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Don't Ask Him; He'll Tell All

Bigotry, not homosexuality, is the issue in confirming Hormel as ambassador.

July 07, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Time to come out of the closet. This is not an easy decision for me because I had my heart set on someday being named the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg or some other peaceful and tiny country where I would not be expected to do any real work.

I thought if there was any posting sufficiently inconsequential to meet my meager qualifications, Luxembourg would be it. But now I learn that there is a dark spot in my past that would automatically disqualify me for the job.

What is this dark secret, you ask? Under the don't-ask, don't-tell ambassador recruiting policy embraced by this administration, I shouldn't have to tell you, but the Republican Senate leadership is bound to make a big deal out of this. Back when I was younger and more impressionable, I found myself, quite innocently I can assure you, on a sidewalk in San Francisco when a gay pride parade happened by.

Actually, I was trying to cross the street, but instead of fuming at the blocked crossing I decided to relax and enjoy the parade. It turned out to be a very funny parade, and I am certain that there are pictures, videos even, in the possession of right-wing Christian groups that document conclusively that I was smiling.

That is precisely the "crime," recorded on tapes circulated by the right wing, that has disqualified Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, meat products heir James C. Hormel. He's seen all too clearly on a San Francisco sidewalk smiling while the gay pride day parade sweeps by. As I recall, everyone smiles at these parades, except a few guys with huge signs quoting scripture, and even some of them seem to be suppressing a giggle or two.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, who rarely smiles and probably is herself safe on the gay-pride-day-parade-smiling charge, nonetheless backs Hormel's nomination. She has known Hormel as an upstanding, civically active resident of her community for many years and has persuaded 60 senators, including a number of Republicans, to defeat any likely filibuster debate if Hormel's name comes up for confirmation. The right-wing Christian Coalition and Family Research Council have mounted a fierce campaign against Hormel's confirmation. They have found an all-too-willing ally in Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader of the Senate, who refuses to allow Hormel's confirmation to come before the Senate for a vote.

Lott didn't need that picture of Hormel smiling to disqualify the man. The very fact that Hormel is gay puts him in the category of drunks and thieves, according to Lott, who a few weeks ago compared homosexuality to alcoholism, sex addiction and kleptomania, adding "There are all kinds of problems and addictions and difficulties and experiences of this kind that are wrong. But you should try to work with that person to learn to control that problem."

Evidently, Lott was not swayed by the testimony of Hormel's ex-wife, a psychologist, who said that Hormel had tried his best "to live what was a lie" during their 10 years of marriage. Clearly, Hormel is a model of commitment to family values, because not only his ex-wife but his five children and a number of his 13 grandchildren showed up to lend support at his confirmation hearing. How many heterosexuals would be able to produce their ex-wives as character witnesses?

The fact that Hormel, a 65-year-old lawyer, has led an exemplary life as father and citizen is even more infuriating to the homophobes who are blocking his nomination. They are threatened the most by gay men and lesbians whose lifestyle does not impair their ability to function "normally," as productive and leading citizens of the society.

Hormel is an excellent nominee, and Luxembourg has officially said he would be welcome. So his critics are left arguing that a gay man who has paid his taxes, observed the law and been active in American politics can be banned from public service merely as a result of his being honest about his sexual orientation.

The ugly historical parallels are obvious. Once again, Americans are being defined as the enemy not by what they do but by who they are. As Steven A. Schwalm, a spokesperson for the Family Research Council put it, "This is about the basic issue of civilization. We think his [Hormel's] agenda represents a clear and present danger to our country."

Rubbish. Tolerance has proved to be the basic issue of our civilization, and it is the bigots who seek to divide us who represent the clear and present danger to our country. The more so when the leader of the Senate champions their side.

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