(Photo by Lloyd DeGrane)

Fit to serve

James C. Hormel, JD’58, shares his private and public battles.

More than 20 years before he was the first openly gay US ambassador, James C. Hormel, JD’58, served as dean of students in the Law School. Returning to campus January 25 to give a lunchtime talk, Hormel received a warm welcome from Law School dean Michael Schill, who plugged Hormel’s new memoir, Fit to Serve.

In its early chapters, the book chronicles Hormel’s private struggle and gradual coming out—a process that began in Chicago in the late 1960s. Speaking with students, the former ambassador to Luxembourg also recalled his career and answered questions about political advocacy past, present, and future.

On blazing a trail in diplomacy: “One of the problems about being gay, historically, in this country is that it was against the law. So back in the time when I was a student here, coming out was sort of an admission that you were a criminal, or at least what you did was criminal. … In Washington in the ’50s and ’60s, there was an active campaign to drum gay people out of the government, and it started in the State Department, ironically, in the late ’40s. … So for me to come through the State Department as an openly gay man and to actually get to a point of public service by that route was quite remarkable.”

On his book: “Writing it was a bit traumatic because I wasn’t prepared to reveal things about my personal life; I thought I was going to write a political memoir. But I was persuaded that the memoir was really fleshed out by the facts of my life, so I do discuss my childhood, I do discuss what it’s like to try not to be gay, … to be married, to raise a family, to deal with the epiphany that one sets up for oneself, … and to discover oneself and to be wiling to be public about it. It was not easy. It still haunts me in a way.”

On advocacy versus privacy: “I think that the most important single act that a gay person can do is to come out, for at least two reasons. One is that it relieves oneself of an enormous personal burden. … Ironically, it’s an issue that shouldn’t be discussed—it really shouldn't be; it’s nobody’s business what your sexuality is. But [second, and] in order to have any influence in the political process today, it’s a necessary piece of the story. We must let people know who we are or they will fabricate it, and what they fabricate will not be true.”