My Secret Life: Jim Hormel, 79, gay rights activist

'You can't have regrets'

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My parents were... My father was a US soldier in the First World War. He met my mother in a village in central France. Four years after the war had ended, he went back to find her.

The household I grew up in... was in Austin, Minnesota. It had 26 bedrooms. The family company, a meat processing firm, was the biggest employer in town. At the beginning of the Second World War, it was asked to make supplies for the armed forces, and invented Spam. After that, it became very successful indeed.

When I was a child I wanted to be... accepted by my peers.

If I could change one thing about myself... I wouldn't.

You wouldn't know it but I am very good at... writing limericks.

You may not know it but I'm no good at... lying.

I wish I had never worn... knickers. Plus fours, they were called. My mother always made us wear them.

My favourite item of clothing... is a tie, sold by the Human Rights Campaign. It has a blue background, with little yellow equality signs on it. It's a very subtle statement, but very clear.

I drive... a Prius.

A book that changed me... Games People Play [by Eric Berne]. I read it in my late twenties, when I was married with children, but struggling with my sexual identity. It was published in 1961; you might call it the first ever self-help book.

Movie heaven... Milk. Harvey Milk was a remarkable person. I didn't know him well, but I moved to San Francisco two years before he was assassinated, so our paths crossed. When I saw the film, I thought it was amazingly well done, and accurate.

My greatest regret... You can't have them.

My real-life villain... is Trent Lott. He was the Republican leader in the Senate when I became the first openly gay man to be nominated as a US ambassador. He was a "good ol' boy" and behaved accordingly.

The person who really makes me laugh... is my partner, Michael. We met in Philadelphia, five years ago. He was a college student in his early twenties, and I was in my seventies, so of course we are sometimes judged for that. People talk about cradle snatchers and gold diggers. I don't know what else to do but laugh them off. It's just another form of discrimination.

My five-year plan... Full equality for everyone in the US. It's not going to happen, of course, but we can all dream.

My life in six words... Love. As The Beatles said: "all you need is love".


James Catherwood Hormel was born in Minnesota in 1933. His father built the Spam meat-packing empire. He grew up in an era when homosexuality was illegal, so married his female college sweetheart. In the Sixties, after having five children, he divorced, moved to New York and then San Francisco, and became a gay rights activist. In 1997, Hormel was asked by Bill Clinton to become the US ambassador to Luxembourg. The ensuing controversy is chronicled in his new autobiography, Fit to Serve