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James Hormel : Former ambassador reflects on life, activism and philanthropy
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times
2012-01-04

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James Hormel spoke at the Opening Ceremony for Gay Games VII, at Chicago's Soldier Field. He's pictured here with Sara Waddell Lewinstein, widow of Dr. Tom Waddell, Gay Games founder, the day after the Chicago Gay Games opened. Photo by Tracy Baim


James Hormel, born in 1933 in the heart of the Depression, was mostly sheltered from the economic crisis facing the United States. However, despite being brought up with wealth and privilege in Austin, Minn., Hormel eventually found his way to progressive activism and he has been a strong force for gay rights.

Hormel, an heir to the Hormel Foods fortune ( Spam and other processed meat products ) , is perhaps best known as President Clinton's choice for ambassador to Luxembourg. The title of his new autobiography, Fit to Serve, reflects his long battle to become the nation's first openly gay person to win Senate approval as a presidential appointee. Despite intense lobbying, and subjecting himself to public scrutiny and lies, Hormel never was approved by the Senate. Instead, Clinton made him a recess appointment in 1999. He served until 2001.

Hormel's book, co-written with Erin Martin, is a tightly written tale of his life, and includes his:

— boyhood in Minnesota;

— teenage years learning about racism in the south ( accidentally using a "colored" water fountain ) ;

— time in Illinois attending and working at the University of Chicago;

— participating in both Republican and Democratic politics ( including protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago ) ;

— working on behalf of third-party presidential candidate Dick Gregory in 1968;

— living in New York City during the years before and after the 1969 Stonewall rebellion;

— traveling to Cambodia just as war was breaking out;

— coming out ( to his wife and daughters ) ;

— moving to San Francisco in time for the anti-gay Briggs Initiative, Harvey Milk's historic campaign for supervisor, and the start of the AIDS crisis;

— co-founding of the Human Rights Campaign;

— friendship with Gay Games founder Dr. Tom Waddell;

— working with the United Nations delegation from the U.S. to the Human Rights Commission, and much more.

When reading the book, at times I wanted to compare Hormel to Forrest Gump, because he always seemed to be in the thick of the most important things happening. But that would be unfair to Hormel; while he was perhaps unintentionally in the middle of these events, he also helped shaped them. He was not a mere observer Photoshopped into the movement; rather, he was, and is, an important participant.

I found Hormel's Chicago years of special interest. He moved to the city in the late 1950s, and eventually he and his family moved to the north suburbs, where Hormel was almost tapped to run for an open seat in the U.S. Congress. [ The seat had been occupied by Marguerite Stitt Church, who was elected to her husband Ralph's 13th District seat when he died; she served in Congress from 1951-1963. ]

It was, in fact, his homosexuality that held Hormel back. Unlike other closeted political activists content with risking discovery and damaging their families, Hormel felt compelled to stay out of electoral politics while he dealt with his emotional life. He eventually divorced and started to deal with his sexuality, at first from inside the closet, but later from a very public platform. I can almost imagine the trajectory Hormel would have had as a closeted Republican politician, eventually outed and attacked for hypocrisy.

Despite the pressure to maintain a straight and narrow image for his family name, Hormel did eventually break from these constraints. He became a critical figure in the gay movement as a result of this coming out. Not only did he lend his important public name to the cause, something rare in the 1970s and 1980s, but he also gave millions to gay rights and AIDS causes over the decades. In 1995, he created perhaps his most lasting legacy, the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Hormel has five children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He lives in San Francisco with his partner, former Chicagoan Michael Nguyen.

I first met Hormel through my work as co-vice-chair of Gay Games VII in Chicago in 2006. Hormel, because he had been friends with Waddell ( who died in 1987 ) , was an important supporter of the Gay Games movement, and we wanted his support of our efforts to continue the legacy of his friend. He asked a lot of questions, and wanted to make sure we knew the importance of the tradition. Hormel was kind and generous, but ever-probing to make sure we were doing the job right.

Hormel also spoke at the Opening Ceremony in Soldier Field. More than four decades earlier, when Chicago had been his home, I am sure he could never have imagined standing in the stadium of the Chicago Bears football team and making such a presentation.

I spoke via phone with Hormel, who turned 79 Jan. 1, about his new book and his legacy. He will be in Chicago Wed., Jan. 25, for a talk at the University of Chicago and book-signing in the Book Cellar.

Tracy Baim: Thanks for your support of Chicago's Gay Games VII. We broke even thanks to people like you. Are you still involved in the movement?

James Hormel: I am out of touch with them at the moment. I think they were very important in 1982. When you think back, this was at the start of the AIDS crisis. AIDS had not been named yet. It was a demonstration of unity and solidarity. It brought gay men and lesbians together. It created a sense of purpose. Here we weren't worthy of the name "Olympics" [ the U.S. Olympic Committee sued to force the name change ] , even though crabs were [ there was a Crab Olympics ] , that made people think a little bit. I was very enthusiastic when Tom was starting it. At the outset I thought it was an impossible task, but Tom was single-minded and determined and put together a group equally so, and managed to get people—from a dozen or so countries, not just the U.S. It was a loving, graceful, gracious experience.

Baim: In the book you discuss your accidental use of a "colored" water fountain in the South, as a teenager.

Hormel: It was novel for me. I came from Austin, Minn.—a very, very white-bread community. I've been telling people that the old Austin diversity was that there were Catholics or Lutherans, and that was about it. That was my experience. All of a sudden there it was, staring at me. It was shocking to me; it jolted me. I don't think at the time I made the connection about various discriminations in our country and world, but it certainly brought discrimination, of a kind I had not experienced, into focus for me. It started the thought process about how things aren't right when you treat people differently.

But it didn't really affect my thinking in the early years about the rights of LGBT people, because I had to come to grips with my own prejudices. With the fact I really believed there was something wrong with me. That's what psychiatrists and society said, what our criminal laws said—that didn't start to break down until 1961 when Illinois [ removed its sodomy statute ] . I was living in a world that made it difficult for anyone who was gay to imagine there wasn't something wrong. We didn't even have to be told. In many cases we were not told, because nobody talked about any sex to us.

Baim: Can you address the role of being a "Hormel" in keeping you in the closet and getting married to a woman?

Hormel: There was the factor of being sheltered and isolated, but also the reputation of the family. [ There was a ] craving for being one of the boys—for being like everybody else. But I could never be like everybody else. That was pointed out; I was sheltered and I was protected. That went beyond our status of family and community; there were also indications of a kidnapping threat. People took those threats seriously in the days of Lindbergh. [ Charles and Anne Lindbergh's son was kidnapped in 1932, the year before Hormel was born; the toddler was later found murdered. ]

Baim: When you lived in Winnetka, Ill., in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you actually considered running for Congress as a Republican. [ Hormel received his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1958, and he was dean of students during 1961-'67. ]

Hormel: Who knows what would have happened had I run for Congress? I was a moderate Republican—a supporter of Charles Percy, the last Republican I did support. In the 1960s, I was approached to run—I hadn't been thinking of it. It just came at me out of the blue, and was very tempting. I was young but felt I had a sufficient background to take on that challenge.

But I thought about the possibility of being exposed, because by then I had, even though I was married, I had experiences with other men. Although they were extremely furtive and anonymous, I was in great fear of somehow being exposed—and of not just ruining my life, but my wife's and children's. It was a specter there, way beyond what I could consider.

Imagine the talent that was held back, in the government itself, once the State Department in the late 1940s started outing and going after their gay employees. I'm sure countless people who were quite bright and eager to serve just didn't even consider going into foreign service.

Baim: You were at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What do you remember about the city's gay community back then? The bars, the Mattachine group, anything?

Hormel: I did not know about the gay movement when I was here. The movement was hard to let anybody know about it. They met in secret. They met behind closed curtains in people's homes, and used false names, even among each other. Until the 1960s. I lived in the city from '55 to '58, then Winnetka for three years; then I moved back into the city.

I do remember some bars—Sam's, the Gold Coast. They were both on the edge of downtown. I got called "faggot" when I walked by Sam's and I thought, "My goodness, they know where it is!" There were a couple others, up further north. I don't know how I happened upon them, and they were very dark places, and people were inclined to be more relaxed, but still it was always an edgy atmosphere. People were raiding these institutions. The Chicago police had connections with bar owners who were usually Mafia people. They were mostly not gay-owned bars, they were bars that served gay people. They were owned mostly by people who didn't give a damn.

Police would let them know about the raids. They were surprises only to the customers. The Chicago Tribune was very willing to publish people's names the next day—people who were detained. People had to do that, pay off the Mafia and police.

I was reading the Tribune one day, about a raid on a bathhouse. The names on the list included a gay guy I knew, a dentist. A couple months later I saw him at some party. He said 'Oh, don't worry. My clientele has doubled.'"

Baim: When the Democratic National Convention [ DNC ] riots happened in 1968 in Chicago, you watched them on TV in New York and then you were compelled to come back to participate in the latter part of the events.

Hormel: It was just really, really awful. I had been in Michigan, at the family property, and had gone back to New York where I was living, and turned on the TV and saw these scenes. I talked to a friend of mine, the daughter of a judge I clerked for, and she said she was at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive and could smell the tear gas [ all the way from downtown to ] there. I got in touch with a friend, a delegate, and he said come see for yourself.

Baim: What was the impact of that work, at the DNC and then in working to elect a third-party presidential candidate, Dick Gregory, on the New Party ticket?

Hormel: There was a long-term effect. Particularly after the violence at the convention, it was like after [ the shootings at ] Kent State, after the church burnings [ in the South ] , and the beatings in Selma, etc. People were exposed to something they hadn't been exposed to before. Partly it was television, it was in their homes. A new level of awareness came out of it all. It wasn't reflected in changing politics—we got Richard Nixon. Looking back he doesn't look so bad. [ Laughs ] Both parties were mired in their structures, and they still are.

The political stasis is set by that structure, so it is virtually impossible to get a third party going. Ross Perot got almost 20 percent of votes in 1992, which was amazing. Bill Clinton did not win either race by a majority. Differences were made, but not structural.

In order to change this system, it's going to take infrastructure changes. It is not going to happen from the kind of revolution projected in the 1960s. There were many people who were "fellow travelers" in that revolution, who were not interested in changing the system—they were interested in sexual freedom or many other things that were occurring.

Baim: You also had disillusionment with the anti-war movement, because of the sexism, racism and homophobia—how easy was it to get out?

Hormel: People did not force me to try and stay in. I didn't feel any pressure at all. I felt a little pressure to get in, from me, not from others. Once the 1968 election took place, and there was no money left, literally the New Party where I was, didn't have the ability to pay people salaries, people left in droves because they had to, to get jobs. After that, it was very difficult to keep some organizations together.

Baim: You lived in New York City during the Stonewall rebellion. You were not at the rebellion, but you experienced the city in that post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS era. What was that like?

Hormel: I think it was clear how significant it was at that time. The fact is that there are over a million people in Manhattan who never cross Hudson River, there are limits to the sophistication of New York. But yes what happened at Stonewall was dramatic, it was over three nights, and it was sustained to a point where it was again in the media—very prominently. People couldn't overlook it. By then New Yorkers couldn't be blasé. I know some non-gay people who became very much involved, who were really very upset, and leant their names and support to the gay-rights movement.

Baim: How was it writing about your near-death experience in Cambodia—a close call with soldiers as the government was under attack?

Hormel: There were a couple of things that were fascinating for me in looking back. That was certainly one of them. There was to me a contrast to what I had seen in Cambodia, a country about to be devastated, and a country in poverty, between that and what I saw at about the same time in the Delta area of Mississippi. What I saw in Mississippi, which I did not see in Cambodia, was starvation. [ You could ] drive through any small town in Mississippi and you knew exactly where you were—if the road was paved and the sewers were covered, you were in the white section. People who lived in the other section were pretty much indentured, working to pay off debts. They weren't going to go anywhere. It was pathetic. There was so little inspiration, except for people's wonderful strength and humanity.

In Cambodia there was an aura of tranquility, as it turned out it was not appropriate at that time [ given the pending war ] . Nonetheless, there wasn't a feeling of rejection and dejection—everybody was in the same condition. There was a sense of serenity I felt in Cambodia in the midst of poverty that was absent in Mississippi because people did not have a whole lot of time to be serene. There were older people who I met who were more philosophical, who had been through it all, all their lives.

Baim: As you started to really see how the "establishment" was so entrenched, and you were from money and from that establishment both in business and politically, was it ever so intense you wanted to fully drop out and just separate from your legacy?

Hormel: I had a sense of faith that will get us through this. It is very depressing in the richest country of the world that there was this incredible maltreatment and malnourishment. You do what you can.

Baim: You moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, in time for the battle against the Briggs Initiative in 1978 [ it attempted to ban gays from working in the public schools ] and Harvey Milk's successful 1977 race for city supervisor. And then around 1980, the first people started dying of what later became known as AIDS.

Hormel: AIDS was the most difficult to write about, primarily because I knew so many people who died in those first 10 years. It was so devastating. There's no way to tell people today how horrible it was. How we lost our leaders in their prime. How the government, at least at the national level, just stood by and did nothing for so many years.

Barbara Boxer was probably the first to speak on the floor of the U.S. House, when she was a freshman, to get some AIDS funds, that was mid-1980s.

Baim: You were a founder of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, in 1980, with Steve Endean. How do you feel about what HRC does today?

Hormel: I am very supportive of them. HRC has extended itself in different directions. We started strictly as a political action committee for federal candidates who would support gay-rights issues. Then it merged with the Gay Rights National Lobby, and we started lobbying activities. It has branched into supporting state organizations, and the marriage equality movement.

HRC has become Washington, D.C.-centric, as so many organizations centered in D.C become. Which means they aren't as in touch with other groups around the country as they might be. That's true more or less of every D.C. organization, and it is certainly true of members of Congress. They haven't the faintest idea of their constituents; they talk about re-election and money. That gets my juices flowing. I'm writing a piece for the Bay Area Reporter about predictions for 2012. One thing I guarantee will happen: In 2012 more money will be spent on elections than any time before, and it will be so huge that we won't even believe the figure when we hear it. It will be more than $8 billion in 2012, with at least $3 billion in TV ads. …

I am supportive of President Obama. I feel that Obama walked into a situation where he's done the best he can. I'm not sure I would have followed every path he's taken, but on LGBT issues, he's appointed more people, made more progress than all other presidents before him combined.

The Defense of Marriage Act is in its death throes, anyway. I can't see it standing up to any constitutional scrutiny. On top of that, people don't want it anymore, except members of Congress who are out of touch with their constituencies.

The one other thing I have been saying is that these attitudes of "us" and "them" are going to change, when they start to recognize that we have not chosen to be gay. Being gay is not a choice. When people think that we chose this, they are less inclined to be supportive. Worst of all, people don't know there are these laws anymore. They think discrimination in hiring is actionable, but in 29 states it's not. That's why we need the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Baim: Given Hillary Clinton's recent speech to the UN, did your work there lay the groundwork for her?

Hormel: In a sense, but I thought that speech was really coming from Hillary. I give her a lot of credit for that. I also want to give credit to other people who were mindful of the circumstances when I was involved in this process. When I went to Geneva with the Human Rights Commission [ 1995-1996 ] , the head of the delegation was Geraldine Ferraro. She was the one that said I want you to give a speech on gay and lesbian rights and HIV. She was the one who set it up. When the time came for me to give that, she came down and sat next to me. Later, I told Madeline Albright that a friend called and said she got word that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to speak to the UN on World AIDS Day, is there something we can do? Madeline said, "By all means." She said that would be wonderful, she assigned me a staff person to work on it.

Baim: What was your experience trying to become the first openly gay person confirmed to a presidential appointment by the U.S. Senate?

Hormel: That was really awful. We put that as the first chapter in the book, as a dramatic way to draw people in. It really was awful. Pat Robertson, this guy, he is still doing it; he is unbelievable, and people pay attention to him. I wish I had said some of the things I was thinking—why not sue for libel? I didn't want to give them public attention. One person among the small group of demonstrators against me was Christine O'Donnell, who later famously ran for Congress from Delaware in 2010. …

The ambassador appointment did have a lasting effect: It led to other ambassadors being appointed, and it may lead to a cabinet appointment in the next administration, we hope so. I don't know if I will live to see a president who is openly gay; I may not live to see a female president, but it is something to be desired.

Baim: You are returning to Chicago to speak at the U of C. Any final words about Chicago?

Hormel: I have been in and out of Chicago since living there. Chicago's been very kind to me, and I've been kind to it. U of C is remarkable. There is not another research institution like it that I know—the cross-topical, cross-educational, intellectual curiosity that brings the entire campus together. When you go there to be taught by top scholars, you get them, not their teaching assistants. There's a level of intellectual curiosity and stimulation that is extremely refreshing. The city of Chicago is grand and great and rough and all the things they say about it.

James Hormel will be in Chicago Wed., Jan. 25 for a talk hosted by the University of Chicago Law School, 12:15 at a location to be announced. He will be signing his book Fit to Serve at 7 p.m. that day at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60641. The Book Cellar prefers customers to purchase the book from their store, but it is not required for autographs.


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