May 22, 2013
This Gay Man Represented the President
Posted on Feb 17, 2012
By Mel White
“Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle
James C. Hormel’s transformation from a confused and closeted gay kid to the nation’s first openly gay ambassador, chronicled in his memoir “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay Ambassador,” co-written with Erin Martin, is a fascinating journey into the world of privilege, politics and power. His memoir is intimate, explicit and revealing as it takes us below the surface to reveal his secret life and his public battle.
Andrew Holleran, in Harvard’s Gay and Lesbian Review, writes, “Biographies are like mummies: In exchange for permanence, the vital fluids are removed.” Fortunately, Hormel does not drain the vital fluids from “Fit to Serve.”
Hormel, an heir to the Hormel Foods fortune, may have been a child of privilege but the secret life he experienced as a young gay man is exactly like the secret life experienced by almost all young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people who are born into a world that neither understands nor accepts them.
Those adults who haven’t yet come to terms with their sexual orientation will see their own private struggle mirrored in Hormel’s life as a closeted gay husband, father and lawyer with political aspirations whose desire for same-sex intimacy threatened to destroy everything he held dear.
Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador
By James C. Hormel (Author), Erin Martin (Author)
Skyhorse Publishing, 320 pages
And Hormel’s public battle to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg reveals the vicious tactics of the religious right in its ongoing war against homosexuality and homosexuals.
During Hormel’s childhood in Austin, Minn., he remembers feeling “different” from the other kids. And it wasn’t just that he was the son of Jay C. Hormel, president of Hormel Foods, or that he lived in a mansion surrounded by servants and bodyguards. “I was different for some other reason,” he writes. “As a kid I didn’t have any way of identifying the feeling and later, as a teenager, when I began to understand my ‘otherness,’ I worked very hard to avoid it. And deny it.”
During his early adolescent years at the Asheville School for Boys, Hormel remembers wanting desperately to be liked. In spite of his valiant attempts to be the best little boy in the world, he spent those formative years feeling like an outcast, never fitting in, wondering “if something was wrong with me.”
When a fellow student “cozied up” to him during a camping trip in the mountains, Hormel was “curiously excited” by the encounter but when he saw the boy the next day in class, “he would not acknowledge me.” Hormel cared more about those occasional “cozy” encounters than the other boys and he felt even more isolated and alone when “his own kind” rejected him.
Hormel flunked his first year at Princeton (an exclusive men’s college at the time). “My hormones guided me away from my studies and toward other boys,” he writes. “It is already hard for a horny teenager to focus on school, but finding that your attraction is against the rules of society adds a whole new dimension of distraction. As my sexuality bloomed, so did my feelings of insecurity and confusion.”
As an adult, Hormel writes: “I had a seething cauldron of sexual energy inside me and couldn’t keep a lid on it.” He paints a vivid picture of the double life he felt forced to live in the early 1960s. On the one hand he had a “picture perfect” married life in Chicago. He was a loving husband to his college sweetheart, a doting father to four children and a successful lawyer who was already being considered as a Republican congressional candidate. He also knew “almost instinctively” which city he could visit to find some kind of furtive sexual relief, which bar or beach or truck stop he could drop by for one of his infrequent but irresistible encounters with men.
“In those days,” Hormel admits, “I might have joked about faggots, or imitated a lisping, limp-wristed fellow to get a few laughs, while going out that same evening to seek an assignation with another man.” He describes the “adrenaline rush” he experienced when he knew that he was “breaking society’s mores,” at the same time living “in constant fear of discovery.”
The idea of “coming out” and dealing with the consequences was unthinkable. “No, no, I can’t do this,” he remembers saying to himself. “I cannot risk ruining my life or humiliating my entire family.” And yet as time passed Hormel became less and less able to ignore or sublimate his growing need for same-sex intimacy.
“There was no frame of reference to help me figure out what was going on inside my head and my body,” Hormel writes. “There were no resources, no role models. Even Truman Capote, as openly gay as he seemed, always appeared in public with a woman on his arm.” Eventually, Hormel’s conflict became unbearable.
Hormel’s ambivalence and anguish were not the result of cowardice or weakness. In the 1960s homosexuality was still a crime (in every state), a “sin” (in the eyes of Catholic and Protestant clergy) and a “sickness” (in the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”). Mental and physical health professionals were prescribing drug regimens, various aversive therapies and even electric shock to help their patients overcome this “psychological illness,” and “official Washington actively hunted down and fired gay and lesbian civil servants,” Hormel remembers.
Although he lost his marriage and his chance to run for Congress, Hormel finally ended those years of ambivalence and guilt. But it wasn’t science or history or the American Psychiatric Association that led to his self-acceptance. It was falling in love with a man, discovering a new family in the gay community and becoming an activist in the gay struggle for civil rights.
As a fledgling gay activist, Hormel found himself on the front lines of the war being waged against LGBT people by the religious right. It was a battleground where his inherited wealth, which had embarrassed him early in life, was badly needed.
When Hormel realized that his money could be used “to touch people on a broad scale,” he began his public battle to win justice and equality for his LGBT sisters and brothers in the U.S. and abroad. The climax of that struggle was the fierce seven-year battle to become America’s first openly gay ambassador.
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