New book reveals the
struggles for the first openly gay US ambassador

More than 30 years later, James Hormel can still remember affixing a pink triangle to his lapel and walking into the Democratic National Convention in Memphis. It was his day, and his way, to politically come out of the closet.

The philanthropist and grandson of the founder of the food company that bares his last name, now 78, recalls how others that day asked him about the meaning of his pink accessory: “When I explained that that was what the gay prisoners were forced to wear in the Nazi prison camps, they would be horrified — not that gay prisoners were forced to identify themselves in Nazi prison camps — but that I was identifying myself with them.”

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It was one of the first of many obstacles that Hormel would face as a gay man on the international political scene. One of the founders of the Human Rights Campaign chronicles his life, and his fight to become America’s first openly gay ambassador, in his new book with co-
author Erin Martin, Fit to Serve.

Despite assurances from Luxembourg officials that Hormel would be welcome in the European country, and the recent election there at the time of a gay politician to a national assembly position, Hormel’s 1997 nomination to ambassador by then-President Clinton was almost dead in the water. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) refused to move the nomination to the Senate floor. Asked by conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams in a 1998 TV interview if he considered homosexuality to be a sin, Lott replied, “Yes, it is.”

Other lawmakers, including former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), likewise rallied against appointing the gay leader to the diplomatic post. Some cited a conflict with Luxembourg’s large Catholic population. 

Hormel says during that contentious period he had a face-to-face meeting with Hutchinson over the Christmas holidays. “I walked in prepared for just about every question that I could think of, except the ones he asked. The questions he asked had absolutely nothing to do with my competence. They had to do with my being gay and what people’s perceptions would be,” recalls Hormel. That encounter, according to Hormel, ended “fairly abruptly.”

Hutchinson didn’t return ITK’s request for comment.

Hormel was ultimately sworn in as ambassador after Clinton made a recess appointment in 1999.

The now-former ambassador, a father of five children he had with an ex-wife, contends “things have changed a great deal” since that time. Hormel says, “I think people voting today are younger and more apt to be open-minded about social issues, so addressing that breadth of the populace has taken on a different tone.”

But Hormel insists while the rhetoric might have changed, it’s not completely different. He says one of the key messages in his book is, “Being gay is not a choice. If people can come to understand that and people like Herman Cain can stop saying it is a choice, then maybe we’ll make some serious progress.”

And Hormel, who now focuses on social justice issues, still has that pink pin out in the open at his San Francisco home: “I have it on my dresser. When I look at it, it reminds me of those days.”