James C. Hormel, the United States’ first out-gay ambassador—appointed by then-President Bill Clinton to Luxembourg in 1999—died Friday in San Francisco aged 88.
“At the time of his passing, his husband, Michael, was at his side and his favorite Beethoven concerto playing,” CBS San Francisco reported, adding that the life-embracing Hormel, who was also a noted philanthropist, had told his grandchildren from his hospital bed just days before his death, “I want a party.” His hospital room had been full of the voices and laughter of his loved ones.
In one of his last major interviews in August 2020, Hormel told The Daily Beast he was “very aware” of making history because of the efforts made by the Senate to scupper his nomination.
“We had the votes, and we tried to get a vote for two years,” Hormel told this reporter. “But Trent Lott, then the Senate majority leader, wouldn’t bring it up, he absolutely refused. Finally, it was done as a recess appointment. Through the course of it all, I learned a great deal about how things worked and didn’t work in Washington, and international relations.”
The homophobia Hormel faced, he said, “was ridiculous. The accusations were absurd. There was a definite religious aspect to it. It was said out loud, ‘How can you send a gay man to represent us in a Roman Catholic country like Luxembourg?’ Meanwhile, Luxembourg had already approved the nomination and they were offended because they didn’t have an ambassador. They weren’t offended by me. They were offended by the process.”
Hormel, who became a dedicated LGBTQ equality advocate, said the most absurd accusation against him was leveled by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson, “who was one of three people who put a hold on my nomination. He asked me, ‘Would you disavow the (famous nun drag troupe) Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?’ I replied, ‘I never avowed them.’ He said, ‘Well you’re on a videotape laughing at them.’ I said, ‘Well, they were funny.’ It was one silly thing after another.”
There were, said Hormel, “moments of depression and more moments of anger—and the anger and depression had to be tempered because they wouldn’t produce any result.”
In retrospect, Hormel told The Daily Beast, “It was helpful to me because when I arrived in Luxembourg, the government was very sympathetic and really went out of their way to work with me. We had an excellent relationship.”
“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,” a statement from the Clintons read. “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.”
In another statement, former Houston mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute—sister organization of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ candidates running for office—said: “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.”
“Looking back, my service was important, and looking at what has happened since, any service is important,” Hormel told The Daily Beast last year. “Look at Kamala’s (Harris) reception, my god. We should be ashamed of ourselves it has taken so long (for a Black woman to be a VP pick). She’s wonderful. I know her well, and I am in great awe and have great admiration for her. She deserves all the accolades that will come her way.”
Hormel was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the 51st U.N. Human Rights Commission, which met in Geneva in early 1995. He told The Daily Beast he had been proud to give a major speech about HIV, AIDS, and human rights there, “which was still an untouchable subject even then.” He also met delegates who could not be out in their countries of origin.
Hormel spoke to The Daily Beast in the last months of the Trump administration, as the Victory Institute launched its Presidential Appointments Initiative, to appoint for the first time an out LGBTQ Supreme Court justice, the first Senate-confirmed LGBTQ Cabinet member (achieved by Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg), and the first ambassadors who are LGBTQ women, LGBTQ people of color, and transgender.
According to the Victory Institute’s annual Out for America report, there are 986 out LGBTQ officials in the U.S., 0.19 percent of all elected officials and an increase of 17 percent from 2020.
The importance of LGBTQ presidential appointees being “in the room” was made painfully apparent by the homophobia and transphobia of the Trump administration, Hormel told The Daily Beast.
The Trump administration, “regardless of the words they speak, are doing whatever they can to diminish the LGBTQ constituency, especially in respect of transgender people and those trans people serving in the military,” Hormel said. “It’s outrageous to me, and I don’t think it would be happening if there were more LGBTQ people in positions of leadership.”
The State Department, Hormel said, was particularly “pathetic,” and a “major international disaster” under Trump. “I’m very concerned about how long it will take to mend relationships.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “taken actions that are appalling, and totally unsupportive of our position in the world, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ people,” he added.
In the last year of his life, CBS San Francisco reported, Hormel “enjoyed quiet mornings with coffee and the newspaper, light walks through downtown San Francisco, and watching early 20th century films from bed with Michael, their dog Peanut, and cat Trouble.”
“The most important single thing any LGBTQ person can do is come out,” Hormel told The Daily Beast. “I have been saying this for 50 years. People still claim they don’t know any LGBTQ people, they still try and make out we are something we are not. Coming out is the most powerful weapon against that.”