James C. Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, died on Friday, August 13. Former director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project Matt Coles reflected on the long friendship between Hormel and the ACLU.
Jim Hormel - the grandson of the Hormel Foods founder - was a fine human being. In a lot of circles, Jim was known as a philanthropist identified with LGBTQ causes. That was true enough, but he was so much more than that. Jim could have given a fraction of what he did and he’d still have been a very generous supporter of human rights; that and one of the most important supporters of LGBTQ work of all time. He could have concentrated his generosity on LGBTQ issues and still have been an extraordinary supporter of liberty; but he had a much broader vision. He could have just given money and counted it as more than enough; but he did the hands-on work as well.
Take his support of LGBTQ work. At a time when the LGBTQ community had nothing — no federal discrimination protection, protection in one (count it) state, and virtually no relationship protection anywhere — Jim, along with the late Brooks McCormick, gave the ACLU the money to start what is now the LGBTQ & HIV Project. He kept supporting it, year after year — and not just with cash. He held fundraisers at his home. He personally introduced it to other people who might want to help. Look at almost every major LGBTQ group in the Unites States over the last 40 years and you’ll find Jim Hormel was a major supporter, often one of the first. That early support was crucial to the survival of so many groups that made a difference.
Jim wasn’t narrow in his support of civil and human rights. He wholeheartedly supported all of the ACLU’s work (even the work he disagreed with). He was an early major supporter of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the San Francisco Public Library, People for the American Way, broadly of education, and gave generously and strategically to many, many progressive political candidates throughout the nation.
Jim didn’t just give; he worked. The first time I met Jim was when we were both getting trained to walk precincts to try to convince the voters of San Francisco not to repeal the city’s newly passed domestic partnership law. We lost that election, but Jim was a force in making sure it was a temporary loss. When President Bill Clinton nominated Jim to be ambassador to Luxembourg, Jim was subjected to a torrent of vicious abuse. He put up with it for over two years. When he shared some of the harassment he was enduring with me, I asked why he didn’t just walk away.
“You’ve done your part,” I said. He looked at me with astonishment. “I can’t stop now,” he said. “That would set us further back than when we started.” Jim didn’t need the ambassadorship for validation; he certainly didn’t need it to get a trip to Europe. Jim did it to show that we are worthy, we are all worthy, to serve our country.
Jim was a smart lawyer with an incisive mind and so much LGBTQ work was and is the better for the way he brought it to bear. I always enjoyed talking with Jim, but I also always knew I had to be on my toes. Sooner or later, even running into him on the 38 bus in San Francisco, I’d get tough questions about just how we were going to get equality for LGBTQ people and ideas about ways we could do it better. I always came away from those conversations with ideas about how to do just that. (Yes, he rode the bus; he flew coach on planes as well. I once ran into him on a plane to JFK; he asked me to join him on the trip into town. “Oh boy,” I thought, “A Towncar.” No such luck; he joined me on the AirTrain and the number 7 into the city).
Don’t get the wrong impression though; if the questions were tough, they always came in a spirit of collaboration. We were in this together. He was unfailingly kind to everyone he dealt with and his empathy was limitless. But he also had a wicked sense of humor that was truly disarming. You can tell a lot about a person who runs a business by the atmosphere in their workplace. The people who worked for Jim seemed to absolutely adore him.
It’s a great mistake to think those of earlier generations were better than the people of today. Still, in this case I think it’s fair to say we won’t see Jim Hormel’s like again. Goodbye Jim. I am so very glad I knew you.