gay. Now, we have a wonderful one who's going to run for the Senate [Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin] – and that's going to make a difference as well. And, her colleagues in the House are some of the most creditable members of the House.

I feel that the constituency is in a pretty good position to advocate for the rights that we do not have. It's in a pretty good position to point out how we are still second-class citizens. That we are deprived of, I guess literally, over a thousand privileges that are granted, for example, to opposite-sex couples who get married. It just surprises me that people don't recognize that. But they don't recognize that because they don't want to. So, they look to stories – they create stories about traditional marriage, forgetting that, back in the day, people were married before they were born. ''My daughter will marry you, and you'll give me 10 acres,'' or something like that. They talk about the biblical terms of marriage, forgetting about all of the polygamy and the other stuff that went on in the Bible – at least that Bible that they're referring to, not the New Testament. They never refer to the New Testament, which is very interesting when you talk about being a Christian and then you forget all of the words that Christ said.

MW: This next election, though, is going to be the first election cycle where LGBT people are choosing to go on the offense, in Maine, for example, to seek marriage equality – and possibly elsewhere. That's something we've never done before. How does that change the way donors and others need to be looking at elections?

HORMEL: That's interesting. What's happening is state by state, which is also very interesting. We're not talking federal regulations and that sort of thing. This is what's happening in Maine. This is what's happening in Iowa. This is what's happening in North Carolina or wherever it is. And, in those individual states there are individual sub-issues that are guiding the electorate. And I don't know them very well because I haven't studied them well.

What happened in Iowa, I think, is very disturbing to me – when three members of the Iowa Supreme Court were recalled because they and all of their colleagues on the bench voted their conscience. Which I think is just appalling and I think a very serious threat to the independence of the judiciary in this country. And it would be my hope that someone would go to Sandra Day O'Connor and say, ''This is your time to do a little campaign around the country to point out this danger.'' That's her issue.

The fact that the balance of power in the Iowa state Legislature has been preserved for now is encouraging, but that's going to come up again next year. And, who knows – not just what people will say, but how much money will be poured into that state in order to prevent justice from prevailing.

MW: I've had the opportunity to talk with both Frank Kameny, who looked constantly to how far LGBT equality efforts have advanced, and Larry Kramer, who looked at how much was left to be accomplished. When you look at what has changed and what remains, how do you reconcile those two?

HORMEL: I'm not quite sure how to look at that because when I look at the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment never has been approved, and when I look at what African-Americans in our country have gone through and still go through – yes, the laws are great, but they just don't do the trick – I just don't know.

I don't know whether it's conceivable, whether there's something about the human condition that requires this sort of hierarchy of society where there's always somebody to look down on. And, I think that if that's the case then we really need to examine very carefully what our society is built on.

I knew Frank and I know Larry Kramer. They represent tenacity and perseverance. So, in that way they are both very much alike. Larry is an angry person. When he's not an angry person, he's an absolute sweetheart. But his anger is very clearly directed. He's driven, and I really appreciate it. I really do. I admire him enormously. And I think that his message, that we have to get angry, that we have to start shouting, is a very important message. It has to be taken with an eye toward achievement, the accomplishment of a goal, because getting angry over a principle loses track of the goal.

Where am I in all of that? I guess that I am more inclined to look forward than to look backward.

MW: For the longest time, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was ''what's coming'' – from its introduction in the early '90s – and then, once it became clear that the hate crimes act was going to be a first step and then ENDA would follow, and then ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' got the spotlight and became ''what was going to happen'' and ENDA would follow, and now this year all that we've seen in Congress is talk about the Respect for Marriage Act and DOMA. ENDA, the entire time, has been sitting there. Where is ENDA? Where is concern for some more basic rights for people to live?

HORMEL: My perception is that federal legislators are far behind their constituents. I don't know why, except maybe that they come to this very insular community and spend all their time talking to each other instead of talking to their constituents, so they don't know that, whatever it is now, 81 percent of the polling population supports nondiscrimination in hiring and housing. And, I don't know why anyone would be unwilling to pass such a piece of legislation today. It makes no sense to me. So, it languishes.

MW: There was a concern that some Democrats expressed about losing a vote on a motion to recommit related to transgender issues. And, even within the LGBT community, transgender issues continue to plague the gay community about whether the gay community has really educated itself about trans issues.

HORMEL: I'm not sure that it has. I really feel that we have a constituency that doesn't understand gender identity or gender identity issues. The general voting public certainly doesn't. The trans community – the trans piece of LGBT – gets short shrift. Nobody's speaking out. I'm not faulting people on this; I'm just saying nobody knows how to make clear that this is not just an issue of sexual orientation. That it's quite different, and that it has many different components to it.

I was a linesman at a tennis tournament in the '70s. It was the second tournament that Renee Richards played in as a woman. And, I can assure you that Renee Richards was a woman, there is no doubt about it. Sure, she was 6'2'' and all that, but Renee Richards's identity was so clear. To me, there was just no question about it.

I don't know, personally, how to talk about transgender issues. They are very important because we're all very important. They are very difficult because the numbers are much smaller and the understanding of the issues involved is clouded by our notions of the way things should be. And there is not an articulate voice that expresses clearly what those issues are and how they affect people's lives.

When I was at a conference, I think it was about six years ago in Geneva, I met a person who was the first transgender person to be elected to the Japanese Parliament. And, I thought, ''It's fascinating to me that a country with such rigid ways as Japan could be so far ahead of us.''

So, what's going to happen [with ENDA]? We've got to assume that people are will try to do tricky things with the piece of legislation. They do with every piece of legislation. They attach amendments, they rewrite, they couch language in it that seems innocent but turns out to be a deal-killer – there are all kinds of tricks that go on daily.

It's the system. Well, the system needs to recognize that in a democracy – in a real democracy – there should be room for everyone. And we don't have that.

MW: What do you see as your contribution to that story?

HORMEL: To a certain extent, my contribution is the same as a lot of other people's, which is being out, which is letting people know who we are in one form or another, whichever works for us. I really think that may be the most important thing. And right now, I'm still coming out.

Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador, by James C. Hormel and Erin Martin, is available at Skyhorse Publishing,, for $24.95.

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