1st gay ambassador remembers Austin

Published 3:53 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2011

James C. Hormel sits in the Hormel Historic Home, the house that once belonged to his grandfather, George A. Hormel, on Saturday afternoon. Hormel stopped in Austin Saturday to sign copies of his new memoir. -- Jason Schoonover/jason.schoonover@austindailyherald.com

Six decades ago, most people in Austin considered James Hormel and his brothers the heirs apparent to one day run Hormel Foods.

The son of the company’s president, Jay C. Hormel, and the company’s founder, George A. Hormel, James Hormel lived in Austin through the eighth grade, before moving to North Carolina to attend a boarding school. After graduating from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1955 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1958, he served as the law school’s dean of students, married Alice Turner and had five children before coming out as a gay man.

He eventually settled in San Francisco, where he works as a philanthropist and gay rights activist. He funded the creation of Jay C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library and was the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Luxemburg from 1999 to 2001.

Email newsletter signup

Now 78, Hormel released his autobiography, “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.” He was in Austin on Saturday to sign copies of his book, and took time to answer some questions from the Austin Daily Herald, including his proudest accomplishments, what is left to accomplish in regards to civil rights, what being openly gay is like for him, what it was like growing up in Austin, and what Dick Knowlton was like as a child.

The following are some of those questions and responses:

Q: You have done a lot of philanthropic work over the years, including funding the creation of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. What do feel are your biggest accomplishments in that area?

A: I would say (the gay and lesbian center) is something I am proud of. At the time that it happened in the early 90s, I had been persuaded that a community center that focused on lesbian and gay constituency at the San Francisco Public Library would be a feasible project. And after many months of consultation and putting together a program, I made what was at that time an enormous financial commitment to establish it. It was the first and as far as I know the only one of its kind. The collection is quite extensive.

Q: You have also been busy in promoting civil rights. What are you most proud of in that area?

A: With respect to civil rights, it’s kind of hard to separate out the ambassadorial process I went through, which was essentially a civil rights process. People were trying to deny me a position based on my sexual orientation and not my capability.

Q: As the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, you said you were met with a lot of resistance from, among others, evangelist Pat Robertson. What was that process like?

A: As I said in my book, speaking specifically of Pat Robertson, what he did was simply outrageous and slanderous and malicious, and I found it greatly offensive, but I’d rather not talk about that because it didn’t mean much in the end.

Q: What do you feel are the some of the biggest obstacles for gay people?

A: What I see in that is the misconceptions that persist around the country that for example, being gay is a choice. One of the candidates for president, Herman Cain, has been saying that recently. It simply is not a choice. Being left-handed is not a choice. There’s really no essential difference about being gay; it’s innate. I think that the idea, the notion that being gay is a choice holds people back from thinking (gay people) are being discriminated against because people think ‘well, they can choose not to be gay.’ I don’t know how to answer that, because it seems so clear to me that I wouldn’t choose to set myself aside in a society that is so relentlessly heterosexual.

Q: How do have you been trying to change people’s perception that being gay is not a choice?

A: One way to change that, as I mentioned in the book, is through coming out. When people are hiding their sexuality —  which really should be nobody’s business, so this is kind of ironic — then no one knows where they are coming from and people will make up stories. The coming out process is essential, and is probably the single most courageous and important act that any gay person can do.

Q: What was it like for you to come out?

A: The best way I can put it is that it’s like having an enormous burden removed, a burden that one has carried around for a very long time. In my case, until I was in my thirties. Having that burden removed is an enormous relief that’s very hard to describe. Sometimes the outcome isn’t wonderful. I met someone right now who had recently come out, he’s 25-years-old, and his family kicked him out of the house. It’s most unfortunate, but it happens. The relieving of the burden may also create some new burdens. The fact is, and (that 25-year-old) will realize, that he hasn’t changed. If they are really loving parents, they will realize that he is the same son they had before he told them. It’s very challenging. In my case, the courage it took me to make the first step was important, but I felt emboldened by the support that I got from my family.

Q: What are the biggest issues facing the gay community?

A: Now we have the issue of marriage equality, and people are saying things that are senseless about the reasons for preventing same-sex couples from getting married. The one that I find most fascinating is (the argument for) the sanctity of marriage. Kim Kardashian can go get married and then divorced and that’s just fine and dandy. But gay couples who have been together for 40 and 50 years are not entitled to those privileges. It doesn’t make any sense. If one really cared about the sanctity of marriage, then they would be trying to abolish divorce. Divorce is the single biggest threat to the sanctity of marriage.

Is marriage about having children? Well, there are certainly people beyond child-bearing age that get married and I don’t know of any state that has fertility tests as a requirement for marriage. What are you trying to prevent? Two loving people benefitting from public acknowledgement and acceptance of their love?

Q: As a 78-year-old, you talked about your relationship with your partner, Michael Nguyen, who is in his 20s, and how people perceive that relationship. How have you dealt with others’ perceptions?

A: It’s again another challenge, because people’s impressions are based on their own perceptions of those relationships. People think of relationships in fairly conventional terms. I’m not criticizing that. We all have preconceived notions about that. The average partnership is between two people of similar age, similar backgrounds and so on. It has been a challenge for both Michael and me, and we decided that we had to go with our hearts on this. We discovered that our friends are more open minded than we had given them credit for. At the same time, we understand that people would have concerns about the nature of the relationship, but we just have to go with what we feel.

Q: What was it like growing up in Austin and trying to fit in as the son of the president of Hormel Foods?

A: It was really a bigger challenge than it sounds. When I was about six-months-old, there was (an indirect) kidnap threat. Essentially, from as far back as I can remember, there were armed guards around, there were protective devices, and I was driven to school in a car by someone in uniform, and I just felt like I stood out like a sore thumb in Austin. But I must say the people of Austin were very respectful and courteous about that, but I just felt awful about being so separated. I had a few friends whom I could talk to. One of the people I could be friendly with in grade school was a kid by the name of Dick Knowlton. We were in school through eighth grade, and then I left Austin in the ninth grade to go to a boarding school in North Carolina.

Q: What do you remember of your time growing up with Dick Knowlton?

A: When I was a little boy, I really didn’t have many friends in the town because we were so isolated outside of town. I knew people in my classes in school, and Dick was one of them, and we saw each other frequently. It was nice to be together. Then we went our separate ways, and it was fascinating to me to follow Dick in his career and to see how persistent he was in striving to better the community and himself and how Austin thrived with him.

Q: What were some of your fondest memories of Austin growing up?

A: I’m sad to say that some of the physical examples no longer exist, most strikingly the courthouse, which was in the center of the city. It was a classical 19th century small city courthouse. Downtown Austin was a vibrant little area. That contributed to the sense of well being among the people in Austin. There was something very comforting about being in Austin, knowing that people cared for each other. Those are memories that I cherish. I still have feelings for Austin that comes from my childhood relationships there. I’m eager to see Austin thrive and grow.

Q: You talked about how early in your life you always strived to be liked, and you went through a revelation where that was no longer as important. Do you wonder what the people of Austin think of your accomplishments now?

A: I hope they appreciate the things that I’ve done because I feel very good and I feel very strong about what I’ve done. If there are those who don’t appreciate it, I’d be delighted to meet with them, and find out what they aren’t comfortable with.

Q: You said you that you aren’t involved with Hormel Foods or the Hormel Foundation, but how do you feel the company has done since your father passed away?

A: I’m of course curious about the things that they’re doing. I feel the company is probably very conservatively run, and I mean that in the most positive way. It’s a company that minds its business, not venturing into areas where they’re doing things that don’t relate, and maintaining the wellbeing of the employees at the company, maintaining the major presence in Austin. I have a feeling that the company has been very attentive to its own process in relation to the people it serves. So I appreciate that a lot.

Q: You said you parents always assumed you and your brothers would go into the business and eventually run the company. What went into your decision not to do that and to go your own way?

A: Looking back to the early 1950s, I was already feeling the fears that came from the sexual orientation that I had not been willing to identify. I felt it would be very difficult for me to have a life in Austin that would be as inclusive as I needed it to be. I had an image of wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go out into a world and not be identified as (the son of the president of Hormel). When I finally was divorced and moved to New York, I discovered that New York was a place where anybody could be anonymous if they wanted.

Q: What was your grandfather, George A. Hormel, founder of Hormel Foods, like? What do you remember about him?

A: By the time I was born, my grandparents had moved to California. We saw them a couple times a year. During those visits, I got to see my grandfather as a person of frugality who had a very close interest in the workers at the plant. He left in 1929 and I think he knew the names of every employee until 1929. It was really quite remarkable. When my father started the guaranteed annual wage and profit sharing program a couple years later, I just thought that that was an extension of my grandfather’s concerns for his fellow workers, and it was probably my father’s crowning achievement in business. I would say my father and my grandfather were very mindful of people with whom they worked. That made an enormous difference in the way people cared about what they did in Austin. People wanted the company to be known as a company that’s caring and attentive to its products.

Q: What was your father like growing up?

A: He had rules and he had his ways, and he liked people to follow his rules. He was very conservative. He didn’t like to leave the lights on. He had expectations that were reasonable and he thought people should live up to their potential.

Q: You talked in your book about how the pronunciation of Hormel has changed. Your family emphasized the first syllable so that it rhymes with “normal,” while most people now emphasize the second syllable. How did that change come about.

A: It came from a group of advertising people who thought that Hormel would be more clearly understood on the radio. After awhile, the family started pronouncing it like it was on the advertising because that’s what people heard elsewhere. In Austin, it was always (pronounced the way it had been). In a way, we were sensitive to that. It was strange.

Q: How did it feel writing the book and being able to account all the events of your life?

A: It was a little bit like coming out all over again, but to a wider potential audience. When you write something down like that, there it is, recorded forever. It took me a long time and my co-author kept urging me on, saying ‘yes, this political stuff is all interesting, but it means a lot more if people understand where it’s coming from. She would probe and probe, and a little more it would come out, and we ended up how the book is now. It required a willingness on my part to be more open about myself than I had ever been in a public way. That was challenging.

Q: Do you plan on becoming more of a public figure in philanthropy and activism?

A: I don’t plan on that. If it happens, then it will happen. I’m getting toward the end of my eighth decade on this planet and I’m looking forward to having more time family, which is getting larger by the day. I now have five great grandchildren. So I would like to see a lot of things accomplished that probably won’t happen in my lifetime. On the other hand, if there are ways in which I can be supportive, I will. I’m not looking for any further public appointments, but I am looking for public attitudes to be more accepting and to be more open to the kinds of change I’ve been working for.

Q: You talked about how interconnected Hormel Foods and the town are through the good and the bad. What does the legacy that your father and grandfather left mean to you?

A: There have been ups and downs. The company has survived a major embezzlement. It’s survived 10 years of being run by bankers, and it’s survived the Depression. It has survived a major strike that caused the most enormous turmoil among families in Austin, families taking opposite sides of the situation. The strike was devastating to the community, not to the company so much, but to the community. Because Austin and the company have come through that period in the fashion that they have, I think that is commendable. People need to look forward, not back. People need to look forward to the times that can be, not the times that were.

Excerpts from Hormel’s memoir


The following are excerpts from James C. Hormel’s autobiography, “Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.”

On realizing what he wanted to do with his life:

Within the span of three years, from 1965 to 1968, everything in my life changed. I went from being a model husband and father to a divorcé; from a Republican to a very left-wing Democrat; and from a timid person to someone on the verge of taking charge of his life. I was far from having a consciousness of gay equality, but I was beginning to sense my own power, starting to feel good about myself, and realizing that even as one lone soul, I had something to offer the world.

On his observation from a trip to Austin in 2003 on the town’s increase in diversity and people of color:

I took note of something I had been told but that hadn’t sunk in until I saw it vividly on the street: the lily-white town of my youth was no longer so. Next to Nordic-looking grandmothers with faint blonde hair, and blue-eyed kids yelling to the floats for candy, were clusters of families with considerably darker skin. They were Latino immigrants, who had come to work in the area slaughter houses and on vegetable farms, and African refugees, relocated from Sudan.

Bumping into people I knew, it didn’t take long to find percolating beneath the cheery veneer of the day some tension over the town’s changing demographics. A retired school principal, lowering his voice as if we were backroom cronies, talked to me about “The Problem.” A police officer made a remark about how the town was not as safe as when I was a boy.

Toward the end of the day, I met Julie Craven, the vice president of corporate communications for Hormel Foods, and then Bonnie Rietz, who was mayor at the time. In separate conversations, both told me about an organization called The Welcome Center, created by the town in 2000 with support from the Hormel Foundation to help the new arrivals acclimate. The center provided people from Mexico, Sudan, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Eastern Europe with language classes and medical, housing, and immigration assistance. In subsequent years, other community agencies and foundations joined the effort, helping to sponsor an annual Ethnic Festival. Over time, the Center became a place where the cultural traditions of all Austin’s residents were celebrated.

What I heard from Julie and Bonnie reminded me of the power that individuals have to open their minds and look at things from someone else’s point of view. Exposure makes an incredible difference. When one group of people gets to know to another group of people, the preconceptions—however intimidating or scary they might have been—tend to fall away. The mystery becomes a familiarity. Perhaps those in Austin who took the time to consider the position of the new arrivals discovered a perspective similar to that of their ancestors, who, under an earlier immigrant circumstance, had some of the same difficulties adjusting to a new place.

On being the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador:

It’s been more than a decade since I served in Luxembourg, and my Senate battle feels like it has become, as I wished at my swearing-in ceremony, a footnote in history. The question of my life now, as I near my eightieth birthday, is: Did any of it matter?

I don’t like to think about the meaning of life, at least the meaning of my life. But it’s in my nature to do so. The cynic in me wonders: Is the meaning of life to kick back until you get old and then expire? I certainly could have chosen that path; I’d probably still be living on Kauai. But the cynic is overwhelmed by the idealist, who is compelled to say: Isn’t the meaning of life to follow the direction of your inner compass, and stay the course until your dying breath? To leave this world a better place than you entered it?