Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Saturday, December 22, 1984

Citizen Awards 1984 - Lightning Brown and Joe Herzenberg: Personal Dignity

North Carolina Independent, Dec. 22, 1984, Inaugural Citizen Awards

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.