Metro Weekly

James Hormel, first openly gay U.S. ambassador, dies at age 88

Former ambassador to Luxembourg was also a prominent Democratic donor and supporter of LGBTQ causes.

James Hormel
Ambassador James Hormel – Photo: Office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, via Flickr.

James Hormel, who became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador in 1999 following a contentious confirmation battle, died Aug. 13 at a San Francisco Hospital. He was 88 years old.

Hormel’s death was announced by the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ advocacy organization that Hormel helped found in the 1980s. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Hormel, the grandson of the founder of the Hormel meatpacking and food company and a Democratic donor, served as a dean at the University of Chicago law school, directed a family investment firm and served on various civic boards before being nominated by former President Bill Clinton to be ambassador to Luxembourg.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Hormel’s nomination on a 16-2 vote, but three Republican senators — egged on by some of their conservative colleagues and interests groups like the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition — placed a hold on his nomination, decrying Hormel’s support of the “gay agenda,” and using a film clip of Hormel at a San Francisco gay pride parade speaking with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to accuse him of “anti-Catholic” bigotry, reports The Washington Post.

Hormel’s nomination appeared to be dead in 1998, but Clinton renominated Hormel for the vacant ambassadorship a year later, and installed Hormel in the post through a recess appointment, outraging Republicans. Hormel served as ambassador from June 1999 to December 2000.

“The process was very long and strenuous, arduous, insulting, full of misleading statements, full of lies, full of deceit, full of antagonism,” Hormel said in 2012 while promoting a memoir, Fit to Serve, about his nomination and ambassadorship. 

“Ultimately a great deal was achieved,” Hormel said. “Ultimately, regulations were changed in the State Department. Ultimately, other openly gay individuals were appointed without the rancor that went into my case.”

Hormel routinely gave away a quarter of his annual income to support hunger relief, AIDS research, educational programs, and other charitable projects, and served on the boards of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and San Francisco Symphony, among other organizations.

He is survived by his husband, Michael Araque, his five children through his former wife, Alice, as well as 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Related: President Biden nominates lesbian to ambassador-level post in historic first

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents San Francisco and officiated Hormel’s wedding to Araque, issued a statement mourning his passing.

“It is with the deepest sadness and the greatest appreciation for his unsurpassed contributions to our country and society that I learned of the passing of Ambassador Hormel,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We will dearly miss him in San Francisco, in our nation and around the world.

“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.

“In our community and country, Jim was recognized as a significant champion of the arts and education.  His love of his family and loyalty to his friends made him a beloved figure in our community.  It is fitting that Jim’s name is etched in history as the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador, but his extraordinary greatness is forever etched in the hearts of all who know him,” Pelosi concluded. “Jim’s extraordinary life will always serve as a beacon of hope and promise for LGBTQ children across our country and around the world.”

Related: Gay former ambassador Rufus Gifford tapped by Biden for State Department

The LGBTQ Victory Institute, the national organization dedicated to increasing the number of LGBTQ leaders in public service, also mourned Hormel’s passing. Hormel was inducted into the institute’s LGBTQ Victory Hall of Fame in May for his contributions to advancing LGBTQ equality through public service. 

“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,” Annise Parker, the president and CEO and LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement. “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.”

“Jim Hormel was a giant in the movement for LGBTQ+ equality,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement. “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,” David continued. “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.”

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