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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Joseph A. Herzenberg, November 1, 2000. Interview K-0196. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Experiences as a young gay man

Herzenberg remembers his experiences as a young gay man, particularly his parents' response to his sexuality. He remembers that while his father did not seem to approve of some particularly flamboyant gay men, neither of his parents treated him unkindly when he came out. They did worry about a lack of grandchildren, though, since two of their three sons are gay.

Citing this Excerpt

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

Full Text of the Excerpt

CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Great, when do you first remember interacting with another gay person in terms of meeting a gay person in your childhood?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Ohhhh [Joe groans]
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Some one in your community perhaps, or someone in your town.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
My father's older brother was interested in the arts, in particular in theater, he and his wife were. And there was a summer stock theater near my uncle and aunt's home. And they had friends who were connecting with the running of that theater, including a gay male couple. I would have met them—
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
What date was that, roughly?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
In the middle 1950s—
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Wow.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
You know, when my parents and my brothers and I would go to my uncle and aunt's house, sometimes they would be there. I mean, I don't even remember their names.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
So your family was pretty accepting of them as homosexual males?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, mainly yes. My father—they were very flamboyant, these two guys. [Laughter] And my father didn't like that
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
I see.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
And I didn't either to tell the truth. But, you know, my father was Jewish, my mother was not Jewish, so we generally weren't terribly bigoted about people.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Great, great, so when did you yourself come out; publicly, privately, to yourself?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, I certainly knew that I was different from other people, you know, when I was in Junior High School, but back then, you know, what could you do about it? That is to say, in today's language, 'There were no positive role models.' The role models were pretty negative. Even this couple from the theater, they may have been good at their work, but their style, their social style wasn't very positive as far as I was concerned, so I don't really come out until—to myself—what was your question?
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Well, when people come out, often, I know that I experienced this and other gay people have told me this—that you recognize you are gay yourself, maybe early on in life and later on you come out to people in general, and you know, whether it is family, friends, to everyone, you talk about being openly gay.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Yes
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
I know that your political coming out was another part of it.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Yes
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
That happened in the mid 80s or early 80s
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, I don't come out to anybody really until, oh brother, well for a few minor exceptions until I am in Chapel Hill. In the early 70s.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Okay
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
With my family, there was this peculiar thing, I have a gay brother.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Is he younger or older?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
He is five years younger. And he came out to his draft board, because he did not want to be drafted. And I cannot remember exactly when that was; it was in the early 70s. So, since two of my mother's cousins were on the draft board, even though she and my father were away when my brother came out, they learned about it pretty quickly.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Right
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
And so that is also when I came out to my parents.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
I see, so you came out at the same time when your brother did basically?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
A little later, yes.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Okay, how did they take that? Two sons at once couldn't be easy.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, I think that my mother in particular wanted grandchildren, and she saw that as some sort of a setback. But, basically, our parents always supported their sons, you know, and so I don't ever remember hearing a negative word about it. Accept for the unlikelihood that the two of us would produce any grandchildren.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Right, that was the only minus.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
We had another brother who eventually produced grandchildren. [Laughter]
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Okay, to carry on the line. So you did not ever necessarily experience any discrimination from your parents because of your orientation.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
No, no I don't ever really remember being discriminated against by anybody, tell the truth.