LGBTQ: Talking with the nation's first openly gay ambassador
The nation's first openly gay ambassador, appointed in 1999 by President Clinton, Hormel faced down the right-wing political machine when stigmas on gay men were several times more potent to a reputation than they are today.
LGBTQ: Talking with the nation’s first openly gay ambassador
James Hormel is of a rare breed in the gay community: he’s determined, he’s experienced and he’s an ardent activist over the age of 70. The nation’s first openly gay ambassador, appointed in 1999 by President Clinton, Hormel faced down the right-wing political machine when stigmas on gay men were several times more potent to a reputation than they are today. Hormel, of course, lives to tell the tale some 13 years later in his new book, Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador (Skyhorse, Nov. 15), a reflection on his contentious public battle in the process of being appointed ambassador.
Hormel will appear today at local gay-lit hotspot Giovanni’s Room to promote his book. And judging by his apparent continued perseverance as an advocate of equality, as well as philanthropy on the whole, this elder is one that is still going strong.
City Paper: It’s been a long time since 1997 — what was the inspiration to write the book now rather than, say, ten years ago?
James Hormel: Well, I suppose in some sense I should have done it ten years ago when the material was fresher; it took me a while to assemble my thoughts about what I wanted to write. It also took me awhile to realize that I needed assistance, so I talked to my friend Erin, a former journalist, and we decided to work on it together… I guess that was more than five years ago. It was a period of gestation. I also didn’t have a journal [of the events], so we had to interview a lot of people.
CP: You took on political office as a gay man at a time when supporters were probably a little harder to come by. What advice would you give a gay person with political aspirations, and would you say there should be an orchestrated “process” of coming out, or should they go in with a “take it or leave it” attitude?
Hormel: It’s interesting, because times have changed a great deal. Just within my lifetime, I remember as an adult when the first state decriminalized homosexual acts in 1960 or so… conditions have changed. Also, more people have been willing to come out, and so the general public, I think, knows people who are gay, where as they really didn’t fifty years ago. There was a survey done in the mid-’70s that indicated only 57 percent of the population thought they knew someone who was gay. Then there’s all the other visibility through television and the entertainment industry, which is very funny, because the entertainment industry itself is probably one of the most homophobic environments around. But what comes out is a lot of positive exposure for the LGBTQ constituency.
CP: Do you think depictions of LGBTQ people in the entertainment world are fair and accurate?
Hormel: Well, not completely, but it certainly is better than it used to be. There’s the portrayal of gay people, at its best in the old days, as a joke. They were tragic figures who committed suicide after living a horrible life. I think of the film The Children’s Hour as an example, a very depressing film.
CP: It’s sort of funny that it works out that a lot of actors and musicians who are gay have a rough time, yet the entertainment itself almost enjoys and markets to gay men and women.
Hormel: I think that the homophobia is, to a certain extent, self-inflicted. People are afraid they won’t find roles for themselves and yet, when people do come out in the industry, it hasn’t always affected them. In some cases, it even increases their appeal. You look at Ricky Martin who has turned up on Broadway, which he may not have done had he continued as a “rock star.” But in entertainment and politics I still think it is still a big challenge to come out.
CP: Do you think that, being the first gay U.S. ambassador, it paved the way for current gay politicians in positions of power?
Hormel: I think it did do a couple of things and that it did pave the way… it changed regulations within the State department while I was ambassador. Madeleine Albright created new regulations that made provisions for domestic partners to be overseen in ways that they hadn’t been able to do before. And since then, there have been further changes under Secretary Clinton. I think it has made a difference beyond just the appointment itself.
CP: Had you been put up for a vote in front of the senate thirteen years ago, do you think they would have confirmed you?
Hormel: We counted heads very carefully, and we counted 58 or 59 supportive votes; unfortunately we never could count the sixtieth one which would have broken a filibuster.
CP: I read an article from The Christian Post recently that quoted your comments on Herman Cain, who said homosexuality is a choice. They essentially “affirmed” that your comments on being born gay are false. What does it feel like to know these naysayers are still up to the same old tricks?
Hormel: [Laughs] Well, I think that what you’re referring to also says that I refer to Herman Cain in the book, which I do not… But that’s what they do, it’s their choice. It infuriates me, because it’s such a cavalier treatment of something that is not a choice. I can tell you, for example, that I’m left-handed. I didn’t choose to be left-handed — that’s just the way I am. I have the exact same sense of my sexuality.
CP: Being the first gay ambassador is certainly what you’re most popularly known for, but do you consider that the high point in your career?
Hormel: At the very moment that I was sworn in it certainly was. [Laughs] There are moments that pass, and then life goes on. It was a lovely experience, but it was also an opportunity to allow people to be educated about who we are and how we are a part of the everyday fabric of our society. The title of the book, incidentally, is taken from the fact that somebody questioned my competence on the job, and that question never actually came up – it was all about my sexuality.
CP: Looking back on that time now, is there anything you would do differently?
Hormel: Well, I guess I would have kept better journals. [Laughs] I don’t think so; I don’t think there’s much I could have done that I didn’t do that would have altered the process. Looking back on life, there are a lot of things I could view as mistakes, but I wouldn’t change much because it’s what got me where I am today.
CP: How do you feel about how the LGBTQ movement has evolved in the past 10 years or so?
Hormel: What’s fascinating to me is that, 30 years ago, the movement was just beginning to form into something that was cohesive. And then along came HIV/AIDS, and within a decade, wiped out many of those people who would have been our leaders. It was tragic, it was devastating; anyone who is under 40 probably doesn’t realize the extent to which this constituency was scarred. What’s fascinating to me today is that we’re back to where we’re building a sense of a unified mission and message — it’s exciting. The new generation I think is more aware of gay people as people, and that will be reflected in changes and attitude.
CP: You mentioned Secretary Clinton earlier, have you maintained any kind of relationship with the Clintons since leaving your post?
Hormel: They’re busy doing things and I’m busy doing things, so the answer is no… but we’ve seen each other. And as far as I know, I have their support, and they have mine. I’ve admired both President Clinton and Secretary Clinton not just for their confidence, intelligence and sensibility, but for their sensitivity to American traditions, advancing public interest; I have great admiration for both of them.
CP: Have you spent much time in Philadelphia?
Hormel: I went to Swarthmore College, so that was my first experience with Philly. I’ve been here a few times over the years, frequently enough to have a sense that Philadelphia is welcoming to the LGBT community. Also, historically, Philadelphia has pioneered efforts to get points of view altered.
CP: What are some of your favorite recreational things to do in your spare time?
Hormel: I’ve gone back to books; I’m especially attracted to non-fiction… I used to play tennis, and I haven’t done that for a while, but at the same time my physical capacity is less than I’d like it to be. I think I might be a little disappointed with my game. [Laughs] But I still think of myself as 35.
CP: What can attendees look forward to at the book signing on Saturday?
Hormel: Well that’s up to them! What I love to do is Q&A — I might read a passage from the book and talk about my experience, but I’d like them to raise questions and comments.
Sat., Dec. 3, 5:30 p.m., Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St., 215-923-2960, www.giovannisroom.com.
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