Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Philanthropist's Trial by Fire

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Philanthropist's Trial by Fire

Article excerpt

Nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg James C. Hormel endures Personal attacks by conservatives

As a visible member of the gay rights movement for more than two decades, James C. Hormel has said, "Define yourself, or risk being defined by others." But during the nearly yearlong battle over his nomination as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, the gay philanthropist frequently has found himself caricatured by his opponents on the religious right, who have variously labeled him antifamily, a North American Man/Boy Love Association supporter, and an anti-Catholic bigot.

Following the protocol for State Department nominees, Hormel has refrained from making on-the-record remarks, putting him in the unfamiliar position of letting others speak on his behalf. "Things are being said about our personal lives that have no basis in fact," says Timothy Wu, Hormel's partner of three years. "It can be very painful because the public may now believe things about Jim that just are not accurate. It's frustrating to lose control over your own reputation. It's frustrating that he cannot respond. But ultimately, we try to remember that what isn't true can't really hurt you."

Indeed, Hormel's nomination has been a uniquely personal ordeal. Hormel's entire life--from his former marriage to his current relationship with Wu--has been opened up to public dissection, all for a largely honorary position in a country that many Americans could not place on a map. Some gay activists worry that gay men and lesbians may shy away from subjecting themselves to such a grueling experience in the future. The process seems to have grown more difficult in the five years since Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian activist and former San Francisco city supervisor, was nominated to serve as assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although Achtenberg was labeled a "damn lesbian" by Sen. Jesse Helms, attacks on her were mild compared to those on Hormel.

"To a certain extent nominations are Russian roulette, and Jim happened to be the one the right wing decided to pick on this time," says David Mixner, a veteran gay activist who has served as an unofficial adviser to the Clinton administration. "But they picked on the wrong person. Throughout this battle Jim has looked like the diplomat he was nominated to become, while his opponents have just looked mean-spirited and narrow-minded." In fact, aside from a handful of conservative politicians and their allies, Hormel's nomination has won support from across the ideological spectrum. Even such conservative stalwarts as George Schultz--Ronald Reagan's secretary of state--and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah have backed Hormel.

The long fight over the nomination may finally be drawing to a close. On July 19 Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) confirmed that he will probably not schedule a vote this year, leaving the nomination in limbo. However, if the Senate does not vote, President Clinton could make a "recess" appointment, allowing Hormel to serve for up to a year without being formally confirmed by the Senate. Clinton has exercised that authority 45 times since taking office.

Hormers supporters took new hope from the 252-176 defeat of an antigay amendment in the House on August 5. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), would have overturned Clinton's executive order extending job protections to gay and lesbian federal workers. Hormel flew to Washington the following day for another round of meetings with senators.

Whatever the outcome of the battle, Hormel's nomination has broken new ground. Americans are now more familiar with Hormel than perhaps any other gay political figure. And Hormel is a gay activist's dream, a gentlemanly multimillionaire, scion of the wealthy meatpacking family, who gives more than one quarter of his annual income to charity. NBC's Today show recently taped a segment that focused on a nonprofit school for autistic children in Charlottesville, Va. …

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