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Monday September 20th

Look back at the history of LGBTQ+ activism in North Carolina

Senior Brennan Lewis sits in front of the Union on Friday, March 22, 2019. Brennan helped to found Queer NC when they were in high school, which is an organziation that hosts events and activities for LGBTQ youth.
Buy Photos Senior Brennan Lewis sits in front of the Union on Friday, March 22, 2019. Brennan helped to found Queer NC when they were in high school, which is an organziation that hosts events and activities for LGBTQ youth.

This legislative session in North Carolina has already seen its fair share of bills about LGBTQ+ rights — from repealing HB2 to banning gay marriage — but the gay rights movement didn't always have its roots in policy initiatives.

LGBTQ+ culture, as it developed in North Carolina, in many ways took a different form than it did in the North. Gay bars and cruising locations, places where men could meet other men, existed in North Carolina, but a different form of community-building became more popular.

“So far, what I've been finding in North Carolina is that there weren't as many of those bars and parks in the 50s and 60s, so people began to rely more on gathering in each other's homes,” said Isabell Moore, a field scholar at the Center for the Study of American South’s Southern Oral History Project.

Joe Herzenberg, Chapel Hill Town Council member and the first openly gay elected public official in North Carolina, elaborated on this same sort of community gathering in a 2000 interview with the SOHP.

“She (a lesbian member of the group) cooked this pasta supper and people — we asked people to give contributions, we didn't ask for anything specific — we said $5 if you could afford it or something like that, and then we gave the money to gay or lesbian groups that needed it,” Herzenberg said. “And we eventually were raising about $2,000 a year, you know, it wasn't a big deal, but it was nice.”

Herzenberg’s “Stonewall Dinners,” named after the 1969 riot commonly credited with kicking off the LGBTQ+ rights movement, began in the early 1980s and only lasted for a few years, but formed a broader fabric for the social circles of the day.

When Joseph McCarthy's “vice raids” targeting gay people swept across the nation in the 1950s, the outcomes in Northern and Southern communities looked very different. In the North, Moore said, these raids generally shut down bars, cementing the gay community from one based on identity to one based on political interests.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the scattered network of social circles stuck around. When a Greensboro grand jury indicted 32 men on account of homosexuality in 1957, police didn’t simply shut down a bar — they appeared at people’s homes, an event now known as “the purge.”

The gay rights movement largely followed the Civil Rights Movement, and the two were deeply intertwined, Moore said.

“A lot of what I am finding is that, in North Carolina, folks did not have the luxury of addressing gay and lesbian issues as a stand-alone issue,” Moore said in an email. “They saw these issues as intertwined with other issues of oppression, and they were deeply influenced by the Black Freedom struggle.”

Moore points to the work of Mab Segrest, a white lesbian woman who spoke out against violence toward the LGBTQ+, Black and Jewish communities by white supremacists.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists began to organize into more defined interest groups. In the Charlotte-based gay newspaper “Q-Notes,” organizations such as the Queen City Quordinators, Metrolina AIDS Project and One Nation Indivisible began to make headlines. Southerners On New Ground, established in 1993, became an influential national LGBTQ+ organization in the South.

Many of these groups were founded with a focus on health to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was ravaging the community. However, statewide initiatives were not always coordinated. Moore said that even efforts in Durham and Alamance Counties, 30 minutes away from each other, were disconnected.

“When I'm interviewing people in Alamance for this project on health and wellness done through the SOHP, the folks there haven't even heard of the organizations or the people who founded them,” Moore said. “They were doing their totally own, different things.”

To a degree, this divide still exists, said Brennan Lewis, a UNC senior and founder of the Raleigh-based LGBTQ+ organization QueerNC.

“Through QueerNC, I found that some of our events drew youth from rural areas of the state, just because those folks found that they didn’t have resources in the areas that they lived,” Lewis said.

Historically, this disconnect also extended past geography — media coverage of the equality movement generally centered around gay and lesbian people, leaving bisexual people, transgender people and others without the same support. 

As more organizations began to demand rights, the long-serving U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms remained a staunch anti-LGBTQ+ voice. Though a coordinated 1990 initiative to vote him out of office failed, it led to the founding of EqualityNC. His outspoken criticisms of the community may not have always had the effect he desired, Moore said.

“My guess is that even though it was in the form of a homophobic attack, for a teenager in a small, rural town in North Carolina, those attacks are really scary, but they also give you information that there's enough of us that Jesse Helms is going after us,” Moore said.

Much like the social circles and dinner groups that made up North Carolina's LGBTQ+ activism in the 1950s, camps like ASPYRE Leadership Camp, which Lewis works with, provide a similar form of shelter today.

“People who have had these really harmful experiences maybe aren't always ready to have this action plan to create change, even though they're coming to this camp that's all about leadership,” Lewis said. “It's more important for them to sit in a group setting and be able to share those stories with peers.”


Interview with Joseph Herzenberg by Chris McGinnis, 1 November 2000 K-0196, in the Southern Oral History Program Collection #4007, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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