Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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James Hormel, First Out Gay U.S. Ambassador, Dead at 88

James Hormel

James Hormel, the first out gay U.S. ambassador, has died. He was 88.

An heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune, he was a philanthropist and LGBTQ+ activist, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

President Bill Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997. But because of controversy over his identity and his activism, the Senate denied Hormel a confirmation vote. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel called him too “aggressively gay,” for which Hagel apologized years later, and another Republican senator, Tim Hutchinson, claimed Hagel was anti-Catholic because he laughed at the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Clinton put him in the ambassadorial post through a recess appointment, bypassing the Senate, in 1999. Hormel served until 2001.

Pete Buttigieg, who this year became the first out Cabinet member as secretary of Transportation, often spoke of the homophobia that kept Hormel from being confirmed. Watching the story play out, “I learned about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong,” Buttigieg said when President Joe Biden nominated him to the Transportation post in December. “And just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.”

Before becoming an ambassador, Hormel had served in two delegations to the United Nations. His other accomplishments include funding the Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, which is now the James Hormel LGBTQIA Center, plus work for the Human Rights Campaign, many other LGBTQ+ organizations, and AIDS causes.

He was a graduate of Swarthmore College, where he went on to be a member of the board of managers and establish a faculty chair in social justice. He also had a degree from the University of Chicago Law School and later became its assistant dean of students. He was a life member of the law school’s visiting committee and set up a program to encourage graduates to go into public service.

Survivors include his life partner, Michael P. Nguyen.

Tributes are pouring in.

From House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “Jim Hormel made history as the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador, paving the way for a new generation of leaders and elevating the voices of LGBTQ voices in our foreign policy.  With his gentle yet powerful voice and undaunted determination, Jim made it his mission to fight for dignity and equality for all.  As the first openly gay Ambassador, he had the courage to be a pioneer and had the patriotism to accept the challenge.

“When the AIDS epidemic descended upon San Francisco, he called on our conscience and rallied the city to help our neighbors suffering from the ferocious disease.  His work served as a model for national policy to defeat HIV/AIDS and improve the lives of all affected. … Jim’s extraordinary life will always serve as a beacon of hope and promise for LGBTQ children across our country and around the world.”

From Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “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, Feinstein said. “I had the pleasure of working closely with him on several issues, most notably on the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

“I was grateful for his help and expertise as a member of the host committee. 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.

“In addition to his trailblazing public service, he helped found several LGBTQ institutions, including the Human Rights Campaign and the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. I will miss his kind heart and generous spirit. It’s those qualities that made him such an inspirational figure and beloved part of our city.”

From Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute: “Jim’s appointment was a breakthrough moment for the LGBTQ rights movement and his successful post in Luxembourg set the stage for future LGBTQ ambassadors facing confirmation. Whereas Jim endured homophobic abuse from anti-LGBTQ U.S. senators that led to his recess appointment, now LGBTQ nominees are largely considered on their merits and qualifications. Jim was a trailblazer and withstood the anti-LGBTQ attacks with dignity, as trailblazers often do. Yet he helped jumpstart a new era where LGBTQ public servants recognized they could serve their country and be out and proud about who they are. His passing is a loss for our movement and our country.”

From Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David: “Jim Hormel was a giant in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality. He was a history-making and barrier-breaking diplomat who showed future generations of LGBTQ+ young people that there is no limit to what they can achieve. Jim also understood the power of his platform and the importance of organizing to make change. His commitment in helping to found the Human Rights Campaign and his dedication to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic ensure that the contributions he made will ripple out for years and decades to come. He was a tremendously valued member of the Human Rights Campaign community and his memory will live on at this organization and others that have made up his life’s work. Our hearts are with Jim’s husband, family and friends as we collectively mourn the loss of such a profound advocate and celebrate his decorated and impactful life.”

From Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of Equality California: “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. 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.

“Our hearts go out to Jim’s spouse Michael, his friend and advisor Ray and the entire Hormel family. May his legacy live on for generations to come, and may his memory always be a blessing. Rest in power, Ambassador.”

From Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings: “The importance of the leadership of Jim Hormel — who I am proud to have called my friend for over 25 years — to the success of the LGBTQ+ movement cannot be overstated. When our movement was starved for financial resources, and too many of those who had them were too afraid or embarrassed to associate themselves with our community’s organizations publicly, Jim stepped forward, leveraging his family’s famous name and his personal fortune to fund literally thousands of organizations (Lambda Legal included), political candidates, and individual activists & artists. Without his generosity and the example he set (which inspired countless other donors to step up), our movement would not be where it is today.

“Jim’s own courage under fire when he was subjected to a homophobic hate campaign after his Ambassadorial nomination by President Clinton was an inspirational testament to his character and integrity. When I remember Jim, the word that will always come to mind for me will be “kind.”  Jim treated all he met with great kindness and utmost respect, modeling goodness in all he did. In my mind, he is always smiling and spreading goodwill to everyone he touched. Lambda Legal, our movement, and I have lost a great and irreplaceable friend, one I will truly and deeply miss.”

From National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon: “We are saddened by the news of the passing of our dear friend, Jim Hormel. Jim made history as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador when appointed to Luxembourg by President Clinton in 1999. But long before his appointment and for decades beyond, James C. Hormel helped all of us make history.

“A tireless philanthropist, his support for democracy and civil liberties served as a beacon of hope well before supporting LGBTQ causes was fashionable. Jim was an early supporter of NCLR, always understanding the imperative that the protection of our families is central to our equality, the importance of our intersectional approach to civil rights, and the shared belief that freedoms are inextricably linked, so our fight for justice must include all of us. His love of San Francisco and his support of so many of our institutions will ensure his legacy is felt for generations to come.”

From former NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell: “Jim’s passing leaves a gaping hole in many hearts. From my earliest days at NCLR, Jim invested in both me and our work. His support, love, and friendship through the years helped sustain me through many challenging moments. He embodied an impish joy even as his resume lauded many accomplishments. We will miss everything about him and I know NCLR will continue to fight on in his legacy.”  

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