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, December 16, 2001

Listening for a Change: Interview with Joe’s friend and fellow activist Mark Donahue, conducted by Chris McGinnis

Oral History Interview with Mark Donahue, conducted by Chris McGinnis, Dec. 16, 2001.

Interview Number: K-0843. Archived for listening as part of the Southern Oral History Program at the Southern Historical Collection Manuscripts Department in Wilson Libary, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Mark Donahue is a fellow activist and close friend of Joe's who worked on three of his five campaigns for Chapel Hill Town Council. He served as editor of Lambda, the Carolina Gay & Lesbian Association's newsletter, at UNC-CH during the mid-to-late 1980's.

Along with Joe, Mark was interviewed by Chris McGinnis in 2001 . Portions of the transcript are reproduced below.

Listening for a Change: History of Gay Men and Transgender People in the South

These interviews by Chris McGinnis, an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were conducted for an independent study in the fall semester of 2000 and for the Southern Oral History Program in 2001-2002.

They give a perspective of gay life in the South, with particular emphasis on North Carolina in the 1960s through the 1980s. The interviews chronicle the development of the gay community in the South and explore early gay bars, social events and festivals of the gay community, gay organizations and activism, and places where gay men met and engaged in public sex, among other topics.

Included are interviews with Chapel Hill, N.C., town council member Joseph A. Herzenberg and writer Perry Deane Young.

CHRIS MCGINNIS: I am interviewing Mr. Mark Donahue. All right Mark, usually when I am interviewing folks, the first thing I ask them is where they were born and where they grew up, and that spiel.

MARK DONAHUE: I was born in Indian Trail, North Carolina, which is a suburb of Monroe.

CM: Oh!

MD: The home of Jesse Helms. I grew up there and entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall of 1981.

CM: Okay. So, what was your major at UNC?

MD: Political Science.


CM: Did you ever hold a position in CGLA?

MD: Yes, I ended up being editor of the Newsletter, Lambda. And actually that was at a later time, in a later incarnation. It was like in '87 or '88. I suspended my studies for a couple of years and was going part time during that time, but when I got back into the full swing of things, became Editor of the Newsletter, which I really enjoyed as it turns out, putting that newsletter together was a real pain in the butt.

CM: Yeah, I did it too.

MD: Yeah, it was hard pulling it together, it was hard getting stories, it was hard getting people to use their real names and getting stories. It was hard getting people to use their real names in interviews and things like that, because some people didn’t want to be—have their name used in the school, in the school gay news rag, as it was referred to.


MD: Also, as an advisor to the organization at that time was Cecil Wooten, Classics Professor--

CM: He remained until relatively recently.

MD: Cecil was great, he was always there if we had any questions. We also had the advantage of someone who had ran as an openly gay man for the Chapel Hill Town Council. At that point, he had—let’s see had he been elected? Yes, he had been elected in 1987, Joe Herzenberg. I worked on his campaign briefly in '85 when he ran for the town council and lost—

CM: Right, and '87 was that when Mike Nelson managed the campaign?

MD: You know, I can’t remember if Mike was the manager or not, but I know that he worked on the campaign. I can’t tell you, Joe Herzenberg could tell you.

CM: I believe that was the year, because '87 was the year that he won—

MD: Yes.

CM: --'85 he ran and lost and '87 he won and ran, I mean ran and won [Chris laughs]

MD: And in '91, I was more involved in Joe’s re-election. I was put in charge of the endorsement ad. I was basically collecting the signatures of folks who supported him in his re-election and to date, I think that this still stands true - it is the largest endorsement ad, in terms of the number of participants in Chapel Hill Town Council History. (editor's note - 599 people and one cat signed this endorsement ad).

CM: Wow! That’s great.

MD: So, I was very proud of that.

CM: What was the general feel of the town when Joe was running? I mean, did you feel that Chapel Hill was liberal outside of the University Community—meaning the students—were pretty supportive of him?

MD: I think that there were a few detractors of Joe. Some of those were related to Joe being gay, others were—

CM: They just didn’t like Joe.

MD: They didn’t like Joe for other political reasons, that had to do with some town development issue, or it had to do with the fact that Joe was such an outspoken liberal Democrat on other issues. So, I think that there was a strain of detractors, with Joe in his campaign. But, I think, generally he got great support. I think that he got great student support. Students are notorious for not really participating in town elections. Number one, because they are not registered to vote. Number two, they are registered to vote, but they are not registered to vote in Chapel Hill, they are registered back in their hometown. Number three; they don’t understand the election process very well. Number four, they are uneducated and unconcerned that much about town issues, as opposed to student issues and number five, they are distracted by athletic events and things happening on campus like exams.

CM: Imagine that.

MD: Imagine that [Chris laughs] I think that in that point in time, Joe Herzenberg had the largest student turnout—

CM: He had a good political machine.

MD: He had a good political machine. He did very well with students. Later on there was Mark Chilton, who was a student at the time, who did very well among students and there have been others since then.

CM: So tell me a little bit about Joe as an individual, was he very active in the gay community per se? Or was it that he was just an out gay person running in the...?

MD: Interesting. My impression of Joe at that time was yes he was an out gay person and he was outspoken, but I tend to think of Joe as a Democrat before I think of him as a gay person. I would say that Joe has been very educating in terms of what—he explained to me the complete differences between the Democrat and Republican Party. Most of which I basically understood, but he did sort of school me on a lot of fine points. I basically figured out just how evil some parts of the Republican Party were at that time and still some remain to this day, such as Jesse Helms. But, you know, Joe, I think was a great influence. I remember in 1985 when he was running for town council as an openly gay person, and I was like, “Wow! He is running for political office and he is not hiding the fact that he is gay.” I thought that was amazing. Of course it was very disappointing when he lost. He didn’t lose by much, but other things were working against him at that time.

CM: What did you do as a volunteer with his campaign?

MD: In '85? Mainly I stuffed envelopes and I put up—

CM: You did mass mailings?

MD: We did mass mailings, some were fundraising letters, some were get out the vote. Also, as we got closer to election day we worked on get out the vote—GOTV in the lingo—which mainly means taking “Vote for Joe Herzenberg” signs and putting them up at strategic locations?

CM: What kind of budget did he have?

MD: I—as I recall he did not have much money. And a lot of the things that were done for Joe’s campaign were very low cost. It was all going to, I think it was Copytron in those days. I don’t think that Kinkos was around at that point, you know it was very cheap copies. He did invest a little bit of money in having bumper stickers printed up, which were very nice, and some nice posters, which you need. I don’t know exactly how much he spent on his campaign.

CM: But he did spend some of his own money as far as you know?

MD: Well, he raised money within the gay community. So, he raised enough money to run a credible race in '85. Evidently, it was not enough money to win. But, he came back in two years and was able to raise more money and I think articulated his campaign very well.


MD: (Mike Nelson) became involved with CGLA later on. Certainly became an outspoken person and got a lot of media attention because he was very good at sort of cutting to the chase and he had been tutored quite well, I think, by Joe Herzenberg and was able to get the media’s attention, and local press. When he ran for the Carrboro Town Council the first time. I think he—I am trying to remember—did he lose the first time?

CM: I don’t know his political history very well.

MD: I think that he lost the first time, just like Joe Herzenberg. I think he lost the first time. But, then he came back and won. So, you know, Mike clearly had aspirations for political office. And he was just a perfect candidate in so many ways.


CM: Well great, are there any final comments that you would like to make?

MD: I think that we all have to realize that, you know, Rome was not built in a day. And it will take a long time, and I realized in the mid 80s that I was in this for the long haul, you know. We have to be fighting not only when we are college students and had little to lose because we don’t have any—we don’t owe anything to the establishment as it exists, but we have to continue that in our adult lives and in our professional lives, and also I think in our personal lives, the most important place. We have to come out to family; we have to come out to friends. We have to—if someone tells an anti-gay joke in front of us and they don’t know we are gay, I think that it is important to say, “I disapprove of that.” I think that you have to be vocal, and until we all start coming out and being more vocal at all times and at all stages of our life, we are not going to make much progress. If we start going down the road of being an advocate at all times, then I think we will have success.