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.

Sunday, July 15, 1984

Joe as an openly gay Mondale delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco

In the summer of 1984, Joe went to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Joe had previously attended the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, along with his friend and colleague from Tougaloo College, John Dittmer, as an alternate delegate from Mississippi.

This time around, Joe had been elected from N.C.’s 4th congressional district as an openly gay Mondale delegate. Joe was one of only 65 openly gay delegates, alternates, and committee members in attendance. As recently as 1976, the number of openly gay delegates to the Democratic National Convention was four.

Joe saved this Mondale campaign sign from the 1984 Democratic National Convention.

On Sunday, July 15, Joe marched with his fellow delegates and alternates as the guests of honor at the head of a parade of 100,000 gay men, lesbians, and their supporters in the second ever National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights. They marched from the Castro district up Market Street to the George Moscone Center, where the convention would take place later that week.

Bobbi Campbell, the featured speaker in this video, was a gay activist and San Francisco's most prominent AIDS sufferer, first diagnosed in 1981. He would die of AIDS exactly one month after the march, on August 15, 1984.

It was not the first national gay and lesbian march (which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1979, in the wake of Harvey Milk’s assassination), or the biggest (three years later, in October, 1987, between 200,000 and 500,000 marchers would return to D.C.).

But this day, more than any other, was a political coming out for the gay liberation movement. It signaled that gays and lesbians were a force to be reckoned with in national Democratic politics, and Joe must have been thrilled to be marching at the front of the line.