James Hormel, the first openly gay US ambassador, dies at 88

James Hormel, the first openly gay ambassador in the US, has died at the age of 88.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hormel died Friday (13 August) at a hospital in San Francisco, California. His husband, Michael P.N. Araque Hormel, was by his side, and he was listening to his favourite Beethoven concerto. He is survived by his husband, five children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

His death was announced by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the LGBT+ rights advocacy group Hormel helped found in the 1980s. Hormel also served on the HRC’s board of directors and received the campaign’s lifetime achievement award in 2001.

James Catherwood Hormel was born in 1933 in Austin, Minnesota. His grandfather had founded the Hormel food company in 1891, and his father was the chief executive. Hormel also served on two separate US delegations to the United Nations before becoming an ambassador and was the dean of students at the University of Chicago Law School.

He eventually moved to San Francisco in 1977.

Hormel was nominated to become the US ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997 by then-president Bill Clinton. But his appointment to the role was blocked due to pushback from Republicans, according to CNN.

The Washington Post reported the Republican senators opposed Hormel for his support of a “gay agenda”. Robert C Smith, a senator for New Hampshire, said it was “not a tolerance issue” but a “matter of advocacy of the gay lifestyle”.

Clinton would go on to appoint him in the role two years later during a congressional recess. Hormel served without incident as an ambassador for Luxembourg from 1999 through 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, written with Erin Martin.

“Ultimately a great deal was achieved,” he added.

He continued: “Ultimately, regulations were changed in the state department. Ultimately, other openly gay individuals were appointed without the rancor that went into my case.”

James C Hormel, the first openly gay US ambassador, discusses his philanthropic ventures in San Francisco, California, on 3 March 2016. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty)

Throughout his life, Hormel contributed to several causes including organisations serving people affected by HIV and AIDS, substance abuse and breast cancer. He also served on the governing board of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and was a founding director of the City Club of San Francisco.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who officiated Hormel’s wedding to his husband, said in a statement that Hormel “made it his mission to fight for dignity and equality for all”. She said Hormel had the “courage to be a pioneer and had the patriotism to accept the challenge” as the first openly gay ambassador.

“Jim’s extraordinary life will always serve as a beacon of hope and promise for LGBTQ children across our country and around the world,” Pelosi said.

Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said they were “deeply saddened” by Hormel’s passing, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. They said: “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.”

California senator Dianne Feinstein said in a statement that “San Francisco lost a great friend” with Hormel’s passing. She described the man as a “philanthropist, civil rights pioneer and loving spouse and father”.

“I will miss his kind heart and generous spirit,” Feinstein said. “It’s those qualities that made him such an inspirational figure and beloved part of our city.”