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.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Public Must Accept LGBT Politicians

The Daily Tar Heel, April 24, 2002

By Jonathan Chaney

When you run for political office, it's best to make sure your closet is clean of skeletons.

And conventional wisdom also tells you that if you're gay and want a political office, it's best to stay in the closet.

But more and more successful pols are bucking that trend.

If you don't believe me, take a look at the photo exhibit "Out and Elected in the U.S.A." on display at the Carrboro Century Center.

The exhibit was organized by Washington, D.C., photographer R. S. Lee, who spent more than four years compiling all of the material.

There are 60 photos of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans who either hold public office or held public office in the past.

Surrounding the photo montages are personal essays from leaders in 30 of the 33 states where openly gay and lesbian officials have captured elected office.

With the sponsorship of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a national educational and public interest group that helps gay and lesbians attain political office all over the country, the exhibit is on a national tour after a stint in Washington, D.C.

And Carrboro was its first stop.

There's good reason for Chapel Hill and Carrboro to be the national debut for this exhibit.

That's because this area has been the vanguard of LGBT political opportunity in North Carolina.

In fact, two of our own are on display in the exhibit itself.

Joe Herzenberg, former Chapel Hill Town Council member and mayor pro tem, became the state's first openly gay elected official when he sat down in the Chapel Hill Town Hall in 1987.

And Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson became North Carolina's first openly gay mayor in 1995.

But obviously Chapel Hill and Carrboro are not microcosms of the entire state.

There are still many counties here where people would be deathly afraid to come out of the closet, much less try and run for a publicly elected office.

Supporters of this exhibit, including photographer Lee himself, hope this tour will allay some of those fears -- or at least educate the public at large.

"If this can help one person who has always said, 'No way, no how,' realize that it doesn't have to be that way, that they don't have to spend their life trying to be something that they're not, then I've accomplished my goal," Lee said.

People like Nelson and Herzenberg are anomalies in a state whose national political identity is inexorably linked with Sen. Jesse Helms.

But recognizing their contributions to political mainstreaming for gays and lesbians in the state is important.

After all, what other group of people can say they have representatives holding political office in just 33 of the country's 50 states?




Of course not.

But face it.

Though racial and religious discrimination is still prevalent in our country, discriminating against and ostracizing gays and lesbians are the most socially tolerated forms of intolerance in our society today.

Jokes and innuendo regarding sexual orientation are fair game for sitcoms and late-night comedy hosts.

Walk through the Pit and hear, "That's so gay," or, "What a fag."

In such a climate at large, is it any wonder that there are only 33 states with openly gay and lesbian officials?

(Though I promise that all 50 states have ones still hiding in the closet.)

That's why recognizing those who have taken the bold step to not only open up their closets to the public, but freely come out of them, is worthwhile.

"Out and Elected in the U.S.A." premiered April 14 to a crowd of more than 100. The exhibit runs through May 12.

Take a few minutes to visit.

The men and women who grace the Century Center's walls are pioneers who have my gratitude and respect.

At the very least, they deserve to have us hear what they say.

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