Remembering James Hormel

SF activist, philanthropist was first openly gay U.S. ambassador

By Olivia Wynkoop

Bay City News Foundation

Friends and leaders across the country are fondly remembering San Francisco philanthropist and diplomat James C. Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador who used his fortune from the family food business to better the world.

Hormel, who was 88, died peacefully on Aug. 13, his family said.

Driven by a passion for social justice, Hormel served as ambassador in Luxembourg from 1999 to 2001 after being nominated, amid controversy, by President Bill Clinton. He attended the 51st United Nations Human Rights Commission in 1995 and was the alternate representative of the U.S. delegation to the 51st United Nations General Assembly.

“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,” said President Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton in a joint statement. “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.”

His path to his success in public service was met with obstacles as an openly gay man; his nomination for ambassador sparked defamatory news coverage and rejection from an assortment of Republican senators.

“The magnitude of this appointment was extraordinary. Through his ambassadorship, James showed the country — and the world — that American diplomatic roles would be determined by demonstrated leadership and merit, not by how or who you loved,” the family wrote in a news release.

“Jim Hormel made history as the first openly gay U.S. 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,” said Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. “With his gentle yet powerful voice and undaunted determination, Jim made it his mission to fight for dignity and equality for all.”

In 2016, when the Commonwealth Club awarded Hormel its first Champion of Civil Rights & Social Justice honor, one among seemingly countless accolades he earned over the decades (including Silver Spur Award for Civic Leadership from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Campaign in 2001), the human rights pioneer said with a chuckle, “Each has its own particular significance at the time it’s given.”

The diplomatic response was characteristic of the heir to a family fortune (Hormel Foods) who never stopped using 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.

Hormel was a board member for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, a co-founder for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and founding director of the City Club of San Francisco. His ongoing contributions to The City’s LGBTQ community ranged 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 was particularly proud.

“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,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “James Hormel cared deeply about supporting the community here in San Francisco, not only to advance the rights of LGBTQ people, but also to make a stronger and more welcoming city for all.”

In 2011, he published his autobiography, “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador,” co-authored with Erin Martin.

Hormel is survived by five children, 14 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and his husband, Michael Araque Hormel.

— Bay City News

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