Commonwealth Club honors gay rights pioneer James C. Hormel

Next week, the Commonwealth Club is giving San Francisco activist and philanthropist James Hormel its first Champion of Civil Rights & Social Justice honor at its 28th Distinguished Citizen Award gala.

It’s just one among seemingly countless honors the human rights pioneer has earned during decades of public work, including serving as the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg (and enduring years of controversy to get the job).

Asked how he keeps track of the accolades, the 83-year-old answers with a chuckle: “Somebody does, and each has its own particular significance at the time it’s given.”

The diplomatic response couldn’t be more characteristic of the heir to a family fortune (Hormel Foods, makers of SPAM) who used his resources to improve the world.

“I was financially secure, I didn’t have to worry about losing a job, or getting kicked out of an apartment. I was in a perfect position to advocate,” he says.

He admits it took a long while to put his reputation on the line, and to realize how being “out” could only be enhancing.

He grew up a child of privilege in Minnesota, in an orderly household, and wasn’t maltreated. “It’s the way things were in the 1940s and 50s. It was against the law to have any sort of homosexual activity in all 50 states,” he says.

“I don’t remember anyone talking about gay people. It was not appropriate to our way of life,” he says. But he adds, “It was not understood that this was not a choice.” It was a position with which he didn’t necessarily disagree at the time.

Even though he struggled with his sexuality in high school and college, he got married and had five children. “I’m grateful for that,” he says.

He says his divorce came about because he wasn’t able to communicate with his wife, with whom he has remained friendly.

And when he came out, at first with his brothers, he found “the sun came up and the eggs were the same as they were the day before.”

Through the years, his journey (which he recounts in the excellent 2011 memoir, “Fit to Serve,” co-written by Erin Martin), took him from Los Angeles (where his grandparents lived), to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to the University of Chicago Law School, and a job as a dean there.

After splitting from his wife, he moved to New York, where his interest in politics began to develop.

But, disillusioned by dissent between gays and lesbians after the brief celebration that was Stonewall, he moved to Hawaii, where he really got in touch with himself — everything from EST to rolfing.

When he came to San Francisco with his then-partner, he immediately got involved in political turmoil over Anita Bryant’s “totally ridiculous” efforts to keep gay people from teaching in public schools.

“So much of this is fortuitous,” he says, describing ongoing contributions to The City’s LGBT community, from the 1970s-era Pride Center on Grove Street, to the James C. Hormel LGBT Center in the San Francisco Public Library, an honor of which he’s particularly proud.

Materials in its collection, however, were part of the years-long controversy that kept him from becoming a U.S. ambassador, an idea that surfaced in 1992.

In the mid- through late 1990s, anti-gay conservatives in Congress spread ugly rumors, calling Hormel a pedophile, in an attempt to prevent his nomination to be ambassador to Luxembourg. (During this time, he served in the U.N Commission on Human Rights and in the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly, becoming acquainted with leaders such as Geraldine Ferraro and Madeleine Albright.)

Finally, in 1999, President Bill Clinton made a recess appointment (which wouldn’t require a full vote from the Senate), and he went on to successful service in Luxembourg.

Sitting on the board of the Commonwealth Club — which he enjoys for its hundreds of yearly programs and events on public policy, foreign affairs, the economy and environment — is among Hormel’s current activities.

In addition to attending the gala dinner, Hormel says he’s looking forward to spending time back East with his five children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Honorees at “Beyond Boundaries,” the Commonwealth Club’s 28th annual Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner. also include

Robyn Denholm

The executive vice president, CFO and COO of Juniper Networks, who serves on the board of Tesla Motors. is being recognized for her leadership in the information technology industry.

Chuck Geschke
Receiving the William K. Bowes Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, the Adobe Systems co-founder and co-chairman is being honored for pioneering work developing digital printing script, revolutionizing the publishing industry and graphic design, and for stewarding a dynamic company for decades.

Elizabeth Holmes
The CEO, founder and chair of lab-testing start-up Theranos is acknowledged for pioneering a concept that could revolutionize the field of medical blood-testing.

Charles Munger Jr.

The physicist and activist, known for backing a moderate platform for the Republican party, is being recognized for his support for good government and his role in working to maintain representative politics.

Commonwealth Club Distinguished Citizen Award Dinner
Where: Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., S.F.
When: 5:30 p.m. (reception), 7 p.m. (dinner) March 16
Tickets: $500 and up
Contact: (415) 597-6737,

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