It was only 16 years ago that the first openly gay person was nominated to an ambassadorial posting. President Bill Clinton put forward James Hormel’s name in 1997 for Luxembourg, a country smaller in population than the District of Columbia, and immediately ran into congressional opposition. Several senators firmly opposed Hormel, a prominent philanthropist and grandson of the founder of the meat company that created Spam, because he was gay.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Hormel’s appointment, but a number of Republican senators, responding to pressure from conservative Christian groups and Catholic organizations, worked to block the nomination. In arguing against Hormel, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi labeled homosexuality a sin and compared it to alcoholism and kleptomania. Among the senators opposing Hormel was Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who said being “openly, aggressively gay” would limit his effectiveness as an ambassador.
When the full Senate failed to act on the nomination, Clinton gave Hormel a recess appointment in 1999. Since then there have been only two other openly gay ambassadors. The first confirmed by the Senate was Michael Guest, a career diplomat, whom George W. Bush named as ambassador to Romania. And Obama chose one openly gay ambassador in his first term, David Huebner, who was sent to New Zealand without any significant Senate opposition.
Last month, however, he nominated five more who now await confirmation: Rufus Gifford for Denmark, John Berry for Australia, James Costos for Spain, James Brewster for the Dominican Republic and Daniel Baer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (located in Vienna). All are political appointees, and, as is typical for the 30 percent of ambassadors who are not career diplomats, they’re headed to developed nations or the Caribbean.
Clearly times have changed, and this country has evolved. As a result of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, federal agencies such as the State Department are quickly expanding benefits to same-sex married couples. A majority of Americans now support allowing same-sex marriage and don’t believe that homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong. And gays are welcomed in the military, even by Hagel, who apologized for his earlier remarks about Hormel before his recent confirmation hearings to become secretary of defense.