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.

Tuesday, July 2, 1996

Fireworks on hiatus this year

The News & Observer, July 2, 1996


Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents hoping to catch a fireworks show this Fourth of July will be out of luck unless they roam to Durham, Raleigh or Cary.

For the first time this decade, the town's annual fireworks display at Kenan Stadium will be on hiatus while renovations are made to the football stadium.

The festivities will move to Chapel Hill as residents converge on McCorkle Place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for picnicking, music and a synchronized laser light show.


Joe Herzenberg, a longtime resident and former Town Council member who usually spends the Fourth of July at the Kenan Stadium celebration, said he plans to spend the afternoon picnicking at the Horace Williams House before heading over to McCorkle Place.

"I love fireworks," he said. "But I really don't like the idea of going to Durham, so I'm curious about what these laser lights are like. I'm loyal to my town."

Gays facing a changed atmosphere

The News & Observer, page A1, July 2, 1996


It's been a tough spring for the gay community.

With national polls showing voters strongly opposing gay marriage, the General Assembly has banned same-sex unions. Congress is revving up its Defense of Marriage Act, and President Clinton has promised to sign it. Baptists are boycotting Disney for providing benefits to "domestic partners." And the N.C. Board of Education wants to instruct students that homosexuality is illegal and immoral.


The same-sex marriage legislation notwithstanding, gays and lesbians acknowledge that they have also seen many advances over the past four years.


To date, nine states have passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro offer benefits to domestic partners of their employees.

N.C. Pride PAC, which gives money to candidates who are sympathetic to gay issues, is among the top 20 political action committees in dollars raised. And the national Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund reports that of 511,000 elected officials, 105, including Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, are openly gay. That's the highest number ever, up from 75 in 1992, when the officials' national convention was in Chapel Hill.

Joe Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill City Council member who was the first openly gay elected official in the state, said he and others at the convention overestimated the impact of Clinton's election.

"I thought this was a giant step forward," he said. Now, he said, he realizes that changes in society's attitudes toward homosexuality come in small steps - steps that have continued amid the backlash of the past few years. He said debate on these types of issues - positive or negative - is a step forward.

"In my life," said Herzenberg, 54, "I never would have expected to see a gay issue debated on the floor of the General Assembly."