By Lucas Grindley
Originally published on Advocate.com January 12 2012 4:00 AM ET
Supporting Nancy Pelosi wasn't always a given in the LGBT community.
"To be a gay man supporting Nancy Pelosi was equivalent to selling state secrets," writes James Hormel in his new memoir, Fit to Serve, remembering her first run for Congress in 1987. San Francisco's gay voters had rallied behind Harry Britt, a gay man who succeeded Harvey Milk on the Board of Supervisors after his assassination.
But Hormel saw in Pelosi, who narrowly won the race, someone who could win in Washington and who promised to put that talent to use on AIDS funding.
By the time Hormel first mailed a letter in 1992 to Warren Christopher, then heading President Clinton's transition team, asking to be named ambassador to Norway, Pelosi was so learned in the politics of Congress that she helped him sustain the years-long quest his nomination would require. Hormel didn't get the Norway post, or another he was considered for, in Fiji, and Senate confirmation to become ambassador to Luxembourg — as the first openly gay person to represent a sitting U.S. president — had to be circumvented in the end.
"Jim Hormel's confirmation was resisted by the Senate for one reason only: because he is gay," declared Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1999 after Hormel was sworn in, a milestone possible only because President Clinton settled on a recess appointment.
Hormel says the persecution he faced wouldn't be tolerated today. If President Obama nominated a gay secretary of State, for example, Hormel says confirmation wouldn't be opposed solely on sexual orientation.
"It would probably have to be a very special person but I do think it's possible," Hormel tells The Advocate, noting that South Africa — once known for apartheid — now allows same-sex marriage. "It looks increasingly silly to have arguments over a person's sexuality rather than their competence."
This optimism comes from a man who watched in dismay as preacher Pat Robertson, in reaction to Hormel's nomination, went on television and wildly accused him of pedophilia. Notoriously antigay senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina let it be known after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, and he took over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that Hormel's nomination would never see the light of day (which is possibly an exact quote).
Still, all these years later and with a memoir's worth of perspective on the hurdles facing gay people in politics, Hormel sees sexual orientation as only one factor in a voter's decision — even if more LGBT representation is needed.
"When I look at the Congress and see that there are four members of the House who are gay out of 435 and no senators who are openly gay, that's not representative," he says, careful to note, "the number 1 factor is competence, of course."
Hormel was never confirmed by the Senate, a moment he longs for in his book because it would have forced lawmakers, the media, and the nation "to decide whether a gay person was fit to serve." The effect of his determination could be at play in the shorter (but still very long) confirmation waiting game that has faced several of Obama's openly gay appointees to the federal judiciary. Hormel always hoped that he would relieve the pressure for those to follow.
"I could afford the risk," writes Hormel, heir to a family fortune, of being first. "It sounds like noblesse oblige, and I don't mean it that way, but the truth was that being open about my sexual orientation was not going to cost me a job. Or get me kicked out of my house. Or destroy my family. I lived in a place of privilege from which I could speak and act without fear of any other retribution than a bruised ego."