Skip to comments.I was always discreet in Bermuda, says Farmer
Posted on 01/18/2004 9:57:24 AM PST by Tumbleweed_Connection
BOB FARMER, treasurer for Democractic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's newly resurgent Presidential campaign, used "discretion" about his sexuality while serving as a popular US Consul General in Bermuda.
In a wide-ranging profile that appeared in The Advocate the national gay magazine in the US shortly after he retired as the top US diplomat in Bermuda, Mr. Farmer revealed he was the first homosexual to avoid being ensnared in a battle with conservative lawmakers during his confirmation hearings before the US Senate.
"Five years before the James Hormel debate, gay Democratic fund-raiser Robert Farmer served in the diplomatic corps," wrote The Advocate. "During the nearly two-year battle over the nomination of James Hormel as US envoy to Luxembourg, right-wing critics argued that confirmation would set a bad example in his destination country, which is heavily Catholic.
"President Clinton appointed Hormel during a congressional recess in June, but only after the former law school dean promised GOP senators that he and his partner, Timothy Wu, would not become a poster couple for gay rights in the grand duchy.
"But Hormel, now barred by the State Department from discussing matters related to being the nation's first openly gay ambassador, is not the only gay man to serve in a high-level diplomatic function in the Clinton administration.
"From 1994 to 1999 veteran Democratic fund-raiser Robert A. Farmer was US Consul General to Bermuda, where he was often accompanied by his partner, Craig Smallwood.
"I told Jim Hormel, 'I'd be happy to testify on your behalf as someone who has already had the experience'," Farmer says. "In the end it wasn't necessary. But I would have told the Senators that serving your country as a gay person is not a problem at all.
"Once people get to know who you are and that you are doing a good job, they don't care about your sexual orientation. And that's why the Hormel nomination fight ultimately backfired on the Republicans."
The Advocate interview was conducted at Farmer's Miami Beach, Florida, penthouse, which is filled with political mementoes. He agreed to speak for the first time about his experience as a gay man not only in his Bermuda post but as one of the top Democratic fund-raisers ever. Farmer's political credentials are impressive:
He has served as treasurer on six Presidential campaigns including Sen. Kerry's and was also treasurer for the Democratic National Committee. With his imposing presence and shock of greying hair, Farmer looks the part of the consummate insider that he is.
Farmer earned his Bermuda honour through yeoman service to Bill Clinton. He joined the president, Hillary Clinton, and Bruce Lindsey in incorporating the Clinton presidential campaign in 1991, serving as its national treasurer.
Shortly after the 1992 election, Farmer met with Clinton, who would soon become a golfing partner, in Little Rock, Arkansas; they had a conversation there and in the Oval Office several months later about a possible appointment to a high-level Administration title.
Farmer warned Clinton, who knew Farmer is gay, of the vehement opposition that would greet his nomination.
"I told Clinton that I was interested in government service but didn't want to have him expend valuable political capital on a bloody confirmation battle," Farmer recalls. "I told him that I was not ready to put my family through that hell either."
Two years later Clinton appointed Farmer to the plum Bermuda assignment, which required the lower-profile confirmation from the Senate. In that process Farmer somehow escaped the wrath of Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who bedevilled many Clinton appointments.
During his service in Bermuda, Farmer used discretion in determining whether to take his partner to events.
"Generally, I was open, and Craig was with me at a lot of functions, but there were occasions (at which) I was on official business, so I would go with myself or with a female friend so as not to create an awkward situation for my host country," Farmer says. "You have to remember that you are representing your country, and that comes before all else."
Farmer's five-year stint was well received in Bermuda. He is credited with improving the American Consul General office's relations with Bermuda's 67,000 residents. The consul's former mansion, the 14-acre Chelston estate, bustled with official functions throughout his tenure.
Farmer did a "magnificent job", declared The Royal Gazette upon his retirement. "No previous Consul General and certainly no Bermudian public figure in recent times has managed to make so many friends and such a wide range of contacts throughout Bermuda."
Such accolades are nothing new for Farmer.
Over the last two decades perhaps no person has raised more money for Democratic candidates than Farmer.
Farmer graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School, then made his fortune as founder of Robert A. Farmer Group Inc., an educational publishing firm that he sold in 1983. He first caught the political bug in 1979 when independent presidential candidate John Anderson asked him to raise money for his insurgent campaign.
Farmer then signed on as treasurer of Michael Dukakis' 1982 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, during which he formed a close friendship with Dukakis and his wife, Kitty.
Shortly thereafter he came out to Kitty.
"I told Kitty about my being gay, and she said that was fine with her, 'but don't tell Michael'," Farmer says. "The three of us laugh about it now, but at the time I just saw it as Michael's macho Greek thing."
It was a harbinger of bad things to come. In 1986 the Dukakis governorship promulgated regulations barring homosexuals from serving as foster parents; gays and lesbians who worked for his campaigns were infuriated. By the time of his ill-fated 1988 presidential bid, Dukakis was using the policy to bolster his credentials as a moderate.
Farmer felt trapped. In 1978 he had sponsored two refugee Vietnamese brothers, Thieu and Hieu Nguyen, and was raising them in his home with his first partner. (Farmer legally adopted Thieu in 1990; he maintains a close relationship with both brothers today.) Kitty Dukakis played a supportive role for Farmer throughout. The governor eventually learned of his chief fund-raiser's family structure but stood behind the anti-gay policy until it was overturned by a state court in 1989.
Farmer says he never brought up the policy with Dukakis.
"I know it made an impression on Michael that I was a good parent," Farmer says. "But Michael always did things out of principle, and I didn't think it could sway him. Not even his wife could change his mind. I also saw myself as his finance chair, and I didn't want to ask him for policy changes. I didn't think it was necessary for me to agree with everything Michael did in public life, so I didn't think it was my place."
But there was another reason as well: Farmer felt uncomfortable confronting his old friend about such a personal issue.
"Young people today don't remember what it was like to grow up in the 1950s," he says. "You lived a lie every day. It's taken me all those years to get to where I feel as comfortable talking about it as I am today. At the time I just wasn't quite ready."
During the imbroglio many gay activists in the state were aware of Farmer's situation. Still, says Sue Hyde, who lobbied against the policy as a member of the political group the Gay and Lesbian Defence Committee, the blame lies with Dukakis. "Many, many people confronted Dukakis about this on a variety of occasions, and he wouldn't budge," says Hyde, who is now the New England field organiser for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"How did Dukakis manage to deny the reality of his own colleague's life? The answer to the question of gay parents was right in front of his face, and he couldn't see it."
Dukakis, who now has professorial positions at both Boston's Northeastern University and the University of California, Los Angeles, says that while he doesn't think he ever spoke to Farmer about his family life, it would not have affected his position if he had.
"I still feel that, in the ideal circumstances, we should place foster kids in a home with a mother and father and other children. Certainly there are situations where gay people can be excellent parents, and I'm sure Bob was a very good father. I've never ruled out alternative family situations, but I do feel the more traditional family is ideal."
Farmer's coming-out experiences with other national Democratic candidates were progressively less traumatic. Before he became John Glenn's national treasurer for his 1984 presidential bid, he had a candid conversation with the then Ohio senator, who was resistant to gay rights at the time.
"His allure as a candidate was largely in the conservative South," Farmer says. "So I said, 'John, there's something I have to tell you: I'm gay.' He was shocked and told me he would have to think about it. But he came back and said that it was not a problem. He would tell people that he hired me because I was good at what I did."
Former vice-president Walter Mondale, another failed presidential aspirant, was even more sympathetic.
"Mondale said, 'Bob, it's my experience with my gay friends that people are happiest when they are comfortable being open about who they are'," Farmer recounts.
Today, Farmer says, he understands the truth of Mondale's words. "I'm doing this interview to help young gay people somewhere feel more comfortable about who they are," he says. "It would be great if I could make it a little easier to be gay and participate openly in politics."
Fund-raisers like Farmer are in high demand and politics is still very much in his blood. In their living room Smallwood plays a video of Farmer's 60th birthday party at Chelston, which was attended by more than 350 friends and family. Testimonials from Clinton, the first lady, and Al Gore soon fill the room.
"Isn't that great! Isn't that great!" Farmer says with a grin, pointing to the big-screen TV. "There's just nothing like politics. Nothing quite like it."
He doesn't seem to be the "in your face" kind and it didn't cause a problem.
I'd never discount someone as a friend or associate based on their sexual orientation.
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