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First Gay U.S. Envoy Named

Sedate events are the norm in the gilded confines of the State Department's eighth floor reception room. But there can be exceptions.

The atmosphere was downright raucous Tuesday over a seemingly routine happening: the swearing in of a new ambassador.

James Hormel, who is gay, took the oath as ambassador to Luxembourg in the presence of hundreds of friends who had supported Hormel's oft-troubled nomination since it was first announced 20 months ago.

Hormel's supporters cheered loudly as he was sworn in as America's first openly gay ambassador.

"What an incredible privilege it is to be standing before you today," Hormel said.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was there, along with Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Television cameras lined the rear of the majestic State Department hall. Normal procedure on such occasions is to bar the press altogether.

Uncertainty had shrouded Hormel's appointment almost from the day he was nominated because of opposition from a relatively small group of senators.

President Clinton broke the impasse three weeks ago when he made Hormel a "recess appointment" - a method that circumvents the normal Senate confirmation process.

The State Department generally shies away from partisanship, but the whiff of politics was in the air as Albright joined Hormel, a longtime Democratic donor and activist, for the festivities and spoke on his behalf.

Gay rights have been a high-profile theme for the Democrats as campaigning for next year's election picks up steam. Vice President Al Gore visited a gay and lesbian center during a campaign visit to California last week.

The Traditional Values Coalition, a church lobby that opposed the nomination, said in a statement that the swearing in of Hormel marks "the beginning of the Gore campaign's efforts to woo the homosexual vote."

Coalition members demonstrated in protest outside the State Department as the ceremony was taking place.

"This is one of those glorious days when the nice guy finishes first," Albright told the gathering. "Neither race, nor creed, nor gender nor sexual orientation should be relevant to the selection of ambassadors for the United States.

Said Kennedy: "There was never any honorable question about his qualifications to be ambassador." The opposition to Hormel was "irresponsible and unacceptable," he said.

Feinstein, noting that Hormel's appointment cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by 16-2, said an overwhelming majority would have approved him had the Senate voted as a whole. By tradition, even one senator can prevent a vote on a nomination because of a personal grievance.

"In Jim's appointment, I think we open a door," Feinstein said.

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