Nineteen ninety-eight was a watershed year in the battle for gay rights in America — in a bad way. Bill Clinton had in 1997 nominated James C. Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. But his nomination as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador stalled the following summer. Hormel, born during the early 1930s, had been a dean at the University of Chicago Law School and also a leader in creating gay institutions in his home town of San Francisco. In 1991, he endowed the Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, which would go on to bear his name when it opened.
His nomination snagged on the Republican leadership in Congress, then busily seeking President Clinton’s impeachment over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. An even bigger obstacle was their disgust over Hormel’s homosexuality.
Senator Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman well known for his public opposition to the “homosexual lifestyle” and the people he called, in Newsweek in 1994, “degenerates” and “weak, morally sick wretches,” vowed to block the appointment. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi on June 15, 1998, added fuel to the fire, comparing being gay to a condition “just like alcohol…or sex addiction…or kleptomania” — a pathology in need of treatment. House Majority Leader Dick Armey chimed in to support Lott, affirming, “The Bible is very clear on this.” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma told “Fox News Sunday ” on June 21, 1998, that Hormel “has promoted a lifestyle and promoted it in a big way, in a way that is very offensive.” Against that backdrop, the comments of Republican Chuck Hagel, U.S. senator from Nebraska, didn’t stand out as idiosyncratic. Ambassadors “are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job,” Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after meeting with Hormel, according to a July 3, 1998 Omaha-World Herald story.