Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Gay donor James Hormel discusses gay leaders Milk and Britt, AIDS epidemic in new memoir

James Hormel, a major gay donor and the first out person to serve as a U.S. ambassador, only met the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in passing after moving to Pacific Heights in 1975.

But the city’s first out elected official made a lasting impression on him. And Milk’s death in 1978 along with then Mayor George Moscone by disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White saddened and horrified Hormel.

“To put it simply, he was my man. He was our man. He was standing up for us. And standing in for us,” wrote Hormel in a new memoir set to be officially released November 15.

Titled Fit to Serve Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95), Hormel co-wrote it with former Hartford Courant reporter Erin Martin.

Nearly a decade after Milk’s death when his political successor, gay Supervisor Harry Britt, mounted a bid for an open congressional seat, Hormel writes there was a sense within the LGBT community that “our time had come.”

Yet Hormel (seen at left) confides in the book that he had his doubts about Britt being able to make an impact in Washington D.C., particularly at a time when the LGBT community needed a fierce advocate to push the federal government to address the AIDS epidemic. At one event in Los Angeles, Hormel recalls that introducing Britt to fellow guests “was like pulling a mule. He was terribly uncomfortable.”

When Britt asked for Hormel’s endorsement in the 1987 race, Hormel writes that Britt told him he was running because “This is our big chance, Jim.”

Ultimately, Hormel threw his support behind Nancy Pelosi, a local Democratic Party leader he had befriended over the years. The two had connected not only through a shared love for dark chocolate but also by the fact they both had four daughters and a son.

The reason, writes Hormel, that Pelosi won him over was when he asked her why she was running, the first-time candidate laid out a list of policy objectives with AIDS funding at the top.

Not only did he endorse her, Hormel agreed to serve as one of three co-chairs of her campaign. It was not an easy decision to make, and Hormel writes how Bob Ross, the Bay Area Reporter‘s late publisher, was so outraged that the men didn’t speak “for years afterwards.”

“To be a gay man supporting Nancy Pelosi was equivalent to selling state secrets, and the peer pressure was on,” wrote Hormel.

Even though his closest political allies felt Hormel had betrayed them, he writes in the book that, “privately, it was easy, because I felt that she would be very effective and true to her word on HIV/AIDS.”

In an interview this week with the B.A.R. Hormel said recalling that time when so many gay men he knew were dying from AIDS caused him to have “mixed emotions” as he hadn’t given the advent of AIDS much thought over the years.

“When the 80s became all about AIDS, I started losing friends I knew right and left. It was extraordinarily painful,” said Hormel. “I sort of wanted to set that back in my mind.”

By writing about it in his autobiography, said Hormel, “I was obliged to recall all those painful experiences.”

He included that time period in the book in order to educate those readers too young to have experienced it themselves.

“If you are under 30 you really haven’t been touched by the AIDS pandemic in the way people who are older were touched by it. It is very difficult to imagine what it was like. It was really horrible,” said Hormel.

For more of the interview with Hormel about his new memoir, see Thursday’s B.A.R.

— Matthew S. Bajko, November 2, 2011 @ 5:17 pm PST
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