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

About Joe

My photo
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.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Local progressive ideas boost gay rights issues

The Daily Tar Heel, Dec. 7, 2004


Of the six openly gay officials ever elected to office in North Carolina, four have been elected in Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

Although many agree on the source of the apparent openness toward gay rights, there is debate on how progressive the area really is.

"The first victories are usually in the more progressive areas," said Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, one of four openly gay mayors in the South. "Orange County is certainly one of the more progressive areas in the state."

Former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, who became the state's first openly gay elected official in 1987, also cited the towns' liberal reputations.

"I always thought that Chapel Hill would elect an openly gay official," he said. "University towns are traditionally ... more liberal and tolerant."

Council member Mark Kleinschmidt said Chapel Hill's history in playing a major role in activist movements is also key.

"We've been at the forefront of most civil rights movements," he said. "Generally, progressive and liberal people are the first to take on social justice issues."

Ian Palmquist, executive director for Equality NC, echoed the sentiment.

"Chapel Hill and Carrboro have had a long history with social justice issues," he said. "I think they are a little ahead of the rest of the state on issues like this."

Rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community are recent social issues the area has tackled.

At the council's March 22 meeting, Kleinschmidt presented a petition that would have asked the state to ignore the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

Doing so would have allowed the town to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere in the country and provide those couples with the same benefits accorded to married couples.

Nelson followed suit, making a similar petition at the March 25 Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting.

Both petitions were killed quickly in the N.C. General Assembly, but Kleinschmidt said his petition still has much support locally.

But for all the perceived local support toward the LGBT community, some harsh feelings toward the group still resonate.

"It's not completely easy," said Gloria Faley, former member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. "There are a lot of folks in this community who are not happy with us."

Faley said that during her campaign for the school board, she received a number of anonymous phone calls and "a lot of nasty anonymous letters."

Faley said she is even more worried by the results of the Nov. 2 general election, in which 11 states approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

"I'm worried about the overall state of the nation," she said. "I worry about people portraying other people as moral or immoral."

But Kleinschmidt said that despite the election results, he believes the nation has turned the corner toward a more tolerant view of the LGBT community.

"This isn't really backlash," he said. "It's really just half of an opinion. If you look at the polling numbers, there's a lot of support for civil unions."

Nelson shared similar views, pointing out Julia Boseman's election as state senator for the traditionally conservative New Hanover County.

"Once you cross that hurdle, you can win anywhere," Nelson said.

"Clearly, we've made it over that hurdle."