US's first gay ambassador James C. Hormel dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday August 13, 2021
Share this Post:
Former ambassador James C. Hormel sits at his desk in this 2011 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Former ambassador James C. Hormel sits at his desk in this 2011 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter

James Catherwood Hormel, a philanthropist and the first openly LGBT person to represent the United States as an ambassador, died in a San Francisco hospital Friday, August 13, with his husband at his side and his favorite Beethoven concerto playing. He was 88.

Mr. Hormel's family said that he died of natural causes.

Mr. Hormel served as ambassador to Luxembourg from 1999 to 2001. In a 2016 interview with the Bay Area Reporter, he recalled the long and tortuous route to the diplomatic posting.

It all began at a 1992 dinner with then-President Bill Clinton's campaign treasurer, Bob Farmer. Over dinner, Farmer suggested to Mr. Hormel that he seek a presidential appointment as an ambassador.

"I was quite surprised when he brought up the idea," said Mr. Hormel, noting that over 60% of such positions are held by career employees who have come up through the ranks in the Foreign Service.

The appointment did not happen easily, Mr. Hormel recalled.

In fact, it wasn't until five years after that dinner that Clinton nominated Mr. Hormel for the job. During that period, recalled Mr. Hormel, he made "dozens of visits and hundreds of phone calls" to keep his name in consideration.

Mr. Hormel said he was persistent because, if appointed, "I would break a ceiling and make it easier for gay people to serve at the highest levels of government."

Senate Republicans and conservative Christians opposed Mr. Hormel's nomination, and Clinton ultimately employed a recess appointment in May 1999, with Hormel being sworn in a month later. Since his appointment, there have been a number of gay men appointed as ambassadors. In July, President Joe Biden nominated Chantale Wong, a lesbian, to be the United States director to the Asian Development Bank, a post with the rank of ambassador.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ambassador Jim Hormel," stated former President Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "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. 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. Our thoughts are with his family and all who loved him."

Heartfelt tributes

Tributes also came in from many others.

Vice President Kamala Harris late Friday stated that she'll always be grateful for Mr. Hormel's friendship and counsel over many years.

"During his remarkable life, Ambassador James Hormel made history — and he made the world a better place," Harris stated. "Jim's kindness and commitment to human rights, including his efforts to help found the Human Rights Campaign and advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS, changed lives and inspired generations of leaders."

Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, left, marched with James Hormel in the 2013 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Steven Underhill  

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) also recalled Mr. Hormel's historic achievements.

"Jim Hormel was a barrier-breaking public servant, champion for LGBTQ equality, and cherished friend who will be dearly missed in San Francisco, in our nation and around the world," she stated. "Jim Hormel made history as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, showing the world how the voices of LGBTQ Americans are integral to foreign policy, and paving the way for a new generation of leaders. With his gentle yet powerful voice and undaunted determination, Jim made it his mission to fight for dignity and equality for all. Paul and I are heartbroken at this tremendous loss, and hope it is a comfort to his husband, Michael, and his children Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, James Jr. and Sarah, that Jim's extraordinary life continues to serve as a beacon of hope and promise for LGBTQ children across our country and around the world."

Gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) knew Mr. Hormel for years.

"We all knew Jim as a distinguished and groundbreaking U.S. ambassador, a heartfelt, knowledgeable and generous philanthropist and an accomplished leader," Leno stated. "I knew Jim as one of the kindest and most empathetic souls I have ever known; a gentleman to his core with a sincere concern for everyone."

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said Mr. Hormel was a "civil rights pioneer."

"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," Feinstein stated.

Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, praised Mr. Hormel's service to the LGBTQ community before his ambassadorship.

"But long before his appointment and for decades beyond, James C. Hormel helped all of us make history," she stated. 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."

Kate Kendell, NCLR's former executive director, knew Mr. Hormel well.

"Jim's passing leaves a gaping hole in many hearts," Kendell stated. "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."

Many honors
Mr. Hormel received many honors over the years. In 2010, he was the lifetime achievement grand marshal for the San Francisco Pride parade. He was a SF Pride parade community grand marshal in 2005.

In a 2010 interview, Mr. Hormel recounted that he had attended his first SF Pride parade decades earlier. He said the parade and celebration have "taken on a different meaning as time has passed."

Mr. Hormel said initially the event was meant to demonstrate LGBTQ's presence, especially politically. Unlike in the parade's early days, today "there's really a critical mass of gay and lesbian elected officials around the country, in small and large states and small and large cities," said Mr. Hormel.

In an effort to promote LGBTQ rights, Mr. Hormel was one of the founders of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, later renamed the Human Rights Campaign. He was a member of the board of directors of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

"As a champion for inclusion and acceptance, Mr. Hormel helped pave the way for the LGBTQ+ community by serving as the first openly gay ambassador representing the U.S. and enduring a harsh and homophobic confirmation process in the U.S. Senate," California Governor Gavin Newsom stated. "Mr. Hormel's work to found the Human Rights Campaign and unwavering support for those affected by HIV/AIDS was meaningful and life-changing for many."

HRC President Alphonso David stated that Mr. Hormel was a valued member of the organization.

"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," David stated. "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."

Generous donor
For many years, Mr. Hormel has been a philanthropist and has generously supported LGBTQ and social justice organizations. He contributed $500,000 to the San Francisco Public Library to fund the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the main library. (It was renamed the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center in 2016.)

"James Hormel was a trailblazer whose impacts will be felt in San Francisco for generations," Mayor London Breed stated. "All across the city, we can see the impacts of his life, whether it's in important institutions he supported like the AIDS Memorial Grove or our public library, or in the young people walking down our streets who live in the wake of his courage and activism."

Horizons Foundation President Roger Doughty said that Mr. Hormel had a 30-plus year record of giving to the Bay Area LGBTQ philanthropic organization.

"A leading philanthropist throughout his life, he supported a vast array of institutions in San Francisco and the Bay Area, as well as across the country," Doughty stated in an email sent to supporters remembering Mr. Hormel. "His name — often with that of his beloved husband, Michael — showed up seemingly everywhere one looked, from cultural institutions to critical social service and health organizations, including scores of LGBTQ organizations, campaigns, and causes. He tirelessly helped drive other LGBTQ people to give — and give more — to our movement."
Doughty noted that Mr. Hormel and his husband committed to a major challenge match for Horizons' 40th anniversary last year.

"It's no coincidence that gift was a challenge, for Jim didn't just want to give, he wanted LGBTQ nonprofits ourselves to leverage his gift so its impact became much greater than the figure on his check," Doughty stated.

In 2016, Mr. Hormel was honored by the Commonwealth Club of California as its first Champion of Civil Rights and Social Justice Award recipient.

At the time, Commonwealth Club President and CEO Gloria Duffy, Ph.D., said, "For decades, Ambassador Hormel has demonstrated his courage and dedication, working to create a more equal and just society for all. He is an altruistic activist who has been supportive and inspirational to many different communities. He is a dedicated philanthropist supporting organizations serving people across the country affected by HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, and breast cancer. We are thrilled to be honoring this intellectually incisive, wonderful, generous and warm community leader."

Mr. Hormel had been very open about his private life over the years, including early struggles with coming to terms with his homosexuality. He flunked out of Princeton after his first year, "distracted by all the men" he said, and not knowing how to handle it.

Once he was out of the closet, life got a lot easier, he said.

In 2006, while attending the Equality Forum dinner in Philadelphia, Hormel had donated a table to Swarthmore, his alma mater, for LGBTQ students. At the dinner, he met college sophomore Michael Nguyen. "At age 70-something, I certainly was not looking" for a romantic partner, especially someone two generations younger, Mr. Hormel said in 2016. "But there was magic when we met."

"We slowly got to know each other and I realized it was real," he said.

"I realized that we are filled with judgments and preconceptions about relationships and what they could look like," Mr. Hormel said. "I had to overcome my own prejudices and come to terms with what is really at the basis of a relationship, which is how people interact and connect. It is such a mistake to make judgments based on appearances and extraneous information."

The couple married the day after Christmas in 2014. The wedding, he said, was "extraordinarily beautiful" and "something I never dreamed could happen."

Mr. Hormel was born January 1, 1933. He was previously married to Alice Turner before he came out as a gay man. He had five children with Turner, many grandchildren, and is an heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune. He came out as gay in 1967, according to an obituary prepared by his family.

Mr. Hormel and Turner remained close friends even after their divorce in 1965, the obituary stated. During Mr. Hormel's nomination process for his ambassadorship, Turner would share, "Jim Hormel has given enormously to his family, his community and to this country. He is just asking to be allowed to give one more time. This is a good man."

Beyond Mr. Hormel's role as an ambassador for the U.S., he served in a variety of other public service capacities, the obituary stated. He was alternate representative of the U.S. delegation to the 51st United Nations General Assembly in 1996. He was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the 51st U.N. Human Rights Commission, which met in Geneva in early 1995. In 1995, and again in 1997, James served on the Western States Regional Selection Panel for the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.

A businessman, Mr. Hormel served as the chairman of Equidex Inc., a San Francisco-based firm that manages his and his family's investments and philanthropic activities. Marcus Guerrero recalled that when he first started working at Equidex, Mr. Hormel referred to him as "dear," a term he often used when speaking to family and loved ones. Mr. Hormel saw everyone at his office as just that — family, the obituary stated

Mr. Hormel earned his bachelor's degree in history from Swarthmore College and a law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. After law school, Mr. Hormel served as dean of students and the director of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School.

James Hormel, left, and his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel, were honored by the Community Music Center in 2019. Photo: Courtesy CMC  

Mr. Hormel is survived by his five children (Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, Jimmy, and Sarah), 14 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel. The obituary noted that Mr. Hormel's life was vibrant and grand, and his legacy will live on through the countless lives he changed.

Updated, 8/13/21: This article has been updated with additional comments and information.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.