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.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Inside the halls of power: Gays and lesbians have served the Carolinas well

Q-Notes, June 27, 2009


In the 1980s, the chances for any openly gay man or lesbian woman wining an election to public office were pretty much slim-to-none. That didn’t stop scores of gay and lesbian North Carolinians from throwing their hat into the ring and giving it a shot.


Bob and Lightning

On August 25, 1981, openly gay N.C. State University graduate student Bob Hoy filed to run for the Raleigh City Council where just a generation before, arch-conservative Jesse Helms held office. Hoy was ultimately unsuccessful. Even The Front Page, North Carolina’s most comprehensive gay and lesbian newspaper at the time, said Hoy wasn’t a “serious contender.”

The Front Page’s writers changed their tune when Lightning A. Brown came onto the scene, extolling his abilities and platform. Just weeks after Hoy filed to run in Raleigh, Brown filed to run for the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Come election day, neither Hoy nor Brown won. Hoy picked up only three percent of the vote in his primary. Brown picked up more than 1,400 votes in his primary, but ultimately failed to capture the 2,100 votes required to continue on to the general election.

Hoy’s and Brown’s candidacies are likely the first openly gay candidacies for public office in the Carolinas.

‘The Mayor of Franklin St.’

Brown’s partner, Joseph Herzenberg, would go down in history. At the same time Brown was fighting for his chance to become Chapel Hill’s first openly gay town councilman, Herzenberg — not yet out — lost his chance to continue serving on the council.

Herzenberg had run for the council before. In 1979, he was narrowly defeated. He was later appointed to the council when University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student Gerry Cohen resigned. Trying to keep that seat in 1981, Herzenberg barely missed the mark, losing his seat in the same primary election that saw his partner’s defeat.

That didn’t stop Joe. In 1987, he ran again and won, becoming the state’s first openly gay elected official. Serving until 1993, Herzenberg was instrumental in political organizing statewide and was a co-founder of the Equality North Carolina Political Action Committee.

He died of complications from diabetes at the age of 66 on Oct. 28, 2007.