Orange County

How a gay Chapel Hill councilman's legacy still stokes political Pride

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle reads a proclamation at the unveiling of a portrait of former Chapel Hill Town Councilman Joe Herzenberg at the Carrboro Century Center Tuesday.
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle reads a proclamation at the unveiling of a portrait of former Chapel Hill Town Councilman Joe Herzenberg at the Carrboro Century Center Tuesday.

Gay elected officials celebrated the root of Southern political Pride Tuesday in Carrboro.

They marched in a "Pride Piper Walk" and witnessed the unveiling of a portrait of former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg at Carrboro's Century Center.

Herzenberg was the first openly gay elected official in the South. He was a champion of civil rights, the environment and a fixture on Franklin Street.

The painting by Chapel Hill artist Michael Brown depicts a young Herzenberg on the cusp of his political career in Chapel Hill. Brown said he was inspired by a photo used on a Herzenberg campaign poster from the early 1980s.

"I knew him, and I was honored to be chosen to paint the portrait," Brown said. "I was trusted to do something like this, and I was happy to help."

On the first brush stroke, he recalled saying to himself "I hope this goes well." It did.

Brown also read Herzenberg's diaries which are part of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill's Wilson Library. He pulled an inspirational line from one them and incorporated it into the painting using rainbow colors for the lettering.

It took nearly a week of research and painting, but a large canvas stretcher that sat in a corner of his barn for about 30 years finally came to life.

"I held it for a long time but never found the right subject until now," Brown said. "This seemed like the right project."

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The portrait will be exhibited through June at Carrboro's Century Center. It is part of a larger Triangle-wide project called "The Walls We Build" put on by artistUNITED, a coalition of local artists led by Donn Young. The exhibit asks and explores how people treat each other.

The unveiling occurred at the end of Carrboro's Pride Piper Walk from The ArtsCenter to the Century Center. It kicked off LGBT Pride Month, which commemorates the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York when customers of a gay nightclub fought back against police harassment, and recognizes the contributions made by LGBTQ people to the world. The walk included about 75 people and a marching band.

Mayor Lydia Lavelle, who is a lesbian, led the procession and was joined by a majority of Carrboro's Board of Aldermen. Former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, who is gay, also joined the parade.

Herzenberg's legacy is still being felt, they said.

Joe Herzenberg

"There are few things that you can measure it against adequately," Kleinschmidt said. "In an age when Jesse Helms was our senator and Democrats were not known for their liberalism in North Carolina, he ran successfully. He changed things, not symbolically. He literally changed lives."

More openly gay candidates nationwide are seeking office in 2018. The Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people, has endorsed 122 candidates across the country. That includes Kleinschmidt and four others in North Carolina. Their website said they are on track for a record number of endorsements.

Kleinschmidt estimated there are close to 1,000 openly gay candidates across the country running in elections ranging from local boards to statewide races. He recently won the Democratic primary election for the Orange County Clerk of Superior Court and faces no opposition in the November general election. He led Chapel Hill from 2009-15.

Lavelle said the number of gay elected officials in North Carolina is still quite small — fewer than 20 — but she's optimistic.

"I think one of the challenges, when you are a gay elected official, is making sure people know you're not just a gay official but you're an official who happens to be gay," Lavelle said. "And so, you know, we have traffic problems, we have housing problems, and we have education and school issues. We're just regular people, and we just roll with it through the lens of our identity."

Herzenberg served on the Town Council from 1979-81 and then again from 1987-93. He left office after it was revealed that he had failed to pay state income tax for the previous 14 years. He died in 2007 at the age of 66.

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