A titan in the San Francisco philanthropy scene and a survivor of vicious homophobic Republican smears in the late 1990s, James Hormel leaves us a legacy that includes the AIDS Memorial Grove and the LGBTQIA center at the library.
When the name James Hormel passes our lips these days, it is typically in reference to the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the SF Public Library, home to many scholarly and not-so-scholarly celebrations of gay history. And while Hormel’s main claim to fame was his serving as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador beginning in 1999, he was also a driving philanthropical force behind the creation of the AIDS Memorial Grove, and a co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign. Hormel passed away Friday morning, at the California Pacific Medical Center on Van Ness Avenue, listening to Beethoven, with husband Michael Nguyen at his side. He was 88.
We are saddened to learn of the death of philanthropist James C. Hormel, founding donor and namesake of the Library’s James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center. Our hearts go out to his family, friends + husband @Michael_Hormel.— SF Public Library (@SFPublicLibrary) August 13, 2021
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Statements are pouring in from across the political spectrum and advocacy organizations. “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,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “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.”
James Hormel, the first out gay person to serve as a US ambassador, has died at age 88 https://t.co/14AB5fQ0lU— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) August 13, 2021
You can say Hormel was a wealthy heir to the Hormel meatpacking fortune, and that would be fair. But that ignores the years of vicious attacks lodged at him by the rabid Republican homophobes of the 1990s, and how Hormel weathered them all to normalize openly LGBTQ people in public service.
Hormel was originally nominated as ambassador to Fiji in 1995 by then-President Clinton. As the New York Times noted then, that nation objected, because at the time, “Fiji penal code make[s] homosexuality completely forbidden. Even an 'attempt' is punishable. The maximum penalty for gay sex is 14 years imprisonment and for 'attempted gay sex,' seven years."
Clinton renominated Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997, and the homophobic attacks hit closer to home. The Washington Post reported in 1998, in reference to lhe SF Library’s Hormel Center, that “Conservatives have copied material on display there that can only be described as pornographic and includes documents from NAMBLA, the notorious pedophilia advocacy group.” (The Post admitted in 2001 that “much of the same material can also be found at the Library of Congress.”) Christian groups went berserk charging that “James Hormel saluted the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco. In 1996, Hormel laughed approvingly as this anti-Catholic group paraded in front of him while he was doing commentary on KOFY TV.”
Clinton bypassed the objections of senators Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, and John Ashcroft by installing Hormel via a recess appointment in 1999. He remained as ambassador until 2001.
I'm forever grateful for the wisdom and guidance that Jim shared with me & @eqca over the past 25 years, and I'm confident that generations of #LGBTQ+ diplomats, advocates & community leaders will benefit from his life’s work. #RestInPower, Ambassador. https://t.co/edrs0lf0G4— Rick Chavez Zbur (@RickChavezZbur) August 13, 2021
Ambassador to Luxembourg is a minor position, to be sure. But Hormel’s impact remains lasting. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a teenager at the time, said of Hormel’s confirmation hearings, “I watched that story, and I learned something about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong. But just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.”
Image: Michael Nguyen