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.

Friday, June 11, 1999

Gays see the glass half full

Ruth Sheehan, The News & Observer, Raleigh, June 11, 1999

Starting this evening, thousands of gay men and women will gather in Greensboro for seminars and speeches, a big campy parade - and lots of parties. They call it PRIDE weekend. And this year, gay activists say they have much to celebrate. Much to be proud of.

"This was a good year," says my friend Joe Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member and the state's first openly gay elected official. "A very good year."

A key reason, according to Herzenberg, is that in April, for the first time ever, not one but two bills aimed at protecting gay citizens received a hearing on the floor of the state House.

One of the bills would have allowed Orange County commissioners to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations. The second - named for Matthew Shepard, the former Triangle resident who was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left to die in Wyoming because he was gay - would have expanded the definition of hate crimes to include victims targeted because of their sexual orientation, sex, disability or age.

Both bills were killed on the House floor. But to Herzenberg, in some ways, that's a small detail.

"Gay rights were discussed by the full House," Herzenberg tells me. "That is a big step. There are people who want to make radical change in a hurry. That's not always the best approach."

Herzenberg knows all too well that gay rights in a Bible Belt state such as North Carolina, where anti-gay sentiment remains so entrenched, is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition at best: Superior Court Judge Ray Warren comes out of the closet, only to be run out of the Republican Party. The Rev. Jimmy Creech officiates at a gay union, only to face the possibility of expulsion from the pulpit. Chapel Hill and Carrboro offer benefits to the domestic partners of town employees, including two gay workers, only to find the policies challenged in court by disapproving conservatives.

The progress is incremental. Painstakingly so, it seems to me.

Because in the end, you can still be fired, or evicted, or denied a job because you're gay.

You can be beaten simply because of whom you love - and it won't be considered a hate crime.

You can actually be arrested for the way you and your partner engage in fully consensual sex, even though many straight people routinely engage in similarly illegal activity.

It all amounts to legal discrimination against one final unprotected group of people. So to me, the fact that the state House heard, and promptly quashed, two mostly symbolic bills to protect gay civil rights is more an outrage than a cause for optimism.

But Herzenberg is far more patient. He points out that the landscape has changed dramatically since 1987, when he was first elected. Gay couples are out-virtually everywhere, without so much as an eyebrow raised, Herzenberg notes.

Getting the laws to acknowledge this social reality is the next step. And getting gay-rights legislation heard on the House floor is obviously a crucial part of that process.

Perhaps, as Herzenberg says, it has been a "good" year. But I believe we could have done better.