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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 >>

A glaring exception to the rule in the form of threats against gays at UNC-CH

Herzenberg thinks that Chapel Hill, like other college towns, draws a diverse, and therefore more tolerant, population. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Herzenberg remembers one when an anonymous letter began circulating threatening to out gay faculty members. William C. Friday, the president of the UNC system, immediately called in the State Bureau of Investigation.

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

But, there is no doubt that what Dan Leonard's uncle or whoever it was said about the Communists and the Homosexuals was sort of true about the homosexuals, that is, and I think, historically speaking that State University Towns like Chapel Hill in the South, I am talking about, probably were places where there was some concentration of gay activity, gay social activity, I think you could probably find something similar in Athens, Georgia, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Charlottesville, Virginia, because college towns are more liberal, more tolerant. Chapel Hill, because it wasn't just a place where people from North Carolina came, it was a place where people came from all over the South, much more than those other places that I just mentioned, so it had a wider drawing and so, you know, there might be gay people from Mississippi, or Tennessee or whatever who ended up here, because they thought that they could be more open, maybe not very open, but more open about being gay and still be in the South. They didn't have to go to New York, or San Francisco. They could just come to Chapel Hill. And they were right. I don't know what you. We haven't talked about the so called Chapel Hill gay rights ordinance, but in September, 1975, 25 years ago, when those students from CGA went to the Chapel Hill Board of Alderman, and asked them to include gay people in the non-discrimination section of that ordinance, there was no discussion of it, they just said, 'oh sure' and they, the ones that I have talked to, and it was not recently, they were sort of surprised, but—
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
That it passed so quickly?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Pardon?
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
That it passed so easily, with no problems—
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
There was never even a vote on it, they just wrote it in.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
I remember the discussion in the interview with Joe [Mosnier] about that. That is pretty phenomenal
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, I just think that they all knew that, you know, they all knew a few gay people. I am beginning to think by the way of some of those married people [Laughter]
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Right, well, you always wonder are those people going to be allies or enemies and often they could be either.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Well, I don't know any who could be enemies. The ones that I know, they haven't been very active supporters, but they have been sort of passive supporters.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
In terms of votes they can make.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Or, you know, yeah. So, and mainly, maybe, it is because there has never been a moment of crisis for the gay community in Chapel Hill, there has never been a time when the gay people felt that they had their backs up against the wall.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
As a group.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Yes, there—I will give you one example which is political in a since, but not—In 1984 when Hunt and Helms were running for Helms' Senate seat there was a higher level of political homophobia than usual in North Carolina. And one day I got a call from my friend, Lightening Brown he was walking to work, Dental School, or where ever he worked at then. He was working for a program dealing with autistic children. And this woman he knew in the library science school had stopped him in a parking lot somewhere on campus and shown him this letter, it was an anonymous letter that was sent to about 25 or 30 members of the faculty. They were not named. The letter was sent. Obviously the envelopes had somebody's name on them. But the Xeroxed letter that was inside, it had a list of things like, 'Assistant Professor of Romance Languages' 'Full Professor of Physics', you know things like that, 'Assistant Dean of this,' 'Associate Professor of that.' These people who were identified only by their rank, were presumed all to be gay. And they were told to resign before they were exposed. And this woman in Library Science told Lightening that the man in Library Science, who had received this letter and given it to her, was frightened by this letter. So, Lightening said he couldn't do anything about it, he had a busy day to work, he said, 'do something about it.' Well, I don't really respond very well to things like that, I was in bed when he called, it took me a while to get up. So, what was I going to do? In the meantime, he had brought a copy of this letter to my house, so that afternoon, I went down to Bill Friday's office. He was still the President at the University system. I don't know who was the chancellor, but I didn't know the chancellor, I did know Bill Friday, he was a voter in my precinct. And so I got there and his secretary, Azona Norwood, was somebody that I also knew, she was on the Carrboro Board of Alderman, and I told her that I had this really important thing, I just wanted to talk to him for a few minutes. And she sort of, I think I was really nervous about this. I had never talked to Bill Friday about anything gay before in my life. I mean, he knew I was gay, but that was a private matter. I think that she could tell that I was a little anxious about this. So, she went into see him and she said, "He'll be finished with what he is doing in about 10 minutes and then he will see you." So, I went in and I showed him the letter. He had already seen it, he was almost shaking with anger about this letter. Because, what he saw was an effort to threaten his faculty.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Wonderful.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
And he even, and this seemed to me at the time, and still today, sixteen years later, seemed to be kind of odd, this was not on the Mosnier tape? I didn't tell this story?
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
No.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
What he told me was that he regarded this as a violation of the University's sexual harassment policy. Well, I think that this is a very creative use of the sexual harassment policy—
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Yeah.
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
But that is fine with me, if it is okay with him. He told me he had already called the SBI [State Bureau of Investigation] about this and, and he assured me that he would do whatever had to be done to find out who sent this letter and he sent a memo to the Departments where these people were since he couldn't tell who they were, assuring them that he had done something about it. So I really felt great, you know, and I went home. But that is sort of what you want, or you think probably won't happen, but it did. And, of course, there was actually another letter a little later in which, it was typed on the same typewriter, you know, the same kind of type, where it talked about gay and lesbian books in the library, the should be gotten rid of. [Laughter]
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
Did they ever find out who this individual was?
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
Nope, nope. No, it was mailed from wherever it was mailed.
CHRIS MCGINNIS:
They didn't put a return address. [Laughter]
JOSEPH A. HERZENBERG:
There was no return address, there was nothing like that, but I think, you know that is what in theory, that is what you expect people to do, when something threatening happens, now that woman told Lightening that this colleague of hers was afraid and that is what I told Friday. You know, I don't even know who this colleague was. I just heard second hand that somebody in Library Science was afraid. And I thought that that was enough to bring it to the attention of him. And he thought so too, so that was nice.