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James Hormel, America's First Openly LGBTQ U.S. Ambassador, Dies In San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- James Catherwood Hormel, a renowned philanthropist and the first openly LGBTQ person to represent the United States as an ambassador, passed away peacefully in San Francisco Friday morning. He was 88.

At the time of his passing, his husband, Michael, was at his side and his favorite Beethoven concerto playing.

"San Francisco lost a great friend today," Senator Dianne Feinstein said. "A philanthropist, civil rights pioneer and loving spouse and father, James Hormel lived an extraordinary life and will be deeply missed by many. Tapped to be the ambassador to Luxembourg by President Clinton in 1997, he was the first openly gay person to serve as an ambassador. While his nomination was controversial at the time, his service was distinguished and helped advance LGBTQ rights both at home and abroad."

Gov. Gavin Newsom echoed those sentiments.

"Ambassador Hormel represented the very best of California and its values, both through his active and generous philanthropy and activism," Newsom said in a statement. "As a champion for inclusion and acceptance, Hormel helped pave the way for the LGBTQ+ community by serving as the first openly gay ambassador representing the US and enduring a harsh and homophobic confirmation process in the US Senate. Hormel's work to found the Human Rights Campaign and unwavering support for those affected by HIV/AIDS was meaningful and life-changing for many."

Until his death, Hormel served as source of joy and inspiration to his loved ones.

"I want a party," he said to his grandchildren from his hospital bed just days before his passing.

Walking through the ICU, it was obvious to all which room was his. Laughter and music spilled out as family members piled in to say their goodbyes. Wherever Hormel was, the party followed, friends and family members said.

Driven by his pursuit of equality, Hormel devoted his life to the advocacy of fundamental human rights, social justice, and public service.

In 1997, Hormel faced discrimination publicly when President Bill Clinton nominated him for U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

Numerous Republican senators blocked the confirmation process outright. Undeterred, Hormel met this obstacle with determination and grace and spoke with each senator one-on-one, challenging their staunch opposition. In May 1999, Clinton employed a recess appointment, and one month later, he was sworn in.

"Jim devoted his life to advancing the rights and dignity of all people, and in his trailblazing service in the diplomatic corps, he represented the United States with honor and brought us closer to living out the meaning of a more perfect union," the Clintons said in a statement. "We will always be grateful for his courageous and principled example, as well as the kindness and support he gave us over so many years."

From June 1999 to December 2000, James served as the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, making him the first openly gay ambassador in the history of the United States.

Hormel was the youngest son of Germaine Dubois and Jay Hormel and grandson of George A. Hormel, the founder of Hormel Foods. He grew up in Austin, Minnesota, where much of the town's population worked for the Hormel meat packing plant run by his father.

In 1952, Hormel attended Swarthmore College, where he received a B.A. in History, and met Alice McElroy Parker, his college sweetheart.

Alice and James had five children together and remained close friends even after their divorce in 1965.

Ultimately, Hormel became a member of the Board of Managers at Swarthmore, and established a faculty chair in social justice. Following his undergraduate time at Swarthmore, James received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where he subsequently was Dean of Admissions and Dean of Students.

Beyond Hormel's role as an ambassador for the U.S., he served in a variety of other public service capacities. He was alternate representative of the U.S. delegation to the 51st United Nations General Assembly in 1996. He was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the 51st U.N. Human Rights Commission, which met in Geneva in early 1995. In 1995, and again in 1997, he served on the Western States Regional Selection Panel for the President's Commission
on White House Fellowships.

A businessman, Hormel served as the Chairman of Equidex, Inc., a San Francisco-based firm that manages his and his family's investments and philanthropic activities.

In the last year of his life, he enjoyed quiet mornings with coffee and the newspaper, light walks through downtown San Francisco, and watching early 20th century films from bed with Michael, their dog Peanut, and cat Trouble.

Hormel is survived by his five children (Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, Jimmy, and Sarah), fourteen grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel.

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