In New Memoir, James Hormel '55 Reflects on Effort to Become First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador

Alisa Giardinelli

In New Memoir, James Hormel '55 Reflects on
Effort to Become First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador

by Alisa Giardinelli
11/30/11

James Hormel '55

In Fit to Serve, James Hormel '55 shares reflections on a secret life, private struggle, and public battle to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador.

In a new memoir, philanthropist and human rights activist James Hormel '55 reflects on his effort to become the country's first openly gay ambassador.

"When you write something down, there it is, recorded forever," Hormel recently told the Austin Daily Herald. "It took me a long time and required a willingness on my part to be more open about myself than I had ever been in a public way. That was challenging."

Listen to Hormel discuss his journey on Minnesota Public Radio.

Hormel transferred to Swarthmore as a sophomore and majored in history with a concentration in politics and world affairs. Following graduation, he earned a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and clerked at the Illinois Appellate Court. In 1961, Hormel returned to the University of Chicago Law School, as assistant dean and then dean of students. But his life took a major turn after he came out a few years later.

Hormel's ensuing decades of activism, with a particular focus on LGBT issues, include his work in helping to found the Human Rights Campaign, the largest political advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights in the United States. He also established, at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, which contains the largest collection of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered literature in the world.

In 1997, President Clinton nominated Hormel to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. A two-year confirmation process followed which, while ultimately successful, proved especially grueling as he and the Clinton administration confronted a barrage of prejudice and homophobia in the Senate.

Upon receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from the College in 2009, Hormel encouraged the assembled graduates to "always remember that nothing in life appreciates in value quite like your Swarthmore education." In his address, he also urged: "The strongest advice I can offer anyone is to come out, and I don't mean from the closet, although for some of you perhaps it is what I mean. More broadly, I urge you to follow your dreams and desires, instead of following the crowd."