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

Our Man in Bermuda

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

Our Man in Bermuda

Article excerpt

Five years before the James Hormel debate, gay Democratic fund-raiser Robert Farmer served in the diplomatic corps

During the nearly two-year battle over the nomination of James Hormel as U.S. envoy to Luxembourg, right-wing critics argued that confirmation would set a bad example in his destination country, which is heavily Catholic. President Clinton appointed Hormel during a congressional recess in June, but only after the former law school dean promised GOP senators that he and his partner, Timothy Wu, would not become a poster couple for gay rights in the grand duchy.

But Hormel, now barred by the State Department from discussing matters related to being the nation's first openly gay ambassador, is not the only gay man to serve in a high-level diplomatic function in the Clinton administration. From 1994 to 1999 veteran Democratic fund-raiser Robert A. Farmer was U.S. consul general to Bermuda, where he was often accompanied by his partner, Craig Smallwood.

"I told Jim, `I'd be happy to testify on your behalf as someone who has already had the experience,'" Farmer says. "In the end it wasn't necessary. But I would have told the senators that serving your country as a gay person is not a problem at all. Once people get to know who you are and that you are doing a good job, they don't care about your sexual orientation. And that's why the Hormel nomination fight ultimately backfired on the GOP."

In an interview with The Advocate at his Miami Beach, Fla., penthouse, which is filled with political mementos, Farmer, 61, agreed to speak for the first time about his experience as a gay man--not only in his Bermuda post but as one of the top Democratic fund-raisers ever. Farmer's political credentials are impressive: He has served as treasurer on five presidential campaigns and is still sought after for his fund-raising skills. Farmer was also treasurer for the Democratic National Committee, a position now held by openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias. With his imposing presence and shock of graying hair, Farmer looks the part of the consummate insider that he is.

Farmer earned his Bermuda honor through yeoman service to Bill Clinton. He joined the president, Hillary Clinton, and Bruce Lindsey in incorporating the Clinton presidential campaign in 1991, serving as its national treasurer. Shortly after the 1992 election, Farmer met with Clinton, who would soon become a golfing partner, in Little Rock, Ark.; they had a conversation there and in the Oval Office several months later about a possible appointment to a highlevel Administration title. Farmer warned Clinton, who knew Farmer is gay, of the vehement opposition that would greet his nomination.

"I told Clinton that I was interested in government service but didn't want to have him expend valuable political capital on a bloody confirmation battle," Farmer recalls. "I told him that I was not ready to put my family through that hell either."

Two years later Clinton appointed Farmer to the plum Bermuda assignment, which required the lower-profile confirmation from the Senate. In that process Farmer somehow escaped the wrath of Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has bedeviled many Clinton appointments.

During his service in Bermuda, Farmer used discretion in determining whether to take his partner to events. "Generally I was open, and Craig was with me at a lot of functions, but there were occasions [at which] I was on official business, so I would go with myself or with a female friend so as not to create an awkward situation for my host country," Farmer says. "You have to remember that you are representing your country, and that comes before all else."

Farmer's five-year stint was well received by the small British colony in the middle of the Atlantic. He is credited with improving the American consul general office's relations with Bermuda's 67,000 residents. …

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