At this weekend’s GOP debates, former Senator Rick Santorum faced renewed questions about his record on gay rights, which he parried by stressing his opposition to anti-gay discrimination and support for “equality of opportunity.” During his tenure in Congress, however, Santorum took actions that enabled and even encouraged discrimination based on sexual orientation.

One of the most blatant examples was Santorum’s opposition to the nomination of James Hormel to be the first openly gay US ambassador. Santorum joined a campaign against Hormel’s nomination that frequently focused on his sexual orientation. Sending a gay American to be the ambassador to a Roman Catholic country, Santorum said in 1994, was “a complete insult to Catholics.” That was a stretch on several levels.

In a new interview with The Nation, Hormel emphasized that “no ambassador nomination takes place without approval of the other country”—a fact that is well known to members of Congress. Luxembourg had already approved the nomination, Hormel recalled, and that history “says something about the integrity of candidate Santorum—he claims to respect gay people, but I don’t find it credible.”

Asked if Santorum opposed his nomination based on his sexual orientation, Hormel saw no other interpretation. “He said it,” Hormel replied, “there’s no other conclusion that can be drawn.”

While that fight suggested Santorum’s views in a single case, at the level of federal policy, he also fought efforts to stop anti-gay discrimination across the country.

In 1996, Santorum voted against a bill to bar workplace discrimination against gays. That legislation, the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), failed by a vote of 49 to 50. Today, twenty-one states have such a law on the books, so without a federal law, it is still generally legal in the other twenty-nine states to fire someone for being gay.

The Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay equality group, seized on that contrast after Sunday’s debate. Santorum claims to oppose discrimination, said HRC director Joe Solomnese, yet he opposes “laws that would make it illegal to fire LGBT people.” Solomnese saw the debate rhetoric as a reflection of the growing acceptance of homosexuality among the general public, while neither Santorum nor Romney have the record to match the moderate mood. “You can’t say one thing simply because it sounds good,” Solomnese said, “but yet continue to act in a manner that is completely at odds with that rhetoric.”

The ENDA bill never passed, but Hormel did go on to become the first openly gay US ambassador, once President Clinton nominated him with a recess appointment (another issue on today’s campaign trail). Now 79, Hormel is on a book tour for Fit to Serve, which narrates his “secret life” and “public battle to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador.” Reflecting on the next steps for gay equality in the United States, Hormel cast the opponents of gay rights as wed to a false premise about the experience of being gay.

“I suspect many of these candidates are coming from the perspective that being gay is a choice,” he said. The “LGBT movement” will achieve its next breakthroughs, Hormel predicted, “when people realize being gay is not a choice.”