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.

Thursday, January 20, 1994

Gays believe film overdue

The News & Observer, Jan. 20, 1994

It has taken far longer than many in the Triangle's gay community had hoped, but they say they're glad they can now see a realistic version of themselves in their neighborhood movie theater.

For that, they thank "Philadelphia," the movie starring Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer fired for having AIDS, and Denzel Washington as the attorney who takes the case against Hanks' bosses. The film, says Lucy Harris of the Durham-based Lesbian and Gay Health Project, is wonderful.

"Everyone needs to see this movie," says Harris. "It shows real life -- real, live gay folks living with AIDS and with everything that means, not with a lot of glamour or trying to be gross, but in a way that celebrates our reality."


Chapel Hill's Mark Donahue rates the film high for its realistic portrayal of how AIDS can ravage not only a person's body, but his mind as well. "A lot of these scenes show people as they really are, and how they change over time," he says.

Former Chapel Hill Town Council member and gay political activist Joe Herzenberg is happy with the movie for the way it portrays gay characters. Instead of relying on stereotypes that reinforce negative images of gays, "Philadelphia" allows Tom Hanks' gay lawyer to be an ordinary homosexual facing extraordinary circumstances.

"It was clearly a Hollywood movie in the grand tradition of the underdog triumphing over evil," Herzenberg says. "It's excellent company to be in."

While Herzenberg says he can't find much fault with the movie, he says he can understand why others might. "It's often said about gay public officials that they're not 'gay enough' to suit their gay constituents, and too gay to suit their straight constituents," he says. "I could see how people would say that of this movie."

Donahue agrees, saying the studio definitely played it safe with the advertising: the posters and the early trailers downplay the movie's gay angle. "From what you saw before going to the movie, all you knew is that it was a courtroom drama," he says. "The ads don't mention AIDS, they don't mention homosexuality. They were banking on the star power of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, which I guess is shrewd on their part."