Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

Memoir by James Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador

Fit To Serve

Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador

by James C. Hormel and Erin Martin

Published by 

Published November 15, 2011
History (memoir)
320 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

June 24, 2017

Having grown up 60 miles west of where James C. Hormel did 1 and eventually settled in San Francisco a few years after he had (in1978 in contrast to 1976), I had a special interest in Hormel’s memoir, Fit to Serve.

 In 1997, when Bill Clinton nominated Hormel to be U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, after having been a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. and a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Christian Right went into calumny mode (or, since it is always there, turned its leering distortion guns on Hormel).

The book begins with Pat Robertson claiming that Hormel was anti-Catholic (for having laughed on camera at the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at a San Francisco Pride Parade) and promoted child sex-abuse because the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library collection included material, none of it selected by Hormel, that Christofascists thought should be illegal.

There is more than a little irony in Robertson complaining anyone else is anti-Catholic, given some of the things he had said denigrating Catholics. Moreover, Luxembourg had laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and had approved Hormel’s appointment

Three Christofascist senators, Tim Hutchinson (R-AR), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Bob Smith (R-NH) placed a hold on voting on Hormel’s nomination. Though Inhofe’s staff notoriously crashed the office computer system downloading pornography, he is, alas, still in office taking stupid positions. Hutchinson was revealed to be having an affair with a staffer and was the only Republican senator running who was not re-elected in 2002. Smith was defeated in the 2000 primary. Like Inhofe, Pat Robertson is still around spreading disinformation. I was interested that two Mormon Republican senators, Orrin Hatch and Gordon H. Smith (OR), supported Hormel’s nomination, (UT).

Hormel’s grandfather had founded the company bearing the family name (though the company advertising shifted the accent to the second syllable) in 1891. Austin was not quite a “company town,” but the Hormel meat-packing plant was the biggest business there, and the future ambassador grew up in a house with 26 bedrooms on a 200-acre property at the edge of town. His parents spent little time with him and his two older brothers, though he does not criticize their hands-off child-rearing. It was a surprise when five cousins from the UK and France arrived, evacuated from WWII, but he remembers being delighted to have more playmates in residence (though the British nanny was soon sent packing).

After flunking out of Princeton at the age of 17, he prospered at the smaller Swarthmore (BA in history, 1955) and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago (1958), where he later served as Dean of Students and Director of Admissions.

Striving to be “normal” (not just to appear so), he had married in 1955 and sired five children in less than a decade. Dissatisfied with living a double life, and frustrating his wife by his remoteness, he threw himself into antiwar and pro-civil rights activism, moving to New York after Alice divorced him (she remarried in 1965). He tried life on the Hawaiian garden island of Kauai before finding home in San Francisco.

He wrote:

I couldn’t put my finger on any certain moment of epiphany, but I knew that from my very first moment of sexual awareness, I was attracted to to other boys. The feeling was deeply embedded, not generated by choice, or prurient interest, or a desire to experiment. Homosexuality, this supposed mental illness, had something to do with my inner spirit, my soul, the person I really was. That realization did not come to me overnight. I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly feel free—it took me awhile to recognize myself. I had spent decades living inside a shell of my own making and it was hard to break through…. When you have spent your entire life denying your own worth, it takes some time to abandon the patterns of self-denigration and loathing, and acknowledge that maybe you are just fine as you are.

He readily acknowledges that he did not face the potential costs of losing a job or housing for coming out. He was, nonetheless, relieved by the immediate acceptance from his brothers, one of whom remarked that he wondered when Jim was going to tell him. He seems to have good relationships with his children. All five of them and their mother and stepfather turned up for his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft voted against it, btw.)

He gave time as well as money to San Francisco Democratic politicians, including working with Nancy Pelosi on the host committee for the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco. Though he seems to have been to the left of David Goodstein, publisher of The Advocate (and magnate behind The Advocate Experience, which seems to have helped Hormel accept himself), he supported New Democrat Bill Clinton rather than California governor Jerry Brown in 1988 and outraged many supporters of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt in supporting gay-supportive but straight Nancy Pelosi to Congress in 2002. In both cases he lauds the pragmatism of the candidates he supported.

I think that Jerry Brown would have been a better president than Bill Clinton was and would not have signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as Clinton did (much to Hormel’s chagrin). He might have handled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” better, too. Though I can’t see Britt having become Speaker of the House, as Pelosi did, as supervisor he put together coalitions and got things done, which Hormel does not mention. Nor does he mention that Britt would have been the first openly gay person elected to Congress (whoever won the Democratic primary was certain to win the general election for the district), a distinction like the one of being first openly gay U.S. ambassador that Hormel sought.

I found his candid recollections of the pains of the closet and guilt towards his wife compelling (as in Coming Out Twice), along with the candid recollections of growing up rich and making it through the vituperative fag-baiting campaign against his nomination to be ambassador. 2 The parts about his life between Chicago and San Francisco seem more dutiful than enlightening.

Hormel was an early financial supporter of the STOPAIDS, the Shanti Project, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in San Francisco, as well as the primary donor to the LGBT San Francisco Library center that was named for him, a cofounder of the national Human Rights Campaign, etc. He wed Swarthmore alumnus Michael Nguyen in 2006.

Though I enjoyed the conversational style of the book (co-written by Erin Martin) and certainly believe its emotional truth (especially about the stress of the closet and the stress of being demonized by Christofascists), there were a few factual matters I noticed were wrong:

  1. He lived in the one state where, as of 1962, sodomy was no longer a crime
  2. The riot and police-car burning [The White Night Riots] were after the verdict in the Dan White case, not following his assassination(/coup) of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk
  3. Ronald Reagan condemned Proposition 6 (the/a Briggs Initiative) before the weekend before the 1978 election (he was one of the faces with statements on the flyers I distributed during the month before the election
  4. GRID was never the primary designation of AIDS and quickly disappeared (along with “gay cancer,” which was in wider and longer use).


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


  1. he was the first person born in Austin, Minnesota in 1933
  2. with the support of only 58 senators, he was eventually a recess appointment, a disappointment in that he wanted to be the first openly gay ambassador nominee confirmed by the Senate.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.