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

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]."

Support

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.

References

  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)’. thelatestoutrage.org. 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)’. thelatestoutrage.org. 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’. Advocate.com. 17 Nov 2009.
  17. ‘Death of a Political Hero – Joe Herzenberg (1941-2007)’. thelatestoutrage.org. 31 Oct 2007. [accessed 27 March 2012]
  18. ibid.
  19. ibid.
  20. ibid.