Congress Is Out of Touch on Gay Rights

The first openly gay U.S. ambassador discusses discrimination, equality, and his new book.

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When Senate Republicans last month blocked President Obama's nominee to be ambassador to El Salvador, they raised questions about a commentary she had written on gay pride. James Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador, says the politically charged inquiry was similar to his own confirmation process in 1997 and 1998, which focused on his sexuality rather than his professional competence. In Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador, Hormel describes his personal and public fight for acceptance. He recently spoke with U.S. News about being gay in Washington and what he says still needs to be done for equality in America. Excerpts:

Why did you seek a political appointment as ambassador?

I was encouraged to seek appointment by a friend who was candidate [Bill] Clinton's treasurer at the time. It occurred to me that an ambassadorial appointment would require Senate confirmation. And what that meant to me was that members of the Senate would be obliged to go on record taking a stand on an openly gay person being nominated to a position at that level.

[Read Susan Milligan: When Barney Frank Stopped Being 'The Gay Congressman']

Did you think it was the right time in history?

I didn't know.

What is the most memorable moment of your career?

At the moment at which I was sworn in as ambassador to Luxembourg, I reflected back on the long trail that I had followed to get to that point and all of the people who had been supportive, and it was a moment of a sense of accomplishment. It certainly wasn't the end of a trail, but I could look at that moment and say, "By golly, we really made it."

Is there still discrimination in Washington?

I think that the level of discrimination in Washington is reflected by attitudes that exist in Washington itself. That is to say, I don't think members of Congress are truly in touch with their constituents or they wouldn't be quite so retrograde on social issues as they seem to be.

[Read more Book Club interviews by subscribing to U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.]

Are there certain personal goals you made a priority in your fight for gay rights?

Well, equality is equality. There's no way around it. The Supreme Court itself said there's no such thing as separate but equal. There's equal. And so long as the LGBT constituency is deprived of certain rights, we're not being treated equally.

Has the Obama administration done enough for LGBT rights?

We have not yet achieved equality and that will not happen until all the laws of the land apply to LGBT people equally as they do to the rest of society.

For example?

There are two issues that burn in Washington. The one which gets the most attention is marriage equality. The other issue that burns today is employment non-discrimination. There has been an employment non-discrimination act in Congress for many years. And it just languishes there, and there doesn't seem to be the motivation to move it forward. There are 29 states in which a person can be fired for being gay and they have no recourse.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Gay Marriage be Legal Nationwide?]

How does the United States compare with other Western democracies on gay rights?

Well, there are several countries in Western Europe which have marriage equality and have had it for a while. And these are countries who defy the religious argument. You know, Spain is about as Roman Catholic as a country can be and you can get married in Spain to a person of the same sex. Think of that. So, I think that Europe is far more enlightened on most social issues than its cousin across the pond here.

Why do you think that is?

I don't know. It puzzles me. We say we stand for liberty and justice for all and we actually show that we stand for liberty and justice for some. America is run differently than Europe. In America, politicians are constantly running for re-election. They get elected, they go to Washington, and they start contemplating how they're going to get re-elected.