James Hormel’s motivating factor to be appointed as ambassador to Luxembourg was his sexual orientation. He became the first openly gay ambassador in 1999 after enduring a process he called “agonizing.”
In his book, “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador,” Hormel chronicles his experiences as a father and husband and his years spent in the closet before finally coming out and the life of politics that followed.
Hormel sat down with Roll Call to discuss his book and the importance of coming out.
Q: How would you compare the atmosphere in Washington now to when you were being appointed?
A: Well, some of the people are still around. Between 1960 and 1970, being openly gay in Washington was really a political disaster. Now I think that it may still be that way in Washington. I don’t mean Washington the community, I mean Washington the Congress. There may still be Members of Congress who think they don’t represent gay people. The fact is openly gay Members of Congress are being elected, and this is novel.
Q: In your process of coming out, did you hope to inspire change in Members of Congress and break down stereotypes?
A: I would say more than that. It was the motivating factor for me to do what I was doing. There were other opportunities for me to serve, and I really sought one that would require Senate confirmation and force Members of the Senate to take a look at their prejudices — that was very important to me. I didn’t have a job to lose. I could be a little more free about my sexuality. It was not just an act of liberation for me. It was a political act, a political statement.
Q: What do you hope to convey in your book?
A: I thought that it was very important to see that there was damage and that I survived those circumstances and grew from them and learned from them and discovered that there was a vast generation of people out there who shared my views. Every time I was at the State Department during the process before I was appointed, someone would track me down, somebody would come up to me and say, ‘I can’t tell you how much what you are doing means to gay foreign service officers.’ When I heard that, I couldn’t even think about, ‘Well, I don’t have to do this.’
Q: What legislation would you like to see pass for the LGBT community?
A: The fact is that, well, the LGBT community is a group of second-class citizens as long as we don’t have marriage equality, as long as we don’t have protections from discrimination in our jobs and in our homes. There has been a nondiscrimination bill in the Congress for a whole generation now — it hasn’t moved. Congress doesn’t like to move on these things.
Q: What could help move something like that through Congress?
A: One of the things I focus on in the book is [the act of] coming out. I really do feel that the process of coming out is extremely important.
I don’t want to make a disclosure here because this person is still around, but there was a very popular Member of the U.S. Senate who held a variety of other political posts in his home state and was a real leader in education as well as in politics. If he had been out, I think that would have made a huge difference. But he wasn’t. The more we see of people like [Reps.] Tammy Baldwin or Jared Polis, the more we will be inclined to discard notions of sexual orientation that are based on fiction and not fact.