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, November 25, 1995

Focus on Gay Politics - N.C. mayor finds acceptance

Atlanta Journal Constitution, Nov. 25, 1995

From Carrboro, N.C., to Maine to San Francisco, openly gay and lesbian politicians are making an impact. Gay activists also hope to play an influential role in the upcoming presidential campaign.

By KRISTIN EDDY, Staff Writer

Carrboro, N.C. - At the White House, he was confronted by Secret Service agents wearing rubber gloves, but here in the town where he will become mayor Dec. 5, Michael Nelson is hardly noticed when he lunches at Maggie's, a soup and sandwich spot on the main street.

As an openly gay candidate, Nelson won handily, garnering more votes than his two opponents combined, and managed to defuse an issue that once meant certain political failure, not just in this conservative state, but anywhere.

"I think being openly gay is a political positive," said Nelson, 31, in an interview last week. "People think - and rightly so - that if you can be open and honest about something that can damage your career, you are going to be honest about other things."

Joe Herzenberg, a former town councilman [in Chapel Hill] who is gay and Nelson's political mentor, agrees.

"A gay candidate gives people something to come out and vote for, whether the voters are gay, or not gay but sympathetic," Herzenberg says. "I think Mike's being gay made him distinctive in a positive way."


Growing up near Camp Lejeune as the son of a Marine, Nelson came to this area as a student at the University of North Carolina, majoring in political science. He says he was always involved in social issues, campaigning for the equal rights amendment, the National Abortion Rights Action League, gay rights and the local Democratic party.

He became Herzenberg's campaign manager in 1987 on Herzenberg 's third and finally successful try for public office.

"I think he was one of those people who became a political junkie early on," Herzenberg, 54, says of Nelson. "He is not obsessed with politics, but a good deal of his life is involved with it."

Nelson says his family, which includes a brother in Atlanta and a sister in Chicago, may have found his success in politics a segue to acceptance. Although supportive of him now, Nelson says their reactions to his coming out as a gay man ranged from "some anger and hostility, then stunned disbelief." The turning point for Nelson's mother, he says, was when he ran for the board of aldermen several years ago and lost by just 32 votes:

"I almost won, and she said, 'Hey, there are people out there who support him even though he is gay'."


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