(LAB) The first openly gay diplomat appointed as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999 by former President Bill Clinton, has died at 88.

James C. Hormel, heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune, was a longtime philanthropist who parlayed his financial interests and contributions as a longtime Democratic Party activist and donor, into actively pursuing LGBT equality and civil rights.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ambassador Jim Hormel. Jim devoted his life to advancing the rights and dignity of all people, and in his trailblazing service in the diplomatic corps, he represented the United States with honor and brought us closer to living out the meaning of a more perfect union,” former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement. “We will always be grateful for his courageous and principled example, as well as the kindness and support he gave us over so many years. Our thoughts are with his family and all who loved him.”

Hormel’s work as an openly gay supporter for equality led to his being one of the founders of the Human Rights Campaign Fund along with fellow native Minnesotan Steve Endean. In 1995 the organization was renamed the Human Rights Campaign.

A longtime San Franciscan, Hormel served as a member of the board of directors of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. He also founded and funded the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center located at the San Francisco Public Library.

Two notable national Democratic Party political figures and fellow San Franciscans, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflected on Hormel’s long service.

Sen. Feinstein’s statement read in part, “San Francisco lost a great friend today. A philanthropist, civil rights pioneer and loving spouse and father, James Hormel lived an extraordinary life and will be deeply missed by many. I had the pleasure of working closely with him on several issues, most notably on the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Tapped to be the ambassador to Luxembourg by President Clinton in 1997, he was the first openly gay person to serve as an ambassador. While his nomination was controversial at the time, his service was distinguished and helped advance LGBTQ rights both at home and abroad.”

House Speaker Pelosi released a statement praising Ambassador Hormel’s commitment to advancing LGBT equality rights.

“Jim Hormel was a barrier-breaking public servant, champion for LGBTQ equality, and cherished friend who will be dearly missed in San Francisco, in our nation and around the world. Jim Hormel made history as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, showing the world how the voices of LGBTQ Americans are integral to foreign policy, and paving the way for a new generation of leaders,” said Pelosi. “With his gentle yet powerful voice and undaunted determination, Jim made it his mission to fight for dignity and equality for all. Paul and I are heartbroken at this tremendous loss, and hope it is a comfort to his husband, Michael, and his children Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, James Jr. and Sarah, that Jim’s extraordinary life continues to serve as a beacon of hope and promise for LGBTQ children across our country and around the world.”

Born at the height of the Great Depression in January of 1933, Hormel, the grandson of Hormel Foods founder George A. Hormel, earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree from Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia and later a law degree from University of Chicago Law School. He later served as the school’s Dean of Students and Director of Admissions.

Hormel’s Democratic Party activism coupled with his dedicated efforts to advance the cause of LGBT equality led to a chance dinner conversation in 1992 with then-candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign treasurer, Bob Farmer.

Cynthia Laird, the editor of The Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco’s LGBTQ newspaper noted Hormel’s recounting that conversation which was originally published in B.A.R. in 2016:

Over dinner, Farmer suggested to Mr. Hormel that he seek a presidential appointment as an ambassador.

“I was quite surprised when he brought up the idea,” said Mr. Hormel, noting that over 60% of such positions are held by career employees who have come up through the ranks in the Foreign Service.

The appointment did not happen easily, Mr. Hormel recalled.

In fact, it wasn’t until five years after that dinner that Clinton nominated Mr. Hormel for the job. During that period, recalled Mr. Hormel, he made “dozens of visits and hundreds of phone calls” to keep his name in consideration.

Mr. Hormel said he was persistent because, if appointed, “I would break a ceiling and make it easier for gay people to serve at the highest levels of government.”

Initially, Hormel was considered for an ambassadorship to Fiji by the Clinton White House, but according to published accounts in the Washington Blade, D.C.’s LGBTQ newspaper and the Washington Post in December of 1994, his name was withdrawn from consideration in part due to objections from conservatives in both parties on Capitol Hill and the government of Fiji itself.

The Washington Blade’s Lou Chibbaro reported, “The action on Hormel also comes after members of the moderate and conservative wings of the Democratic Party have said the stunning defeat last month of Democratic members of Congress was due, in part, to Clinton’s support for Gay civil rights in general and Gays in the military in particular.”

Fijian officials had protested in part because same-sex intimate sexual relations were a crime punishable by long prison sentences and Hormel’s status as an openly gay man ran counter to the principles of “Fijian Culture” they claimed.

“Hormel’s nomination as ambassador to Fiji would be ‘dead in the water,’” said one source familiar with the controversy, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Blade reported. The source said Helms made it clear through intermediaries that he would bottle up Hormel’s nomination in committee.

The Blade also reported that, “The only reason Jim Hormel did not get the job was because he is gay,” said one gay activist leader, who spoke on condition that he not be identified.

The Clinton Administration according to the Washington Post then explored another appointment for Hormel that would not require Senate confirmation. One option under consideration, the Post reported, was a position in a delegation to an international conference on social justice issues in Copenhagen. Another possibility, the Post said, was participation by Hormel in the United Nations commission on human rights in Geneva.

President Clinton ultimately named Hormel as a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1995, and in 1996 Hormel was named an alternate U.S. representative at the United Nations General Assembly.

The following October of 1997, the president nominated Hormel as his choice to be the U.S. Ambassador to the principality of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination with the exceptions of Republican conservative Senators Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft opposed, the battle in the Senate which got progressively uglier as contentious portions of Hormel’s philanthropic and activist work were derided by more conservative Republicans and the powerful political foes of LGBT equality rights.

Those groups included the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designated extremist anti-LGBT hate groups, the Washington D.C.-based Family Research Council and the Orange County, California-based Traditional Values Coalition Christian organization founded by Rev. Louis P. Sheldon to oppose LGBT rights.

In a Wikimedia entry on Hormel it notes that FRC and TVC both:

  • Labeled Hormel as being pro-pornography, asserting that Hormel would be rejected in the largely Roman Catholic Luxembourg. It was later observed that much of the same material could also be found in the Library of Congress.
  • The FRC distributed videotapes of a television interview with Hormel at the 1996 San Francisco Pride parade in which Hormel laughed at a joke about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of men who dress in drag as nuns to mock religious conventions, as they passed by. The Catholic League took this as an indication of approval of what they characterized as an anti-Catholic group. In a meeting with Tim Hutchinson, Hormel declined to repudiate the Sisters. In an interview years later, Hormel objected to the idea that the video clip showed that he approved of the group and that he was anti-Catholic.
  • It was revealed that Hormel had contributed $12,000 to fund the production of the It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School, a video aimed at teaching tolerance of homosexuality to grade-school students. This especially inflamed Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who was portrayed unflatteringly in the film. Smith contended that he opposed Hormel not because he was gay but because of his “advocacy of the gay lifestyle.” 

Ultimately after Republicans were successful in stalling Hormel’s nomination, preventing a vote which was orchestrated by then-Senate Majority Leader, Mississippi Republican U.S. Senator Trent Lott, President Clinton in May of 1999 in a recess appointment made Hormel the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

The Washington Post reported, “Bypassing Senate confirmation, President Clinton moved yesterday to directly install gay San Francisco businessman James C. Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg.

The president invoked a provision of the Constitution allowing him to make such appointments during a congressional recess. Hormel, who will become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, can serve in the post through the end of 2000.”

The “recess appointment” drew criticism from a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and conservative groups but was praised by gay rights activists.

“The denial of a confirmation vote by the Senate leadership, a vote he would have easily won, was nothing more than anti-gay discrimination,” said Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian political group to the Washington Post.

The Post also reported that Clinton’s recess appointment of Hormel was criticized by Lott spokesman John Czwartacki who said it was “a slap in the face,” particularly to Catholics.

Czwartacki cited what he said were Hormel’s links with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — drag queens who dress as nuns. 

White House spokesman Barry Toiv said Hormel does not support “any such group. The idea . . . is outrageous and is false.”

The Family Research Council claimed that Hormel’s appointment was strictly to “advance the gay agenda” on what the anti-LGBT hate group deemed “a government-sanctioned platform.” 

Hormel went on to serve as ambassador until the inaugural of former President George W. Bush on January 20, 2001.

After his service as ambassador Hormel returned to his philanthropic work moving back to the City by the Bay where he was honored in 2010, with a lifetime achievement grand marshal for the San Francisco Pride parade.

Hormel also continued his lifelong advocacy work and as an elder statesman in the Democratic Party. When then-President-elect Joe Biden announced his choice of nominating out Pete Buttigieg as U. S. Secretary of Transportation, the Washington Blade reported, “Buttigieg, who made history as a gay Democratic candidate in the 2020 primary said at the time his career aspiration was to become an airline pilot and ‘was a long way from coming out, even to myself,’ but gained knowledge from Hormel’s story.”

The Blade also reported, “I learned about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong, and just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged,” Buttigieg said. “So, two decades later, I can’t help but think of a 17-year-old who might be watching right now, someone who wonders whether and where they belong in the world, or even in their own family, and I’m thinking about the message today’s announcement is sending to them.”

Hormel, in an email to the Blade the day after Buttigieg praised him, was able to return the favor by offering support.

“I enthusiastically support the nomination of Pete Buttigieg as secretary of transportation and will acknowledge him as the first openly LGBTQ member of the presidential Cabinet,” Hormel said.

“Today we mourn the loss of a true titan in our LGBTQ+ movement — a trailblazer, a mentor and a friend to all those who sought his counsel during his decades of leadership and advocacy. Ambassador James Hormel defined our community’s resilience — representing our nation with honor and distinction in the face of vile hate and discrimination,” Executive Director of Equality California’s Rick Chavez Zbur said in a statement.  “In the years since his diplomatic service, Jim has been unyieldingly generous with his time and his resources, working tirelessly to create a world that is healthy, just and fully equal for all LGBTQ+ people.

“It is true that we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. I am forever grateful for the wisdom and guidance that Jim shared with me and Equality California over the past 25 years, and I am confident that generations of LGBTQ+ diplomats, advocates and community leaders will benefit from his life’s work. I know that we will continue to see the immeasurable impact of his contributions on the faces of children who dream of walking the world’s greatest halls of power without worry that who they are or whom they love could ever limit their potential.”

The White House Friday afternoon released a statement by Vice President Kamala Harris on the death of Ambassador Hormel:

“During his remarkable life, Ambassador James Hormel made history, and he made the world a better place. Jim’s kindness and commitment to human rights, including his efforts to help found the Human Rights Campaign and advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS, changed lives and inspired generations of leaders. As our country’s first openly gay ambassador, Jim’s distinguished service represented the very best of America and paved the way for others. I will always be grateful for Jim’s friendship and counsel over many years. He will be missed. Doug and I send our condolences to Jim’s husband Michael, children Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, Jimmy, and Sarah, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

President Biden, reflecting the recent passing of James Hormel, the first openly gay person to serve as U.S. ambassador gay person to the United States, said his “bravery paved the way” for LGBT appointees now working for the U.S. government.

“I am proud that my Administration is staffed by incredible LGBTQ+ public servants at all levels, including in my Cabinet and nominees for Ambassador-level appointments,” Biden said. “Ambassador Hormel’s bravery paved the way for all of them to serve, just as he hoped it would.”


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