Hagel controversy involves first openly gay ambassador, who served in Luxembourg



Who’d have thought Luxembourg had such a prominent place in American political discourse?

Well, it does (or at least did in the late 1990s). In December, rumors started circulating that President Barack Obama, who was re-inaugurated for his second term yesterday, had set his eyes on former Senator Chuck Hagel, R-NE, to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Media began scrutinizing Hagel’s past and dredged up several inflammatory statements from his past, particularly remarks that give him an unflattering record on gay rights.

In 1997, according to the New York Times, Hagel criticized James C. Hormel — a San Francisco philanthropist, heir to the Geo. A. Hormel & Co. food fortune, former dean at the University of Chicago Law School and an LGBT activist — for being too “openly, aggressively gay” to represent the U.S. as the ambassador to Luxembourg.

James C. Hormel, after controversial remarks from Sen. Chuck Hagel, became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador in 1998.

James C. Hormel, after controversial remarks from Sen. Chuck Hagel, became the first openly gay U.S. ambassador in 1998.

“They are representing America,” Hagel said in an interview with The Omaha World-Herald. “They 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.”


The statement is indefensible. How one can be aggressively gay, I am unsure. However, I am sure that if you ask someone who believes that when God created the universe, he created the Remington bolt-action rifle “so that man could fight the dinosaurs and the homosexuals,” then perhaps that person can explain to you how someone can be aggressively gay.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hagel had two beefs against Hormel. First, conservatives within the Republican rank and file objected to the sexually explicit material found in parts the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, a collection that documents LGBT history and is located on the third floor of San Francisco’s Main Library.

Second, Hagel “accused Hormel of laughing at the antics of the Sisters” of Perpetual Indulgence, a parodic theater group of gay men dressed as nuns, during the Pride parade of 1996. He said the group was anti-Catholic and thus considered Clinton’s nomination audacious.


Approximately 95 percent of Luxembourg is Catholic. Hagel had watched Hormel’s reaction to the group in a tape sent to him by conservative opposition groups, who also distributed the tape to other Senate Republicans in order to stir outrage among family values-oriented politicians.

The antic at which Hormel laugh, it turns out, was pretty innocuous.

“As Hormel recalled this week, the announcer quipped that the Sisters got their habits from a convent in Iowa, saying they needed them for a production of ‘The Sound of Music,'” the Chronicle details. And then … “Hormel laughed.”

To make matters worse for Hagel’s baseless accusation, Hormel was raised Presbyterian and is now a practicing Episcopalian. In addition, Hagel’s accusation that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was an anti-Catholic organization carried no semblance of truth. The group, starting as a street theater troupe and growing into a widely recognized San Francisco institution, has donated more than $1 million to various charities and organizations … including a Catholic church.

Since Obama picked Hagel to replace Panetta at the Pentagon, Hagel has publically apologized and reached out to mollify his critics.

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” said Hagel in a CBS report. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”

On his Facebook page, Hormel accepted the apology and even endorsed Hagel for the cabinet post under the condition that he give equal treatment to LGBT service members.

Senator Hagel’s apology is significant–I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything. While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal–they are a clear apology. Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too. His action affords new stature to the LGBT constituency, whose members still are treated as second class citizens in innumerable ways. Senator Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families. If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.

Additionally, Hagel has expressed that as secretary of defense, he would support same-sex benefits for military couples.

The first gay ambassador goes to Luxembourg, but not easily

Before appointing Hormel to the post in Luxembourg, President Bill Clinton considered giving Hormel, who donated $200,000 to the Democratic party during the 19995-1996 election cycle, the embassy post to Fiji.

However, “paragraphs 168 to 170 of the Fiji penal code (made) homosexuality completely forbidden,” according to the 23rd edition of the “Spartacus International Gay Guide” for 1994-1995, the New York Times reported in 1995. The “Gay Guide” states that “even an ‘attempt’ is punishable … the maximum penalty for gay sex is 14 years imprisonment and for ‘attempted gay,’ seven years.” (In 1997, Fiji became only the second country in the world to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. But when the the Fijian Constitution was abolished in 2009, the gay rights provision went with it and hasn’t been reinstated.)

Having found out about the law, Clinton decided not to nominate Hormel. The president’s plan to appoint and have confirmed the first openly gay ambassador was thwarted, but only temporarily.

Then in 1997, after working as a alternate delegate to the United Nations, Hormel was brought back into the picture as a candidate for the ambassadorship to a much different country. This time, he received a nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. For this ambassadorial appointment,  both Hormel and Clinton didn’t have to worry about discriminatory, anti-gay laws complicating the nomination process. Instead, they went up against a stubborn Republican-controlled Senate and conservative advocacy groups who wanted to take down Hormel for his sexual orientation and activism as a leader in the LGBT community.

The Los Angeles Times reported on June 5, 1999, that Clinton named Hormel to the ambassadorship in light of relentlessness on the part of conservative senators to stall his confirmation process. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his confirmation, 16-2, for a floor vote in 1997. But Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MI, responding to complaints from his party’s conservative faction, did not schedule the vote, which would have easily passed in the Senate. Lott, in the year after he tabled the vote, would go on to compare homosexuality to alcoholism, kleptomania and sex addiction in an interview.


Slick Willy, nevertheless, found a way to circumvent Lott’s inaction in the upper house by executing a political maneuver that got his man into the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg. During a congressional recess in March 1999, Clinton appointed Hormel to the post in what is called a recess appointment, a constitutionally-granted presidential power under Article II, Section 2.

The President shall have power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

While the nation’s upper house was off sunbathing in Florida or skiing in the Rockies, Clinton appointed Hormel as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. He began his tenure in June 1999. John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Lott, called the appointment “a slap in the face to Catholics everywhere,” because of the video of him laughing at the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

When he arrived to assume his post in the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg, the Luxembourg government did not protest his arrival, something conservative Senators feared was inevitable. But at the time, Luxembourg already had enacted laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation.Hormel served as ambassador, and the U.S. and Luxembourg did not declare war on each other. Had conflict erupted between the U.S. and Luxembourg, we all know Luxembourg would have totally won.


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