Clinton Tests Lott on Gay Ambassador

By Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe columnist
Boston Globe, Friday, January 15, 1999, p. A19
© Copyright 1999 The Globe Company

At the time of the brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, President Clinton urged Americans to root out bigotry.  It was obvious that Clinton could start right there in Washington, confronting powerful, antigay members of Congress.

It appears that Clinton has made a start in that direction.  This week he did something he rarely has done in his presidency:  stand up for a principle.  With little fanfare, he resubmitted the name of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hormel, the 66-year-old philanthropist and Hormel meat heir, would be the nation's first openly gay ambassador.  White House spokesman Barry Toev said:  "We are hopeful that in the new Congress fairness will prevail and he will have a chance to have his nomination voted up or down.  He is very well qualified."

In its first try at nominating Hormel, the White House said it had the support of 60 of the 100 senators.  But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott last year refused to let the nomination come to the floor.  Lott, influenced by loud objections by the far right wing, reportedly refused any meetings with Hormel, who tried to soften the objections against him by saying he would not bring his partner to Luxembourg.

Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, is a well-known homophobe, urging gay people to "control" their "problem," comparing homosexuality to kleptomania, alcoholism, and sex addiction.  He opposes federal antidiscrimination laws for gay and lesbian workers, saying such laws are "part of a larger and more audacious effort to make the public accept behavior that most Americans consider dangerous, unhealthy, or just plain wrong."

It remains to be seen what magic Clinton will work on Lott.  Perhaps Clinton sees enough momentum from the Democrats' success in the midterm elections to win on such issues as Hormel.  What is for sure is that the primitive Lott is in even more need than ever to cut his losses in the image department.

This week The New York Times had a story about Lott's ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a 15,000-member group that grew out of the white supremacist citizens councils of the mid-century.  Two months ago the council held its national convention in Jackson, Miss., with Governor Kirk Fordice among the 300 people who sang "Dixie" amid Confederate flags, objects which are like swastikas for African-Americans.

Last week Lott issued a statement condemning the group.  Even though 34 members of the Mississippi Legislature are members of the group, even though the group runs Lott's newspaper column, and even though the group has endorsed Lott in elections, Lott said he has "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views."  But two months ago, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that several people at the convention said that Lott was a member.  In 1997, a smiling Lott posed for a photograph with the council's state coordinator and its national president and executive officer.

The state coordinator, William Lord, said that Lott has appeared at two rallies to raise funds for an all-white private school that was created in Carroll County to let white children escape desegregation.  Lord said Lott gave a keynote speech to a national board meeting of the council in 1992, reportedly saying, "The people in this room stand for the right principles and  the right philosophy.  Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries."

The "right direction" - surprise - is segregation.  A council columnist wrote last fall:  "Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race.  Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself."

The odds of this group having positive views about gay and lesbian people is somewhere between none and nonexistent.  Perhaps Lott thought that if he could keep all that overt racism and homophobia tucked away with his straight white buddies in Missisippi, no one would pay him any attention.

But the responsiblity of holding a major Senate post can nudge bigots into the 20th century.  Hormel's nomination made it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a committee chaired by none other than Jesse Helms, whose views on homosexuals are as nasty as Lott's.

Helms has said The New York Times and The Washington Post are "infested" with homosexuals.  He has called homosexuality "sickening."  But Helms has 17 other members on his committee, few of whom desire to share Helms's or Lott's vituperative stand on homosexuality.  The nomination was approved by the committee. It will probably be approved again.  Then it will be up to Lott.

Now facing a rising scrutiny of his own behavior, Lott might reconsider.  He could start with the words of a Republican colleague, Jim Jeffords of Vermont.  Jeffords, a supporter of gay rights, said, "People who work hard and perform well should not be kept from leading productive and responsible lives because of an irrational, non-work-related prejudice."