James C. Hormel, First Out Gay US Ambassador, Dies at 88

Former ambassador James C. Hormel sits at his desk in this 2011 photo.
Rick Gerharter

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

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 Hormel that he seek a presidential appointment as an ambassador.

“I was quite surprised when he brought up the idea,” said Hormel, noting that over 60 percent 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, Hormel recalled.

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

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 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 Bill 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.”

Tributes also came in from many others.

“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,” stated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Jim Hormel made history as the first openly gay US 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 of San Francisco knew Hormel for years.

“We all knew Jim as a distinguished and groundbreaking US 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.”

US Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said 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.

Many honors

Hormel was often recognized over the years. In 2010, he was the lifetime achievement grand marshal for the San Francisco Pride March. He was a San Francisco Pride March community grand marshal in 2005.

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

Hormel said initially the event was meant to demonstrate LGBTQ 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 Hormel.

In an effort to promote LGBTQ rights, 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, Hormel helped pave the way for the LGBTQ+ community by serving as the first openly gay ambassador representing the US and enduring a harsh and homophobic confirmation process in the US Senate,” California Governor Gavin Newsom stated. “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.”

For many years, 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.”

In 2016, 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.”

Hormel had been very open about his private life over the years, including early struggles with coming to terms with his sexual orientation. 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, 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,” 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.”

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.

Hormel and Turner remained close friends even after their divorce in 1965, the obituary stated. During 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 Hormel’s role as an ambassador for the US, he served in a variety of other public service capacities, the obituary stated. He was alternate representative of the US delegation to the 51st United Nations General Assembly in 1996. He was also a member of the US 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.

Hormel was born January 1, 1933, and an heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune. He was previously married to Alice Turner before he came out as a gay man. He had five children with Turner, many grandchildren.

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, Hormel served as dean of students and the director of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School.

This story first appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.