Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

My photo
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.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Thank you, Joe Herzenberg

Friends of Chapel Hill Parks & Recreation, September 10, 2012

Joe Herzenberg was a member of the Town Council for many years. When he left the Council he continued to serve the Town by volunteering to serve on numerous boards and committees; especially those that promoted greenways and open space. He served as the chair of the Merritt's Pasture Access Committee. In 2000, the Committee recommended that the Morgan Creek Trail be built and used as the public access to the Pasture. The vision became reality in 2011 when phase one of the Morgan Creek Trail was opened and provided the first legal access to the pasture for Town citizens.

He went on to serve as a member and Chair of the Greenways Commission for seven years. During this time he promoted greenways issues across the entire Town, but especially along Bolin Creek. He was a champion of the concepts of extending the trail, providing public art on the trails, and emphatically, providing more benches.

Joe passed away in 2007, but continued to serve the citizens of Chapel Hill by bequeathing $308,000 to be used for the Bolin Creek Trail and benches. So far the Board of the Friends has authorized the use of these funds to make renovations to the trail, provide wonderful "art" benches, and to design further improvements to the Bolin Creek Trail. Among the future uses of his funds will be a flight of stairs from Franklin Street to the trail that will provide the first real and direct trail access from the north side of Franklin Street.

We remember Joe by making key improvements to the trail he loved and invite others to do the same.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Chapel Hill and Homophobia: What Joe Herzenberg Means for North Carolina

LGBT Identities, Communities, and Resistance in North Carolina, 1945-2012, March 27, 2012

By Laura Dunn

Introduction: Chapel Hill

The Chapel Hill area of North Carolina has a long history of liberalism that defies the stereotypical ideas of a regressive South. The school district was the first in North Carolina to desegregate, and in 1968 Chapel Hill elected Howard Lee as the first black mayor of a predominantly white town. In contrast to the national debates over the validity of same-sex marriage, both Chapel Hill and Carrboro have had domestic partnership recognition since 1995, when Mike Nelson was elected in Carrboro to become the state’s first openly gay mayor. Joe Herzenberg’s election was a watershed moment in North Carolinian LGBTQ history. It is a narrative that relies on geography for its history: it is an essentially localised story of the distinctive social and political climate of Chapel Hill.

Joe Herzenberg

In 1987, there was another key milestone: Joe Herzenberg became the first openly gay politician to be elected in North Carolina when he won the election to Chapel Hill town council. It was eleven years after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay politician in the United States, and only nine years after he was assassinated in office. Facing homophobic abuse throughout his career, he nonetheless advocated effectively for the environment, civil liberties, and the preservation of the UNC-CH gay students’ association. In addition, he was a founder of NC Pride PAC, now Equality NC PAC, an association that lobbies for the interests of LGBT people in the state. John Howard’s book Men Like That indicates how radical an act running for office while openly gay was: “gay politicians required a different kind of visibility. Most disturbingly it required a clear-cut identity, individual’s open and public avowal of homosexuality, a speech act that some belligerent lawmakers and law enforcers interpreted as a felony in and of itself[1].” Indeed, at a time that sodomy laws were still on the books, admission of queerness was essentially an acknowledgement of criminality, and was treated as such by opponents. Bob Windsor writes that “Lightning [Brown, another openly gay Chapel Hill politician] confessed…that he is a class H felon in North Carolina[2]," a not uncommon view of homosexuality in a period when certain sexualities were outlawed.

Regionalism: Chapel Hill as Outlier

I found a great deal of opposition to LGBT issues and politicians in my research, some of it startling in its ferocity. One key opponent was the Landmark, a free newspaper that was distributed widely in the run-up to the Hunt-Helms 1984 election “particularly in rural areas[3]." While I initially thought that its vituperiveness would mark it as a fringe endeavour, further research indicates it was “funded by shadowy Helms backers[4],” and ads for Helms’ 1984 campaign were a frequent occurrence in its pages. A recurring idea in contemporary conservative accounts of Herzenberg’s career – such as those found in the pages of Landmark - is that gay activism is unrepresentative of North Carolinian voters, values and concerns. This is couched in stereotypical ideas of regionalism that paints the South as ‘America’s closet’, an area that queerness does not enter into. In my research I found over and over again references to gay politicians being better served by working “in and around the San Francisco area[5],” “Miami... New York City or London[6].” Repeated assertions that they “don’t have too much in common with North Carolina[7]” reinforce this image of state values being at odds with homosexuality and uses geography as potent symbolism. The assertion that goes hand-in-hand with this is of course that Chapel Hill is an isolated bastion of liberalism – as the Landmark puts it “[the fags] have always congregated in Chapel Hill[8]" and “the Gay Rights battle was begun in Orange County and the battle has been led from that quarter[9]."


While some abuse was directed at the openly gay Lightning Brown and Joe Herzenberg (“the Chapel Hill fags[10]"), still more was levelled at Jim Hunt, a politician they supported against Jesse Helms in the 1984 Senate race. This election was marked by vicious negative campaigning, and even Jim Hunt’s marriage was not enough to prevent him from smear campaigns of his rumoured homosexuality[11]. Brown and Herzenberg’s backing was seized upon and used against their candidate: in one televised debate Helms accused Hunt, “You’re supported by people like Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown[12]!” This tactic was repeated in 1986, where supporters of the incumbent William W. Cobey Jr. in the 4th Congressional District election challenged his opponent David Price to “have a letterhead printed with CHAPEL HILL PRICE SUPPORTERS Joe Herzenberg and Lightning Brown listed!! Stop hiding your supporters and come out of the closet PROFESSOR PRICE[13]!!” The writer of a contemporary Advocate piece labelled North Carolinian gays “a political albatross[14]," and indeed their support proved a stumbling block for politicians perceived as being under the thumb of a radical queer agenda.

Chapel Hill Post-Herzenberg

Some of this rhetoric persisted into the 1990s (most notably in Jesse Helms’ Senate race against Harvey Gantt, during which he declared that his opponent ”accepted donations from homosexuals[15]") but the election of openly gay Mike Nelson as mayor of Carrboro again highlighted the area’s reputation for trend-bucking liberalism. Openly gay Mark Kleinschmidt, elected mayor of Chapel Hill in 2008, reported minimal homophobic tactics being used against him in the election – saying only that opponent Kevin Wolff, who perjoratively labelled him a Gay Rights Activist, “apparently has not been around long enough to know the town he has moved to[16]." Kleinschmidt credits Herzenberg with influencing his career, recalling that “it was the moment we heard about this guy that we knew we had found our 'home town[17]." Dubbing Herzenberg’s election while out as gay “an audacious political act[18],” he points to the state’s strand of progressive politics as unsettling the stereotypes of the conservative South: “people need to reevaluate what they think of North Carolina[19]." Similarly, Mike Nelson sees the 1987 election as “chang[ing] the South[20]," beginning a trend of gay-friendly liberalism in the area that continues to this day.


1 John Howard. Men Like That. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press) 2001. 239

2 Bob Windsor.‘Faggots Dominate 4th Congressional Party Convention’ Landmark. 7 June 1984.

3 ‘Death of a Political Hero – Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)’. 31 Oct 2007. [accessed 27 March 2012]

4 ibid.

5 Henry McMaster campaign spokesman David Thomas quoted in Lightning A. Brown. ‘Homophobic Republican Campaigns Backfire in Carolinas’. 11 Nov 1986.

6 Bob Windsor. ‘Gay Friends of Jim Hunt Attempt Blackmail’. Landmark Vol 2 no 17. Jan 19 1984.

7 Republican spokesman Tom Ballus quoted in Elizabeth Leland. ‘Helms attacks gays’ role in campaign’. Charlotte Observer. 23 Oct 1990.

8 Bob Windsor. ‘Gay Friends of Jim Hunt Attempt Blackmail’. Landmark Vol 2 no 17. 19 Jan 1984.

9 Bob Windsor. ‘Jim Hunt is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate’. Landmark Vol 3 no 3. 5 July 1984.

10 ibid.

11 This sometimes took the form of attacks on gender variance, which was used as an indicator of homosexuality: “can you imagine Jim Hunt taking taking a chew of tobacco and throwing a baseball? Can you imagine him pumping iron or throwing a football? Can you imagine him as a soldier charging up a hill under fire? Can you imagine him engaging in any kind of manly pursuit? I don’t think so.” Bob Windsor. ‘Jim Hunt is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate.’ Landmark vol 3 no 3. 5 July 1984.

12 Quoted in ‘Death of a Political Hero – Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)’. 31 Oct 2007. [accessed 27 March 2012]

13 Flyer: Committee for Responsible Representation in the 4th Congressional District. 1986. [in Joe Herzenberg papers, Wilson Library Special Collections, UNC Chapel Hill]

14 Peter Frieberg. ‘Hunt-Helms race a key test – NC gays try to put political albatross label behind them’. The Advocate. 3 April 1984.

15 Elizabeth Leland. ‘Helms attacks gays’ role in campaign’. Charlotte Observer. 23 Oct 1990.

16 Pam Spaulding. ‘Triumph in the Tar Heel State’. 17 Nov 2009.

17 ‘Death of a Political Hero – Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)’. 31 Oct 2007. [accessed 27 March 2012]

18 ibid.

19 ibid.

20 ibid.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Giving His Voice: The Mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Chapel Hill / Orange County Visitors Bureau

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., (Jan. 30, 2012) -- Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt was recently interviewed by the Chapel Hill / Orange County Visitors Bureau. Kleinschmidt, an openly gay elected official, is committed to progressive ideals that are changing the face of this college town, including its tourism industry. And he wants the world to know about the city.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina is an amazing town. History books prove it. Winners live here; Nobel, James Beard, Pulitzer, Emmy and Academy Award recipients. It's the oldest public university town in the country, a musical Mecca, home to a legendary and winning basketball team – and now the 10th largest city in the world to have an openly gay mayor. In Chapel Hill, this isn't that big of a deal – the town also boasts the first African-American mayor elected since Reconstruction, back in 1969 – but in North Carolina, and throughout the south, it is a big deal. Mark Kleinschmidt, 41, who was elected as mayor in 2009, will tell you so.

Twenty-two years have passed since his mentor, Joe Herzenberg, was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council. Growing up, Kleinschmidt watched Herzenberg on the news, "making headlines because he was openly gay, progressive and fought for things I had often thought of, but never articulated to myself, let alone in public." Herzenberg worked as a foil to other strong voices in North Carolina: those whose vitriol sustained North Carolina's past of homophobia way past its historical moment.

Herzenberg was reelected with overwhelming support in 1991, receiving an unprecedented vote total for a Chapel Hill town council race. He died at the age of 66 in 2007.

"Joe Herzenberg was one of many leaders who helped young North Carolinians like me understand that Chapel Hill is just left of the mainstream: the type of town where people don't have to chase the big American salary in order to earn respect; rather, it's the type of place where counting your pennies, living modestly and conserving resources in order to help your fellow man, and those in need of help, are qualities that are recognized as noble and worthy."

But still, it was the 90s, and even Chapel Hill had a long way to go.

"I think back as to how much has changed since I first came to school here as an undergraduate. I remember I wanted to be a teacher and I was very conflicted about being 'out of the closet' because the words teacher and gay did not go hand in hand. As a society we had not yet come to terms with gay men teaching our young children in schools."

Eventually Kleinschmidt did become a teacher, and took his first job in Charlotte, North Carolina's largest city. But working in a high poverty school and watching kids grow up with so many struggles (some of the kids he taught had kids of their own), convinced him that he had to find a bigger way to make a difference – a way to change the system, and not just the symptoms. For Kleinschmidt, that meant law.

This brought him back to Chapel Hill. It was his legal studies, coupled with his political advocacy on the UNC campus that would shape his life in public service.


In addition to local issues, he keeps a close eye on state issues impacting minorities and LGBT citizens. One of his biggest fears is a proposed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution which will appear on the May 8, 2012 ballot "to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."

"Today's youth accept marriage equality, but by the time they're in a position to do something about it, this amendment will be locked in place for many years to come," Kleinschmidt says. "We must defeat it."

California recently passed legislation that allows education to adjust the curriculum to allow teaching of gay history. Kleinschmidt believes that forward thinking initiatives like this can only help everybody.

"When you teach history during times when LGBT people are changing things socially, or even on a larger scale, then children and young people should be told about the whole person. If not, you're really failing the purpose of education. I'm very supportive of curriculum that recognizes that gay and lesbians are in our world and they make important contributions."

Curriculums like this make the rest of the world more like Chapel Hill; until it is, though, he encourages everyone to come here for a visit.


Kleinschmidt is an impressive leader, teacher and beacon for change for North Carolina. With charm, good looks, intelligence and a modesty born of loving, working class parents who always have his back, Kleinschmidt radiates a happy confidence that makes you believe Chapel Hill can go wherever it wants to go.

Kleinschmidt has come a long way from his rural, NC middle school days, where he watched Joe Herzenberg on the television, wondering if he too would one day make a difference.

"I hope Joe is proud," Kleinschmidt says. "But I'm sure that if he were here he wouldn't spend any time telling me how proud he is of me. He would just be giving me another list of things to do."

Because there are always more things to do.