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, September 30, 2003

N.C. governor weighs execution bias case / Network, Sept. 30, 2003

by Christopher Curtis

With time running out for convicted murderer Edward Hartman, his lawyers say they are doing what they can -- including an appeal Tuesday to the North Carolina governor -- to spare him from execution this Friday.

His defenders maintain prosecuting attorneys unfairly used Hartman's homosexuality to get him the death penalty for the murder of his housemate, 77-year-old Herman Smith Jr., in 1993.


On Monday Gov. Easley's staff met with gay leaders in the state. Former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, who claims to be the first openly gay elected official in the South, said he asked for executive clemency in this case, "because we
believed there was homophobia in his prosecution and conviction."

Mark Kleinschmidt, a current council member who was also at the meeting, reflected on the case, saying, "The injustice hit me personally."

"This reflected more than just an isolated case of injustice," Kleinschmidt told the Network. "It's not surprising to us that the courts never cured this. From the lowest courts all the way to the Supreme Court, gays and lesbians had a hard time receiving justice. We need guarantees and fairness, otherwise a court is a farce."

Gay rights advocates say their objections to Hartman's trial primarily focus on the sentencing phase. While his defense tried to explain how the sexual abuse Hartman endured as a child should be considered as a mitigating factor when determining an appropriate punishment, prosecutors said such a claim was irrelevant for homosexuals.


Friday, June 27, 2003

Triangle gays say court’s decision overdue: Sodomy laws called symbolic affront to rights

Durham Herald-Sun, June 27, 2003

For members of the Triangle's gay and lesbian communities, the end of state sodomy laws was long overdue.

Former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg remembered another time, 17 years ago, when the Supreme Court was deciding whether to discard them.

"We were waiting for the Supreme Court to issue the Bowers decision," he said. "We were hopeful at the time they would do the right thing, but they didn't."

So when the Supreme Court ruled the laws were illegal Thursday, it marked a shift toward an era when gay rights could no longer be overlooked.

"I think that gays and lesbians are just too obvious all over the place in today's society," said Herzenberg, who was Chapel Hill's first openly gay elected official when he came to office in 1987.

Herzenberg was one of about 100 gays, lesbians and their friends who gathered Thursday evening at the Mad Hatter's Bake Shop in Durham to celebrate after the Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay sex, ruling that the law violated rights to privacy.

The decision effectively made North Carolina's own sodomy laws obsolete.