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, April 14, 2002

Photo exhibit documents gay elected officials

Chapel Hill News, April 14, 2002

By Virginia Knapp

CARRBORO -- A new exhibit, "Out and Elected in the U.S.A.," opening today at the Carrboro Century Center provides a snapshot of gays and lesbians in recent political history.

"The real importance of this exhibit is the historical value of capturing this moment in time," Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson said. "The last quarter-century has seen the first openly gay people elected to public office. It's like when the first women were elected and the first African Americans."

"It's important that those folks and their lives be documented in some way."

The photo exhibit of 60 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans who have served or currently serve in elected office throughout the country includes Nelson and Joe Herzenberg, a former Chapel Hill Town Council member and mayor pro tem.

Herzenberg became North Carolina's first openly gay elected official when he took office in 1987, and Nelson became the state's first openly gay mayor in 1995.

"I think gay political people elsewhere in the country think we are so brave down here having to deal with Jesse Helms," Herzenberg said. "But I've never met Jesse Helms. He doesn't live in my town. Really, life isn't so difficult here in North Carolina.

"But there may be a pity thing going on."

Carrboro is the first stop on a national tour for the exhibit, which was organized by Washington, D.C., photographer R.S. Lee and sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation.

"While the collection focuses specifically on the collective experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political candidates, ultimately it reflects the courage of all people who hold themselves up to the scrutiny of the electorate," Lee said. "They care about their communities and want to make a difference."

The 60 photos hang near personal essays written by officials from 30 of the 33 states where openly gay and lesbian candidates have been elected.
Herzenberg said the photos and personal essays in the exhibit help put a face on a part of the population that many people might not realize is there.

"I still believe very strongly that it's important for gay people to come out and run for public office," Herzenberg said. "It's important because it helps to dispel the notion that there's no gay people where we live."

Nelson said he was honored that the exhibit is debuting in Carrboro, and he hopes that the show will highlight the larger issues of democracy and fairness.

"A democracy works best when a diverse set of views is at the table when decisions are being made," Nelson said. "The importance of having openly gay elected officials can't be overstated."

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