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.

Monday, December 18, 1989

Politician Refuses To Be Invisible: Openly Gay Chapel Hill Council Member Is Unique In N.C.

Charlotte Observer, Page A1, Dec. 18, 1989


CHAPEL HILL - Joe Herzenberg is a homosexual. That, in itself, is not unusual.

But Herzenberg is an openly gay, elected politician in North Carolina. And that makes him very unusual.

In fact, he's the only elected official in the state who publicly acknowledges his or her homosexuality.

"Gay people are still, in most parts of society, hidden and invisible," said Herzenberg, 48, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. "It's not right. I think people should know gay people are everywhere."

Last month Herzenberg attended the fifth annual National Conference of Lesbian and Gay Officials in Madison, Wis.

He was the sole elected official to attend from North Carolina - "and from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi," he said, laughing. He believes he may be the only openly homosexual elected official from the Southeast.

The group's best-known member is U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

Herzenberg's homosexuality has seemed to make little difference in this college town of 40,000. He said it never was an issue during the campaign and rarely is an issue now.

A Franklin, N.J., native, he has personally acknowledged his homosexuality for all of his adult life. "I sort of figured it out in junior high school," he said, fidgeting a bit in a low-slung chair in the mayor's office.

He never openly addressed his sexual orientation when he was appointed in 1979 to fill a vacancy on the town council. He served part of one term. He was defeated for reelection in 1981, still without publicly acknowledging his homosexuality.

Then, in 1984, he ran as a gay delegate to the Democratic National Convention and was elected. And when he announced he was running for town council in 1987, he said he was gay.

He won, finishing third in a nonpartisan race for four seats.

"I think my openness about being gay was considered a good point," he said. "The whole idea of carrying a huge secret around is a tremendous burden."

A Yale graduate who taught history in the 1960s at Tougaloo College, a historically black school in Tougaloo, Miss., Herzenberg is a liberal in the Chapel Hill mold. He is financially independent - he declined to discuss the source of his income - and is writing a biography on the late UNC-Chapel Hill President Frank Porter Graham.

Herzenberg said he believed that North Carolina has "a decent sprinkling of gay and lesbian elected officials, but for various reasons they elect to remain in the closet."

He acknowledged that it's probably easier for a gay politician to get elected in Chapel Hill, but he says he thinks openly gay candidates could be elected in more conservative towns. "I don`t think it's the formidable obstacle that people think it is," he said.

During his stint on town council, Herzenberg hasn`t pushed a gay rights agenda; the town already had an ordinance that protects homosexual town employees from discrimination.

His interests have been more generic.

His chief accomplishments: An ordinance that will require candidates for office in Chapel Hill to report all campaign contributions of more than $100 and a requirement for officeholders to disclose their property holdings.

"His sexual preference makes absolutely no difference in working on the issues," said council member Julie Andresen. "Whether or not he`s gay is really irrelevant to me."

Gerry Cohen, a former council member and political ally, said: "Even though I consider myself a good friend of his and still do, I had no idea he was gay until he announced it publicly."

Herzenberg, who lives alone, hasn't escaped the venom of a few citizens angry with his presence on the town council.

One person has written him three times anonymously criticizing his sexual orientation.

But his chief tormentor over the years has been Bob Windsor of Chatham County, who once published a homespun weekly newspaper on politics called The Landmark.

Windsor's stories called Herzenberg a variety of names and said that the state Democratic Party was kowtowing to homosexuals like Herzenberg.

"I just don't approve of their lifestyle," Windsor said in an interview.

Herzenberg shrugs off such comments and says they're rare.

"There really has been remarkably little negative feedback," he said. "I'm very pleased in the niche I'm in. My intent is mainly to be a good member of the Chapel Hill Town Council."