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James C. Hormel, first openly gay U.S. ambassador, dies at 88

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  • James Hormel
    American philanthropist
  • George A. Hormel
    American businessman
  • Bill Clinton
    Bill Clinton
    42nd president of the United States

James C. Hormel, the United States' first openly gay ambassador who was appointed to Luxembourg by former President Bill Clinton, died Friday in San Francisco at 88.

The philanthropist and AIDS activist died with his husband by his side and "listening to his favorite Beethoven concerto," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Hormel was first nominated to ambassadorship by Clinton in 1997, but Senate Republicans blocked the nomination.

“We had the votes, and we tried to get a vote for two years,” he told The Daily Beast in August 2020. "But Trent Lott, then the Senate majority leader, wouldn’t bring it up, he absolutely refused."

Clinton re-nominated Hormel in 1999. He was granted a recess appointment as Ambassador to Luxembourg in June of that year, according to the State Department, and served in the role for nearly two years.

"The ultimate reason that I decided to go through what I went through is that it required Senate confirmation to send me out as a personal representative of the president,” Hormel told The Chronicle in April.

His perseverance against homophobic attacks and advocacy for LGBTQ rights inspired a generation of young gay people, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Hormel was confirmed when Buttigieg was 17.

“I can remember watching the news… (and) seeing a story about an appointee of President Clinton named to be an ambassador attacked and denied a vote in the Senate because he was gay – ultimately able to serve only by a recess appointment,” Buttigieg said when he accepted President Joe Biden's nomination for Transportation Secretary. “And I learned something about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong. But just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged."

Homophobic attacks at home that led to “moments of depression and more moments of anger" were missing from his working relationship with a foreign country, Hormel told The Daily Beast.

"It was helpful to me because when I arrived in Luxembourg, the government was very sympathetic and really went out of their way to work with me. We had an excellent relationship," he said.

Prior to his ambassadorship, Hormel represented the U.S. in various capacities at United Nations conferences in the 1990s. He also participated in the President's Conference on the Pacific Rim in 1995.

Hormel was born in 1933 in Austin, Minnesota, the grandson of Hormel Foods founder George A. Hormel. He had five children with ex-wife, Alice McElroy Parker, whom he met while attending Swarthmore College. The couple divorced in 1965, The Chronicle reported.

Hormel earned a J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School. He later served as Assistant Dean and Dean of Students and established the James C. Hormel Public Service Program in 1986 to attract law students to public service.

The former ambassador had lived in San Francisco since 1977, according to The Chronicle. He was elected to the Board of Trustees of the World Affairs Council of Northern California in 1999.

Hormel also devoted his life to LGBTQ causes and developing resources for those affected by the AIDS virus. A founder of LGBTQ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign, Hormel worked on behalf of several local and national AIDS awareness groups, according to a press release from the organization.

Elected officials, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, remembered Hormel in statements Friday.

"San Francisco lost a great friend today. A philanthropist, civil rights pioneer and loving spouse and father, James Hormel lived an extraordinary life and will be deeply missed by many," Feinstein posted to Twitter.

"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," Breed said, according to online publication SF Gate.

“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,” the Clintons said in a joint statement, according to The Chronicle.

The paper reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. also remembered Hormel's contributions to the community.

“When the AIDS epidemic descended upon San Francisco, he called on our conscience and rallied the city to help our neighbors suffering from the ferocious disease.” she said. “His work served as a model for national policy to defeat HIV/AIDS and improve the lives of all affected.”

Hormel is survived by his husband, Michael P.N. Araque Hormel; children Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, Jimmy, and Sarah, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Reach Chelsey Cox on Twitter @therealco.

FILE--James Hormel is seen on a patio outside his office in San Francisco's financial district, in this March 15, 1999 file photo.  Bypassing Senate confirmation, President Clinton moved Friday, June 4, 1999, to directly install Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg.  The president invoked a provision of the Constitution allowing him to make such appointments during a congressional recess.  Hormel, who will become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, can serve in the diplomatic post through the current session of Congress. (AP Photo/Randi Lynn Beach) ORG XMIT: NY127
FILE--James Hormel is seen on a patio outside his office in San Francisco's financial district, in this March 15, 1999 file photo. Bypassing Senate confirmation, President Clinton moved Friday, June 4, 1999, to directly install Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. The president invoked a provision of the Constitution allowing him to make such appointments during a congressional recess. Hormel, who will become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, can serve in the diplomatic post through the current session of Congress. (AP Photo/Randi Lynn Beach) ORG XMIT: NY127

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: James Hormel, first openly gay U.S. ambassador, dies at 88

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