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OutServe Magazine | June 29, 2015

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Power Players: The Ambassador

Power Players: The Ambassador

By Eddy Sweeney

Personalities within the sprawling story of the gay rights movement have effectively humanized LGBT people for the American public since the Stonewall riots in 1969. With vast changes in the legal fabric of society such as Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruling in 2003 that invalidated sodomy laws across America, followed swiftly by Massachusetts’ legalization of same-sex marriage, and most recently, the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) by Congress, history may resolve that LGBT issues were this generation’s preeminent civil rights focus.

In all of these significant moments, many outsized personalities, with deeply emotional stories, have successfully navigated the turbulent back-and-forth of LGBT rights in America. These milestones would not have been possible without people such as Harvey Milk, John Lawrence, Dr. Franklin Kameny, COL Margarethe Cammermeyer, and Richard Socarides, who put not only a face, but a powerful voice behind the LGBT movement. They used their personal experiences to tell a larger story about equality. In this and future issues, OutServe Magazine will feature some of the less-talked about heroes of the movement. Some will be power players who have shared the limelight with other notable figures. Others will be unsung heroes who have made an impression in their own right behind the scenes of the movement. In this issue, we feature two very different personalities along this journey: former Amb. James C. Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, and Mr. Lou Timmons, who worked in the Pentagon as an out, gay man for 24 years before the demise of DADT.

In preparation for this article, I read Ambassador Hormel’s new book, Fit to Serve, and interviewed him personally to discuss some of the issues he raises. Ambassador Hormel was gracious and eager to share his story and reflect on what it means to serve in a senior level position in the federal government while also being openly gay.

Not So Humble Beginnings
Despite his lavish upbringing, Ambassador Hormel remembers always having felt “different from other little boys.” When pressed by what he meant, the Ambassador said: “[My sexuality] was awkward and uncomfortable and isolating. I wanted to be like everyone else.” His otherness did not merely center on his family’s considerable wealth, but also on his own burgeoning desires for other men—a feeling a young man in rural Minnesota in the mid-1940s could not remotely articulate.

James C. Hormel, born in Austin, Minn., grew up as the son to the SPAM empire (yes that’s SPAM). He had a privileged life that often kept him separated from the small town’s other 18,000 inhabitants. His grandfather’s company, Geo. A. Hormel & Co., was the dominant business in Austin. Residing in a luxurious 26-bedroom, 25-bathroom estate, Ambassador Hormel grew up in a family that cherished hard work above all else.

“I’m really feeling gay today”
In a particularly memorable scene in his book, Ambassador Hormel recounts the very last conversation he had with his father the night he died. His father had turned to him before going to bed and asked, “Jimmy, is there anything you want to talk about? Anything you want to tell me?” Ambassador Hormel thought, “His eyes reflected an air so loving and free of judgment that I felt a completely disarming sense of safety. For the instant it lasted, I basked in it … Perhaps this was the moment I was supposed to tell my father that I was gay. But how could I? I hadn’t even admitted it to myself.”

Asked if he could revisit that moment in time and tell his father, he responded, “No. I can say that categorically. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s gone. He probably knew!’” Though he continued to be troubled by his sexual feelings, his desire to be “normal” outweighed any other personal prerogatives during his college years. To that end, he found love in a woman he would later marry, Alice Parker, with whom he shares five children.

Despite his marriage, there were moments when Ambassador Hormel simply could not deny his feelings. He says he “had an increasingly greater need to let the feelings out, but didn’t know how to do it in a way that would not wreak nuclear havoc on my life.” With attitudes much more hostile in the early 1960’s toward gays, the Ambassador chuckled when he thought about how he typically found others like himself.

“The word ‘gay’ itself was one of them,” he said. “For example, ‘I’m really feeling gay today.’ Depending on the response someone got, there were signals that were passed. I do believe in gaydar.”

“We are You!”
Ambassador Hormel eventually came out to his friends and family—to almost universal acceptance—and had an amicable, albeit painful divorce with his wife. Asked what caused him to change his mind and accept his sexuality after all his previous attempts to lead what he considered a normal life, he said, “When I look back at my life, I see that from a very early age I behaved in ways that I thought people expected of me, rather than what feels right to me. There is a huge difference there and it took me a very long time to get it.”

After his separation, Ambassador Hormel eventually settled in San Francisco, where he became active in democratic political circles. By pure happenstance, his time there dovetailed with the rise of famed political icons such as Harvey Milk and David Goodstein. With them, he was instrumental in defeating Proposition 6, legislation that sought to bar gay people from teaching in California’s schools. Their victory, though short lived, taught Ambassador Hormel the necessity of creating an effective narrative and mobilizing people to fight for it.

Back then, a hybrid mix of Milk’s outgoing personality, coupled with Goodstein’s persistence on maintaining respect and dignity in the movement, proved an effective approach to advocacy.

“I judge [effectiveness] by how people react publicly,” he said. “Sometimes it can be amusing. The glitter attack is funny, the pie attack is less funny. I’m not sure it brings the message into focus.

The message truly is: when are you going to get over your prejudices and realize that we are you? I was made by a heterosexual couple. Your police officer, your dentist, your employee, your son, your grandmother–they all could be gay. You don’t know because you’ve driven them underground.”

Through the 1960s and 70s, Ambassador Hormel developed an aptitude and passion for both politics and LGBT rights. After many high profile successes and losses, it would only seem likely that his next battle would eventually take him to Washington.

The Waiting Game
The idea to pursue a presidential appointment seemed crazy to Ambassador Hormel in 1992. Though he donated to former President Bill Clinton’s campaign, he had done no serious campaigning. However, Ambassador Hormel decided the job he was most qualified for was an ambassadorship. In the process, he desired to see, through a Senate confirmation, 100 Senators go on the record and either affirm or disapprove the notion that a gay man could serve as a direct representative of the President of the United States.

After throwing his name in the ring, Ambassador Hormel waited months to hear back from the Clinton administration. While still continuing to pursue his nomination, Ambassador Hormel became involved in a philanthropic project: the creation of a gay and lesbian center at the public library at the San Francisco Civic Center. Having contributed more than $500,000 of his own personal fortune, Ambassador Hormel’s civic efforts kept him sustained while waiting.

Months went by with no new information from the Administration. Finally, in frustration, Ambassador Hormel phoned Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and received some sage advice: “If you really want this Jim, you’re going to have to wage your own campaign.”

From that point, Ambassador Hormel took a more aggressive posture in his desire to seek a nomination. His persistence finally caught traction, with information that he was soon to be nominated as the Ambassador to Fiji.

In tandem with his burgeoning nomination to Fiji were the midterm elections of 1994, when Republicans swept both the House and the Senate. The timing could not have been worse. A few days after the election, a staffer to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-S.C.), the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, let it be known that Hormel’s nomination would never see the light of day.

Ambassador Hormel was undeterred.

An Up or Down Vote
For the next three years, Ambassador Hormel became a squeaky wheel in Washington. He assiduously courted officials and successfully applied for other temporary posts such as the U.S. delegate to the UN General Assembly. Finally, the Clinton administration relented on Oct. 6, 2007—after nearly five years—nominating him to be the next Ambassador to Luxembourg.

Ambassador Hormel was granted a hearing in front of the Foreign Relations Committee, where he sailed through the committee with sixteen votes in favor and two opposed. At that point, the Clinton administration assumed his ambassador appointment was all but assured. Days before the vote was to come to the full Senate, two republican senators, James Inhofe and Tim Hutchinson, placed “anonymous holds” on his nomination. They objected not to the fact that Ambassador Hormel was gay, but to what they called his “agenda.”

Bipartisan supporters immediately pushed back against the hold. Ambassador Hormel scrounged 58 votes for his confirmation, two votes shy to overcome a filibuster. That December, however, the senate adjourned for the winter recess, ending any prospect of an up or down vote on Ambassador Hormel’s nomination.

The Single Most Important Thing
Nearly seven years after his initial request in June, 1999, President Clinton defied congressional recalcitrance and appointed Ambassador Hormel to the post at Luxembourg in a recess appointment. With his appointment, he became the first openly gay ambassador to represent the United States abroad.

Regarding his nomination experience, the Ambassador said, “I didn’t lose faith. I noticed that is the way the process works. I was disappointed primarily because I didn’t get what I really wanted—individual members of the Senate to go on the record. They were too chicken to do it.”

In the closing of his book, Ambassador Hormel passionately argues “the single most important thing a gay person can do to advance the cause of equality is to come out and be out to friends, to family, and in the workplace.”

Responding to LGBT people who believe sexuality is a personal matter and not something to be aired in the workplace, he said, “It is. That is the irony. It’s nobody’s business, really, except that society has made it people’s business. So the coming out process is very important.”

The Ambassador’s departing message might just capture the heart and soul of the LGBT movement that has effectively battled its way through history through the individual stories, fearless leaders, and persistent recalcitrance of its people. Ambassador Hormel asks his readers to consider the notion of one being a patriot but taking a passive role in the movement. “For gay people, my answer is no. We have to be out. If not, we are complicit with the old order, the one that would have us remain invisible.”

Read the next article in the Power Players series: The Pentagon Civilian