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‘Fit to Serve’

First openly gay U.S. ambassador recalls life in politics, activism in new memoir

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James Hormel today. (Photo by Michael Nguyen; courtesy Skyhorse Publishing)

When James Hormel decided to write his memoirs, he turned to an unlikely source for aid — his tennis partner.

Hormel, heir to the Geo. A. Hormel & Co. meatpacking business (famous for bringing SPAM to the world), had been interested for several years in sharing his compelling story of becoming the first openly gay U.S. ambassador when President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999 with a controversial recess appointment. Erin Martin, a former journalist whom Hormel knew from her work on the September 11th Fund, worked with him off and on for four years to bring the new book “Fit to Serve” (Skyhorse Publishing) to fruition.

“When I was actually serving in Luxembourg and after recognizing what it took to get there and how extremely receptive the country was and how welcoming, I thought there may be some material here that would be worth writing about,” Hormel says during a phone interview from New York where the long-time San Francisco resident is visiting on a book tour (he was in Washington this week for a signing). “I’d thought about it for several years and kind of realized I could go on thinking about it forever without actually doing anything, so Erin and I started.”

Hormel, now 78, has enjoyed a rather epic American life. Born into wealth, he writes evocatively of his Minnesota childhood and the sights, smells and sounds he shared with his two older brothers, Geordie and Thomas; his many years of trying to live the straight and narrow life with ex-wife Alice and their five children; his years of finding himself and settling in San Francisco in 1977; his work in Democratic politics and helping to start the Human Rights Campaign in the early ‘80s while many around him were dying of AIDS; and, of course, his work not only in Luxembourg but even more interestingly, the convoluted and bitterly fought battle he waged to get there, opposed at every turn by Republican senators and conservative groups like Family Research Council that painted him as a pedophile.

Influential colleagues are saying Hormel’s story is an important one.

“[It] reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that being gay meant you could not serve in high government positions,” says Richard Socarides, the White House LGBT liaison in the Clinton administration. “With Bill Clinton’s help, Jim took on this fight for all of us and won.”

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Hormel at a book signing Thursday night in Washington. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Longtime Hormel pal Nancy Pelosi, whom Hormel went out on a limb to support in her 1987 bid for Congress against gay candidate Harry Britt, is also raving about the book.

“Jim Hormel’s spirited story is a refreshing reminder of the power of the individual in America,” she said in a press release for the tome. “This book documents that a person driven by the courage of his or her convictions can still push the world to become a fairer, more equal place.”

Hormel says revisiting years gone by brought unexpected emotions, both good and bad.

“The burden I created for myself by the deception that occurred through the marriage and not being able to reveal sexual feelings outside of our relationship, that failure of communication, that was maybe the most painful for me to look at because I was totally responsible for it,” he says.

Though long on friendly terms with his ex-wife Alice, who has supported him for decades and read early drafts of the book, it was still a painful topic to revisit. He expects to see her next week for Thanksgiving.

“There were enormous feelings of guilt that came back to me in a wave,” he says.

Hormel also writes poignantly of his current relationship with Michael Nguyen, a dancer and musician he met in 2006 who’s five decades his junior. Hormel says they enjoy a bond he didn’t have with former partners Larry Soule and Tim Wu.

“[Michael] has given me an unconditional love that has been a discovery for me,” Hormel says. “It was new to me so this relationship has been special and unique.”

Hormel’s five now-adult children have welcomed Michael, he says, but mostly long distance. Only his son James lives near him in San Francisco.

Hormel met Clinton in March 1992 when the eventual president was campaigning. Hormel, long out by then and active in the Democratic Party in both California and nationally, had appreciated a reference Clinton made about the unacceptability of discrimination based on sexual orientation at a speech Hormel attended. He noticed something different in Clinton and was soon supporting him. Just before Clinton was elected that November, friends started floating the idea to Hormel that he should seek a presidential appointment.

“While [the] suggestion intrigued me, I didn’t take it all that seriously,” Hormel writes in the book. “It didn’t seem realistic: I had contributed, but I didn’t go to any great lengths to stump for Clinton. I couldn’t imagine that I was very high on the totem pole.”

Hormel considered the idea and eventually started actively pursuing it, but it was anger and disappointment, ironically, that lit a fire within him to pursue it full on. The still-controversial 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a Clinton-signed law that defined marriage as between a man and woman, was the fuel for Hormel’s effort.

James Hormel, left, being sown in as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in June 1999. Hormel’s former partner Tim Wu is with him. (Photo courtesy Skyhorse Publishing)

“While nothing short of repeal could make up for DOMA, I and others wanted a clear sign that Clinton had not abandoned our constituency,” Hormel writes. “My anger propelled me into a non-stop, night-and-day effort to secure an ambassadorial nomination. Short of cheating and stealing, I was going to do whatever it took. Nothing was more important to me in that moment.”

Hormel is slightly more understanding in hindsight. He says it’s important to consider the context of when DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were enacted but neither does he fully buy Hillary Clinton’s 2008 assertions that DOMA was the lesser evil compared to a proposed constitutional amendment.

“It’s hard to take it all out of the context of 1996 or with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ out of 1993,” Hormel says. “With DOMA, the president was in a reelection campaign. There were three candidates. We forget that Clinton was never elected by a majority and you know the political climate was very negative at the time. The Republicans had experienced two years of running both the Senate and the House and they hadn’t done that in 40 years. They were out to get Clinton no matter what so it was probably a defensive aspect of his with DOMA. I think it’s one of the worst pieces of legislation that I’m aware of. It’s blatantly unconstitutional. There are so many bad things about it.”

Hormel faced opponents on two main fronts — late former Sen. Jesse Helms, a notoriously anti-gay politician Hormel calls a “hatemonger” who was chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations who stood between Hormel and the post he wanted, and an avalanche of misconstrued press from the Traditional Values Coalition, an organization that had sent a rep to the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library and copied controversial material housed there for archival purposes that the Coalition said Hormel espoused.

Hormel, dejected when a 1999 “700 Club” segment about his status as an ambassadorial nominee and supposed pedophile aired, found unexpected inspiration from memories of his father and grandfather, larger-than-life figures who’d played huge roles in shaping and inspiring him.

Hormel in 1994. (Blade file photo by Marc Geller)

“I felt nauseous,” Hormel writes of seeing the “700 Club” segment. “Partly from my disgust over the willful fabrication, partly out of fear that the televangelist [Pat Robertson] had succeeded in taking away from me what, by then, I most desired.”

A photo of his father, Jay Hormel, who died in 1954, gave him inspiration.

“He seemed to look right back at me, chiding, ‘Jimmy, why are you letting them get to you,’” Hormel writes.

He says any opinions of what his father and grandfather would think of his accomplishments today are “very speculative” but he’s hopeful their progressive-for-their-eras attitudes and business practices, covered at length in the book, provide clues.

“I think they would be supportive,” Hormel says. “They spoke of kindness and of caring and wanting to make things better for other people and they did things in their lifetimes that reflected that. My father’s crowning business achievement was to create a program of guaranteed annual wages and a profit sharing plan that he put in place in the depths of the Depression and it kept a lot of people working in the community.”

And though his brief period of service in Luxembourg — much less intense than the path that led to it — is long over, Hormel has stayed active in politics and has a few thoughts on current gay issues.

Of Obama, Hormel says, “By and large, he has a wonderful record for us and has done more than every other president put together and we’re edging toward the time when we’ll have an actual member of the Cabinet who’s gay. Who could have dreamed of that a few years ago? On the other hand, he’s taken a position on DOMA that is very confusing. It confuses me and it confuses a lot of people and he really doesn’t seem to want to take the step of saying, ‘This is wrong,’ and I feel that’s unfortunate because this law is so blatantly wrong.”

Hormel says HRC has changed dramatically since its early years and says part of the criticism often directed at it is inevitable because of the work it does.

“When you have an organization that is dominating and addressing these kinds of issues, you’re never going to please everyone,” he says. “Also people by and large don’t understand what it’s like to make laws. They say there are two things you should never see being made — laws and sausage, because it’s a messy process and people outside the process don’t fully understand what it takes to get things accomplished. That’s a PR problem that HRC faces. I think they’ve done an admiral job and as they’ve continued to grow, I think they are continually getting better focused. On the other hand, when one is based in Washington and encompassed every day in Washington surroundings, which today are so horrendous, I think one tends to become a little jaded and perhaps less in touch with broad constituencies. I think that happens to member of Congress. They lose touch and it happens for other organizations as well.”

Jim Hormel with his three daughters at a book signing event at People for the American Way Thursday night in Washington. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Hormel closes the book with a poignant chapter on the inspiration for his political work, which he says is rooted in having summoned the courage in the ‘60s to come out. It helped form his altruistic and activist tendencies.

“My progress on this earth was stymied until the time in my life when I chose to follow my heartfelt instincts and desires and live openly as a gay man,” he writes. “I had to clear away truckloads of psychic garbage in order to free the real me from a self-imposed prison. Only then was I able to see that my genuine interest was in finding a way to help build a better world.”

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Lizzo makes $50K donation to Marsha P. Johnson Institute

Singer is vocal LGBTQ ally

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Lizzo at the 65th Grammy Awards (Screenshot from the Grammy Awards)

When Lizzo sings “If I’m shinin,’ everybody gonna shine,” in her hit song, “Juice,” she means it. Proof of that came this week on Instagram when the LGBTQ ally announced the first winner of her annual Juneteenth Giveback Campaign is the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a national nonprofit based in Richmond, Calif., dedicated to the protection and defense of Black transgender people. 

And she did so in song: “On the first day of Juneteenth, Lizzo gave to me,” she sang in her video, posted Tuesday, as she revealed her $50,000 gift to MPJI.

“That’s right, we know who Marsha P. Johnson is. We know what Marsha P. Johnson has done for the LGBTQ, emphasis on that ‘T,’ Q community,” said Lizzo to her 13.5 million followers. “Thank you so much to the people at the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. You deserve this, and I hope this helps you so much as you help protect our Black trans family.” 

“What the Marsha P. Johnson Institute does is protects and defends the rights of Black transgender people. They do this by organizing community, advocating for the people, and creating an intentional healing community, developing transformative leadership and promoting collective power,” she said. 

“We are overjoyed for the shoutout from Lizzo today, the generosity of her sharing her platform and the recognition of MPJI and its work,” said Elle Moxley, MPJI’s executive director. “The resources from this campaign will ensure the protection and defense of Black transgender people continue at a time where it is so vitally needed. We are so grateful for the support of Lizzo and her fans.”

As one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year for 2019 and a 2023 Grammy winner, Lizzo is more than a pop star but an inspiration to millions of fans for her body-positive attitude, her self-confidence on stage and in her videos, her empowering music and her activism. She’s also the founder of her own clothing line, Yitty. In 2021, she made headlines when she publicly corrected a paparazzo for using “she/her” pronouns and misgendering Demi Levato.

As part of her campaign, now in its 4th year, Lizzo recognizes Black-led grassroots organizations and businesses and encourages her fans to join her in supporting each of the five organizations she highlights this week. Fans who take action by donating are  entered into a drawing for an all-expenses paid trip to see her perform at Fuji Rock in Japan later this year. 

This week’s other nonprofits receiving gifts are: Black Girls Smile, Sphinx Music, the University of Houston and Save Our Sisters United.

Find out more about Lizzo’s 4th annual Juneteenth Giveback Campaign by clicking here.

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Anne Heche dies after removal from life support

Actress dated Ellen DeGeneres in late 1990s

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(Screenshot/YouTube Inside Edition)

Actress Anne Heche died after she was removed from life support on Sunday, nearly two weeks after her Mini-Cooper crashed through a two-story house in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. Investigators with the Los Angeles Police Department believe she was intoxicated at the time.

She sustained a severe anoxic brain injury along with severe burns and was being treated at the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital, near Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley.

The 53-year-old actress who was a star of films like “Donnie Brasco,” the political satire “Wag the Dog” and the 1998 remake of “Psycho,” had been declared legally dead under California law on Friday, however, her family kept her alive long enough to be an organ donor.

In a statement Friday, the LAPD announced that: “As of today, there will be no further investigative efforts made in this case. Any information or records that have been requested prior to this turn of events will still be collected as they arrive as a matter of formalities and included in the overall case. When a person suspected of a crime expires, we do not present for filing consideration.” LAPD detectives had previously made public that investigators into the crash found narcotics in a blood sample taken from Heche.

The actress’s family released a statement on Friday:

“Today we lost a bright light, a kind and most joyful soul, a loving mother, and a loyal friend. Anne will be deeply missed but she lives on through her beautiful sons, her iconic body of work, and her passionate advocacy. Her bravery for always standing in her truth, spreading her message of love and acceptance, will continue to have a lasting impact,” the statement added.

Heche was married to camera operator Coleman Laffoon from 2001 to 2009. The two had a son, Homer, together. She had another son, named Atlas, during a relationship with actor James Tupper, her co-star on the TV series “Men In Trees.”

Laffoon left a moving tribute on an Instagram reel in which he also gave an update on how their 20-year-old son Homer Laffoon is coping with the loss of his mother.

“I loved her and I miss her, and I’m always going to,” he said adding: “Homer is okay. He’s grieving, of course, and it’s rough. It’s really rough, as probably anybody can imagine. But he’s surrounded by family and he’s strong, and he’s gonna be okay.”

“Rest In Peace, Mom, I love you, Homer,” the actor’s 20-year-old son, Homer, said in a statement after Heche was declared legally dead on Friday.“ My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” read the statement. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness. Hopefully, my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom. Over those six days, thousands of friends, family, and fans made their hearts known to me. I am grateful for their love, as I am for the support of my Dad, Coley, and my stepmom Alexi who continue to be my rock during this time. Rest In Peace Mom, I love you, Homer.”

Tupper, a Canadian actor who starred alongside Heche in “Men in Trees,” had a 13-year-old son, Atlas, with her. “Love you forever,” Tupper, 57, wrote on his Instagram post’s caption with a broken heart emoji, which shared an image of the actress from Men in Trees.

Between 1997 and 2000, Heche was also in a relationship with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

“This is a sad day,” DeGeneres posted on Twitter. “I’m sending Anne’s children, family and friends all of my love.” The year after her break-up with the comedian, in September 2001, Heche recounted in her memoir “Call Me Crazy,” about her lifelong struggles with mental health and a childhood of abuse.

KTLA’s entertainment reporter Sam Rubin noted that over the past two decades, Heche’s career pivoted several times. In 2017, she hosted a weekly radio show on SiriusXM with Jason Ellis called “Love and Heche.”

In 2020, Heche made her way into the podcast world. She launched “Better Together” which she cohosted alongside Heather Duffy Boylston. The show was described as a way to celebrate friendship. 

She also worked in smaller films, on Broadway, and on TV shows. She recently had recurring roles on the network series “Chicago P.D.,” and “All Rise” and was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”

People magazine reported that several of Heche’s acting projects are expected to be released posthumously.

These include “Girl in Room 13,” expected to be released on Lifetime in September, “What Remains,” scheduled to be released in 2023, and HBO Max TV series “The Idol,” created by Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) and Euphoria creator Sam Levinson.

In her Instagram post from earlier this year Heche stands between her sons Atlas, 13 and Homer, 20.

From KTLA:

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‘Star Trek’ actress Nichelle Nichols dies at 89

George Takei tweets ‘we lived long and prospered together’

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(Screenshot/YouTube The Smithsonian Channel)

She was a groundbreaking cultural icon who broke barriers in a time of societal upheaval and battling for the civil rights of Black Americans. An actress, a mother and thoroughly devoted to the legions of fans of “Star Trek,” Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Nyota Uhura, has died at 89.

The announcement on her Facebook page by her son read:

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Friends, Fans, Colleagues, World

I regret to inform you that a great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years.

Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration.

Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.

I, and the rest of our family, would appreciate your patience and forbearance as we grieve her loss until we can recover sufficiently to speak further. Her services will be for family members and the closest of her friends and we request that her and our privacy be respected.

Live Long and Prosper,

Kyle Johnson

Nichols was born in Robbins, Ill., in 1932, according to her IMDb page. Legendary composer Duke Ellington “discovered” Nichols and helped her become a singer and dancer. She later turned to acting, and joined Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,” where she played Uhura from 1966 to 1969.

Out actor George Takei who played ‘Sulu’ on Star Trek the original series with Nichelle Nichols who played Lt. Nyota Uhura, at a Star Trek convention in this undated photo. (George Takei/Twitter)

It was in that role of Uhura that Nichols not only broke barriers between races, most famously her onscreen kiss, the first between a Black person and a white person, with castmate William Shatner, who played Capt. James T. Kirk, but she also became a role model for young Black women and men inspiring them to seek out their own places in science, technology, and other human endeavors.

In numerous interviews over the years Nichols often recalled how the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a fan of the show and praised her role and personally encouraged her to stay with the series.

When the first series ended Nichols went on to become a spokesperson for NASA, where she “helped recruit and inspire a new generation of fearless astronauts.” She later reprised her role in several successful “Star Trek” films and continued to advocate for the advancement of Black Americans especially in the areas of science and technology.

Formerly a NASA deputy administrator, Frederick Gregory, now 81, told the Associated Press he once saw an advertisement in which Nichols said “I want you to apply for the NASA program.”

“She was talking to me,” he recounted. The U.S. Air Force pilot would apply and later become the first African American shuttle pilot.

President Joe Biden weighed in Sunday afternoon on her passing in a statement issued by the White House:

In Nichelle Nichols, our nation has lost a trailblazer of stage and screen who redefined what is possible for Black Americans and women.
 
A daughter of a working-class family from Illinois, she first honed her craft as an actor and singer in Chicago before touring the country and the world performing with the likes of Duke Ellington and giving life to the words of James Baldwin.
 
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she shattered stereotypes to become the first Black woman to act in a major role on a primetime television show with her groundbreaking portrayal of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek. With a defining dignity and authority, she helped tell a central story that reimagined scientific pursuits and discoveries. And she continued this legacy by going on to work with NASA to empower generations of Americans from every background to reach for the stars and beyond.
 
Our nation is forever indebted to inspiring artists like Nichelle Nichols, who show us a future where unity, dignity, and respect are cornerstones of every society.

Nichols son said that services will be private for family members and her closest friends.

In 2008 the actress at a news conference, coordinated by the filmmakers of the motion picture “TRU LOVED,” in honor of the more than 900 students at Los Angeles’ Miguel Contreras Learning Complex’s School of Social Justice who participated in the GLSEN Day of Silence.

Nichelle Nichols speaks on LGBTQ rights:

Her fellow castmate and life long friend, openly Out actor George Takei shared his sadness on hearing of Nichols’ passing on Twitter:

From the September 2016 edition of the Smithsonian Channel: “Star Trek’s decision to cast Nichelle Nichols, an African American woman, as major character on the show was an almost unheard-of move in 1966. But for black women all over the country, it redefined the notions of what was possible.”

Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols on Uhura’s Radical Impact:

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