Leading from the Left

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Good-bye, My Friend

Tonight, my friend and mentor Joe Herzenberg died after a long illness.

Joe’s death is a great loss for the progressive community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. He was a fighter for racial justice, LGBT rights, affordable housing, greenways, libraries, civil liberties and the list could go on and on.

As we gathered around Joe this afternoon, all holding hands in a circle around his hospital bed, listening to his Rabbi pray, knowing that Joe was in the last hours of his life, I couldn’t help but to think of all he’d done for us, for his community. For me, one thing stands out above all others.

His election 20 years ago to the Chapel Hill Town Council, when he became North Carolina’s first openly gay elected official, changed the South. By breaking through that barrier he opened the door for those of us who followed in North Carolina: me, Gloria Faley, Mark Kleinschmidt, State Senator Julia Boseman, Judge John Arrowood, and (hopefully) Lydia Lavelle. That election began a slow march, a journey, that led to Carrboro becoming the first municipality in the South to adopt domestic partnership benefits, to the governor appointing John Arrowood to the NC Court of Appeals, and to Jim Neal becoming the first openly gay man to run for US Senate in North Carolina.

I’ve been thinking a great deal of Joe’s election in 1987 recently. I was his campaign manager that year, and I’ve been around to see first hand the changes that followed. It was like throwing a rock into a lake…the ripples continued, and continued, and continue. Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us, including Joe, could have guessed that in 2008 we’d have not one but two openly gay candidates running for state wide office in North Carolina.

Of course, Joe’s accomplishments transcended sexual orientation. Each of you could probably list as well as I the hundreds of ways he influenced our community. But for me, and for thousands upon thousands of LGBT North Carolinians, he will be remembered for changing our lives, for making this state a friendlier, more tolerant place to live.