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, April 24, 1995

Gays, lesbians ask to reword partners plan: Proposal due before council

Chapel Hill Herald, April 24, 1995


CHAPEL HILL -- While generally pleased with a domestic partners policy the Town Council is expected to consider tonight, the Orange Lesbian and Gay Association will recommend minor changes.

The association, with about 10 active members and some 200 on its mailing list, is a political group that lobbies for gay rights. The group met Thursday night to discuss proposed changes in town policies that would broaden the rights of gay and lesbian town employees.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been prohibited in Chapel Hill's hiring practices for two decades, but some benefits -- such as medical coverage -- remain out of reach for partners of gay workers.

If passed, the domestic partners policy would allow unmarried couples to register with the town. It also would allow town employees to use sick leave to care for a gay or lesbian partner.

Such partners first must provide documents, such as a joint mortgage, proving financial and legal ties. Providing sick leave would cost Chapel Hill about $6,700 annually, Town Manager Cal Horton said.

Horton is also recommending that domestic partners be defined as: "Two individuals who live together in an intimate, long-term relationship of infinite duration, with an exclusive mutual commitment equivalent to that of marriage."

That wording is more restrictive than a similar policy Carrboro's Board of Aldermen adopted in September. Carrboro, which became the first municipality in the state to extend formal, legal recognition to unwed couples, does not stipulate that they have a "long-term relationship of infinite duration."

Association member Joe Herzenberg, a former Town Council member, said reaction to the policy was "generally positive."

But several lawyers associated with the group "went over it with a microscope and prepared a small list of things they'd like to see changed," Herzenberg said. Suggested changes included the proposed definition of a domestic partnership.

Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos, who met with a small association contingent Friday, said he was aware of members' concerns. However, he said he does not think that there is any substantive difference between the Chapel Hill and Carrboro definitions of domestic partners.

"We came up with a definition that we thought was appropriate. Just because it isn't the same as Carrboro's doesn't mean there's something wrong with it," he said.

Doug Ferguson, also an association member, said he does not want the dialogue Monday to turn into "quibbling over details." Consequently the group may recommend delaying a vote while specific issues are ironed out, he added.

Ferguson described the registration of domestic partners as being mostly symbolic. But it will become increasingly important as more private companies extend benefits to couples who have registration certificates, he said.

In a memo to the council, Horton said that eight town employees would extend health insurance to same gender partners, if allowed. Another 22 employees would do so for partners of the opposite sex. But the town does not have clear authority to insure domestic partners, Horton and Karpinos said.

Ferguson said association members disagree with the town's interpretation of state law.

Also the policy proposed by Karpinos and Horton does not mention children of the domestic partnerships, which is something Herzenberg said the association would like to see included.

"It's a minor, but significant issue," he said. Herzenberg said he believes tonight's meeting will proceed without controversy.

In Carrboro, the issue drew opposition from members of a local church. But during the eight years Herzenberg served on the Chapel Hill Town Council, only two people voiced any opposition to "anything gay related," he said.

"Chapel Hill is a town that is tolerant and accepts diversity," Herzenberg said.

Friday, April 21, 1995

Chapel Hill may expand rights of gays

The News & Observer, April 21, 1995

CHAPEL HILL -- For 20 years, the town of Chapel Hill has had a policy that prohibits discrimination against its gay employees.

Now town leaders are considering going further, extending some benefits to gay employees and allowing gay residents to register their unions officially. If enacted, the policies would be among the most liberal in the state. On Monday night, the Chapel Hill Town Council will consider a series of policies that would affect its employees. Among them:

- Allowing paid sick leave to care for partners.
-Redefining the word "family" in the development ordinance to include registered domestic partners.
-Prohibiting supervisory relationships between employees who are domestic partners.
-Requiring domestic partners of elected leaders to disclose their real estate holdings.

Chapel Hill Council member Mark Chilton, who proposed the changes last year, said it's a matter of fairness.

"I think that essentially this is recognition on the part of our town government that families are a lot different and more complex in the 1990s than they were in the 1950s," he said. "It is perhaps even overdue."


On Thursday, gay leaders applauded Chapel Hill's initiative.

Former Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, who was the town's first openly gay elected official, recalled the story of a town employee who had been fired from a previous job in another state because he was gay. When the man moved to Chapel Hill, he was protected by the town's anti-discrimination clause.

"Some people kind of growl at things that are symbolic, but I think symbolic things are very important," he said. "This isn't just symbolic. Some people will benefit from this, will feel better and have better lives."