Saturday, December 22, 1984
Lightning Brown and Joe Herzenberg: Personal Dignity
Most of us experienced the ugliness of the 1984 political races from a safe distance. We didn't like all the name-calling on TV but, heck, the mud wasn't flying directly at us, and we could simply turn off the tube when it got too thick.
Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown couldn't do that. Every few weeks during the height of the election season they read trash about themselves in a scandal-rag called The Landmark which is published in Chatham County and circulates widely around the state. The rest of the state's press finally repudiated Landmark editor Bob Windsor when he told vicious lies about Jim Hunt. But no such support came to Lightning and Joe.
For the last decade the two of them have been involved in every good cause in Chapel Hill. Joe, who is writing a biography of former UNC President Frank Porter Graham, served on the town council. Lightning, a computer programmer for the dental school, is currently vice-chair of the town's planning board and a member of the Democratic state executive committee.
Both were active in the Hunt for Senate campaign, especially in the gay community. When Bob Windsor found out, he published many pictures of the two and printed their home addresses. He accused them of being child molesters, implied they are porno kings and called them dozens of foul names.
And during the second U.S. Senate debate, Jesse Helms himself got into the act, invoking their names before an enormous television audience as if they were evil villians.
Through it all, Lightning, 37, and Joe, 43, showed immense courage. They stuck with the Hunt campaign (even though Hunt never denounced the attacks on them) and were the most visible representatives of the gay minority scapegoated by right-wingers. They did this despite the false rumors, the public notice when they didn't want it, the physical threats.
Lightning says the attacks were "political terrorism. They were extremely painful. They were evil and destructive gossip. Two people even threatened to kill me on Rosemary Street."
Joe says the attacks were "very disruptive and at times painful." Was he scared? "At moments."
And yet Lightning and Joe persisted. They organized Chapel Hill's famous East Franklin Street precinct as thoroughly as ever before and continued to raise funds for Hunt. Instead of hiding from Windsor's camera and Helms' innuendo, they remained in the public eye as campaign activists.
In 1984, candidates make only veiled appeals to the racism of voters. But gay and lesbian people - hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians - are fair game for name-calling and out-and-out threats.
That vile practice is not over. Though more and more North Carolinians know gays and lesbians at work and as friends, it will be a long time before that knowledge leads to acceptance. Meanwhile, the reaction from extremists will continue.
The public courage and personal dignity of Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown have done much to advance the time when this political terrorism will end. Too few people spoke forcefully on their behalf: Their public ordeal was, ironically, a lonely one. Lightning Brown says, "I haven't been living my own life for the past year. I fall back on some foundation of individual personhood when I can't rely on anything else."
Many people relied on him and Joe Herzenberg in 1984.
Sunday, July 15, 1984
In the summer of 1984, Joe went to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Joe had previously attended the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, along with his friend and colleague from Tougaloo College, John Dittmer, as an alternate delegate from Mississippi.
This time around, Joe had been elected from N.C.’s 4th congressional district as an openly gay Mondale delegate. Joe was one of only 65 openly gay delegates, alternates, and committee members in attendance. As recently as 1976, the number of openly gay delegates to the Democratic National Convention was four.
Joe saved this Mondale campaign sign from the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
On Sunday, July 15, Joe marched with his fellow delegates and alternates as the guests of honor at the head of a parade of 100,000 gay men, lesbians, and their supporters in the second ever National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights. They marched from the Castro district up Market Street to the George Moscone Center, where the convention would take place later that week.
Bobbi Campbell, the featured speaker in this video, was a gay activist and San Francisco's most prominent AIDS sufferer, first diagnosed in 1981. He would die of AIDS exactly one month after the march, on August 15, 1984.
It was not the first national gay and lesbian march (which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1979, in the wake of Harvey Milk’s assassination), or the biggest (three years later, in October, 1987, between 200,000 and 500,000 marchers would return to D.C.).
But this day, more than any other, was a political coming out for the gay liberation movement. It signaled that gays and lesbians were a force to be reckoned with in national Democratic politics, and Joe must have been thrilled to be marching at the front of the line.