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'Justice isn’t about just us': A history of local queer people, spaces and movements

pauli murray center 0625-1.jpg
The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice is pictured on June 25, 2023.

LGBTQ+ people have a storied history in North Carolina, marked most notably by legislation such as Senate Bill 49 and House Bill 2. Despite this, local community leaders have worked over the years to promote inclusivity and advocate for their community members. 

Here are some people, spaces and movements in local LGBTQ+ history — from the early 1900s to now — that have impacted Chapel Hill and surrounding communities. 

Chapel Hill and Carrboro

Joe Herzenberg made history in 1987 by being elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council — making him the first openly gay elected official in the American South. 

Herzenberg grew up in New Jersey in the 1940s and moved to Chapel Hill in the early 1970s to attend graduate school at UNC. 

During his time on the council, Herzenberg helped found the “Orange House,” a home located in Carrboro that supported individuals with the HIV infection and their families by providing education, awareness and outreach, according to their website. 

The house opened in 1995, two years after Herzenberg’s last term on the Town Council.

“It was a vehicle for local community groups and charities and to be able to respond to them — to the health crisis that was occurring — to be able to provide for safe housing and access to health care for people who were suffering,” Mark Kleinschmidt, former Chapel Hill mayor and friend of Herzenberg, said.

Herzenberg died at UNC Hospitals in 2007 at 66 years old. 

“He was always such a great mentor to other queer folk who wanted to be out and make a difference,” Kleinschmidt said.

As Chapel Hill’s first openly gay mayor, Kleinschmidt said that he felt like he was returning an LGBTQ+ voice to the council after Herzenberg left office.

Mike Nelson was the first openly gay mayor in North Carolina and served in Carrboro from 1995 to 2005. Kleinschmidt followed suit in 2009 in Chapel Hill. Lydia Lavelle was elected as the first openly lesbian mayor in North Carolina, serving in Carrboro from 2013 to 2021.

Kleinschmidt acknowledged that progress for the local LGBTQ+ community could not have been achieved without the work done during the civil rights movement.

“Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham are places where there are also other people who have experienced oppression at the hands of majority groups,” he said. “Largely African American folk who have been instrumental in creating the identity of what Chapel Hill is today and what Durham is today — that have infused within our culture a sense of what justice means and that justice isn’t about just us.”

Durham

Pauli Murray was a nationally recognized Black queer activist, lawyer, scholar and priest who grew up in Durham in the 1910s. 

They grew up with their extended family,  the Fitzgeralds. The Fitzgeralds’ house, located on Carroll Street in the historically Black West End neighborhood, was a formative space for Murray. 

“That house, and the experience growing up there, was a catalyst for their activism,” Torrianna Foster, the communications and programming coordinator at the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, said. “They learned everything that they knew about activism, about protesting, about emancipation, about human rights and even about justice in that house and with that family.”

Murray co-authored the amicus brief for the Reed v. Reed U.S. Supreme Court case, the first time sex discrimination was found unconstitutional under to the 14th Amendment, and published the 1956 book “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family,” a detailed account of their life growing up in Durham.

Although Murray’s activism and work took them elsewhere, the house remained in Durham. 

The Pauli Murray Center, established as a nonprofit in 2012, is a historic site and future community center based out of the Carroll Street home, according to its website.

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Foster said the center will be an exhibit space where local artists, activists and community members can gather to learn about Murray’s legacy. During the pandemic, they held virtual activities, historic tours and outdoor events on the home’s lawn. 

“This little known, but very powerful person, creates a space where Durham can be a rich center of activism,” Foster said. 

Pittsboro

On June 11, the town of Pittsboro held its first-ever Pride event — including a Pride parade. 

Pittsboro joined other rural communities, like Sylva and Wilson, that began hosting Pride events in recent years. 

PBO Pride, a local organization that aims to create a safe and inclusive community for queer people living in Chatham County, hosted the parade at The Plant, an eco-industrial park on the east side of the town. 

Mary Beth Clark, PBO Pride planning committee member, said the event saw over 1,000 people in attendance. 

“We didn’t know how many people would attend,” she said. “We tried to advertise it as heavily as we were able, but we were thinking, you know, ‘How many people do you think will show up? Maybe, maybe 200? Maybe 300?”

From stilt walkers to a Japanese fire truck heading the parade, Clark said the event turnout was terrific and that the organization is looking to the future for what they can do for their local queer community.

“We’re really thinking about, ‘How can we best use this thing that we’re creating?’” she said. “‘What’s the best way to serve the community?’”

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com


Emma Geis

Emma Geis is the 2023-24 copy chief at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a copy board member and summer copy chief. Emma is a fifth-year pursuing a double major in journalism and media and African, African American and Diaspora Studies.

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