James Hormel, social justice advocate, speaks with law students

For the Hon. James Hormel, JD'58, discovering his identity and mission in social justice has been a lifelong process.

One early turning point came during his years as the University of Chicago Law School’s first full-time dean of students, when he realized he was on the side of students who were protesting the Vietnam War. Years later, after he came out as a gay man, Hormel faced different challenges as he battled opposition to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador.

“We must let them know who we are, or they will fabricate who we are and what they fabricate will not be true,” Hormel said in a recent talk at the Law School, titled “Breaking the Pink Ceiling.” He was in Chicago to promote his new autobiography, Fit to Serve, which chronicles his political development and the struggles he faced as a trailblazing diplomatic nominee.


“Jim’s visions and his passion for public service have grown out of a life that is dedicated to advocacy for human rights and for social equality,” said Michael Schill, dean of the Law School. “He is really nothing less than a giant in terms of philanthropy and engagement.”

Grandson to the founder of Hormel Foods, Hormel has spent much of his life struggling for social justice and gay rights, culminating in his successful battle to become U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999. He had served as dean of students and director of admissions at the Law School from 1961-67, admitting to the Law School both Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft, JD’67, and anti-Vietnam activist Bernadine Dohrn, JD’67. After he left UChicago, Hormel began managing his family investments and became involved in politics.

Since then he has helped found the Human Rights Campaign, was a member of two United Nations delegations, and funded the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) book collection in the world.

As someone who spent years coming to terms with his sexuality, Hormel told students that writing about his life in his new book was “a bit traumatic.”

“I do discuss what it’s like to do whatever one can not to be gay,” said Hormel, who was once married and is the father of five children and the grandfather of 14. “And then what it takes to rise above it and to discover oneself and to be willing to be public about it. It still haunts me now.”

Yet Hormel said being open about his identity was essential as he strove to break political barriers. For more than five years, Hormel faced opposition to President Clinton’s efforts to appoint Hormel as U.S. ambassador. Ultimately Clinton appointed Hormel through a recess appointment, bypassing Senate opposition.

Hormel said he sees things changing for the LGBT community in a positive way—although it is still legal in 29 states to fire someone for being gay, and employment anti-discrimination legislation has languished in Congress for almost 40 years. He predicts the next challenge for many minority groups is to be fully accepted into the larger culture.

“I see the forthcoming battle as one in which the various representatives of minorities in this country will need to band together to make it clear that social justice is not complete until we have addressed the issue of cultural acceptance,” Hormel said.

Hormel has remained an active member of the Law School community. Notably, in 1986 he created a loan forgiveness program as a way to direct law students into public service, something the Law School has been expanding. Hormel also is one of only four life members of the Law School visiting committee.

UChicago students of his day and today share a special “spark of difference,” he said during his visit.

“U of C is remarkable,” Hormel recently told the Windy City Times, Chicago’s LGBT newspaper, about his regard for the Law School and the University. “There is not another research institution like it that I know—the cross-topical, cross-educational, intellectual curiosity that brings the entire campus together.”