Ed Koch’s Mixed Legacy on Gay Rights & AIDS
When Shelley wrote that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," he used "poets" as shorthand for all literary authors. He could have added that they are often its historians.
Whatever people think of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare's portrayal of a power-mad serial murderer of family members. Writing a century after her death, the great biographer Plutarch is responsible for Cleopatra's lasting reputation as a wily seductress.
While the jury is certainly still out on Ed Koch, the three-term New York City mayor who died at age 88 on Friday, it may well be that the portrait of him that ends up standing the test of time is the one Larry Kramer wrote in the play "The Normal Heart."
Kramer fought the mayor not only on the page but once face-to-face in the real world. These two men may have loathed each other, but each one could stand as an archetype of how the rest of the world perceives New Yorkers: feisty, ambitious, street- and school-smart Jews personified by the word "chutzpah."
Like all such words in Yiddish (of course), it loses something in translation, but a rough definition would be an presumption of what is right and an intolerance of anyone who dares transgress their own assumptions. If it implies an outlandish arrogance (Leo Rosten, in his definitive book "The Joys of Yiddish" defines it by allusion as a man who kills his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan), it also encompasses the moral certainty of the Old Testament prophets.
Kramer v. Koch
Kramer’s 1985 play, which was successfully revived on Broadway recently and is finally in production as a film, is a thinly disguised autobiographical polemic about the dark early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Its protagonist, Ned Weeks, is a gay Jewish activist, a Cassandra who tries to warn the world about a new disease that has begun killing off gay men in his circle of friends.
Weeks becomes deeply involved with a small group of like-minded gay men who have banded together to fight the problem and try to provide social services for its victims. Much of the play involves the men’s fruitless efforts to have an audience with Mayor Koch to solicit the city’s help. His relentless pressure and frequent references to the mayor’s closeted homosexuality eventually gets him kicked out of this inner circle when he directly confronts Koch’s assistant.
In real life, Kramer was one of the founders of what was to become Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which quickly grew to become the world’s largest private AIDS service organization. Like Weeks, he was unceremoniously tossed aside when he became a vociferous critic of what he saw as then-Mayor Koch’s refusal to acknowledge or the situation or take action. Like Weeks, Kramer was hardly silent about what he thought the real problem was: the mayor’s fear that taking the lead in fighting what would become known as AIDS would fuel rumors about his own sexual identity.
Kramer’s barely controlled anger at what he sees as government inaction on every level has scarcely abated in three decades. After the GMHC dust-up, he went on to found ACT-UP, the seminal protest group whose frequent target was the mayor. No ACT-UP demonstration was complete without a few signs of Koch spattered blood red and outing him.
It so happened that at the time, the two men lived in the same Greenwich Village apartment building, which led to one of those only-in-New York scenes. A 2010 story in the New York Observer reprises Koch’s own account in a New Yorker profile, which ended up in a book about the mayor by Jonathan Soffer.
"He was trying to pet my dog Molly and he started to tell me how beautiful it was," Kramer said in the New Yorker article. "I yanked her away so hard she yelped, and I said, ’Molly, you can’t talk to him. That is the man who killed all of Daddy’s friends.’"
Next: Koch’s Policy (Or Not) on AIDS
Koch’s Policy (Or Not) on AIDS
In his book, Soffer lays much of the blame for Koch’s reluctance to take the lead in fighting the new gay disease at the feet of the federal government. New York State at the time had (and, in fact, still has) the country’s largest per capita expenditure on the local level of Medicaid expenses.
According to Soffer, "If Washington had taken over these expenses, New York City would not have had a fiscal crisis, it would not have had to cut services, and city government would have been in a far better position to deal with the public health-related problems of homelessness, AIDS and drugs."
Certainly, Koch was far from the only politician who felt that a disease apparently only afflicting affluent, sexually active gay men in New York and a few other cities was toxic. But the fact remains that, whoever the culprit or culprits, New York quickly became the epicenter of the disease, which decimated its gay male population.
While Koch may have shrugged off Kramer’s pooch-instigated jibe, Kramer never let up on criticism that the mayor’s inaction helped a localized health problem metastasize into a global pandemic. Just last year, he wrote, "We must never forget that this man was an active participant in helping us to die, in murdering us."
Firmly NOT Out
The constant questioning of his private life, from Kramer and others, dogged the mayor throughout his political career and beyond, into his very active retirement.
In a Feb. 1 article, reporters Bill Hutchinson and Bill McShane delve into the subject. The article’s title, "Koch, mayor during AIDS and gay rights, steadfastly kept his sexuality a private matter," neatly sums up the politician’s career-long dance around the subject.
They quote him as variously moving at different points in his life through stages that could be described as not-quite-crawling out of the closet.
While running for his first term as mayor in 1977, he told a reporter, "No, I am not a homosexual. If I were a homosexual, I would hope I would have the courage to say so. What’s cruel is that you are forcing me to say I am not a homosexual. This means you are putting homosexuals down. I don’t want to do that."
Some time later, he "clarified" that remark: "My answer to questions on this subject is simply, ’Fuck off.’ There have to be some private matters left."
Another time, he deflected the question with a parry typical of a man who didn’t exactly mince words: "When was the last time you committed oral sex on your spouse?" he responded to yet another questioner. "Don’t answer that. It’s no one’s business."
The final word on the subject appears in "Koch," a documentary that premiered on the eve of his death, in which he flatly states: "It’s none of your fucking business."
Next: Bess As Beard?
Bess As Beard?
Maybe. Maybe not. What we do know is that during his first mayoral campaign in 1977, Koch made sure that reporters and voters noticed that he had prominently placed by his side Bess Myerson. The Bronx native became a local icon when she became the first (and so far only) Jewish woman to be crowned Miss America.
Myerson rode her fame to become New York’s first commissioner of consumer affairs. Koch rewarded her by making her his own commissioner of cultural affairs. Myerson’s career eventually crashed and burned in a scandal involving her lover and a judge desperate to find a job for her eccentric daughter.
Many accused Koch of using Myerson as a beard to fight gay rumors that his campaign aids feared would cost him votes, especially among the heavily courted white ethnic voters of the so-called "outer boroughs" (or counties) who often decide citywide elections. In those neighborhoods, graffiti appeared advising voters to "Vote for Cuomo not the homo," a reference to Koch’s major Democratic opponent, Mario Cuomo.
Cuomo lost that race but, as proof of the adage that revenge tastes best served cold, later defeated Koch for the party’s nomination for governor. His son, Andrew Cuomo, now occupies that position. He became a gay hero for personally shepherding same-sex marriage through the stage’s byzantine State Legislator. Cuomo fils honed his political instincts (some would say claws) managing his father’s various campaigns, and rumors linger that it was at his instigation (if not his own hand) that the offending graffiti first appeared in Corona, a Queens neighborhood closely associated with his father’s political career.
A 2009 documentary about closeted politicians, "Outrage," named Richard Nathan as Koch’s onetime lover. Nathan, who moved out of the city after Koch was first elected mayor, later died of AIDS.
Pro-Gay Rights, to a Point
Ed Koch’s legacy on gay rights is generally less controversial than his AIDS policy (or lack of a policy).
As a congressman, Koch represented a district that was one of the major centers for gay life before the modern gay rights movement erupted in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn -- a very short walk from Koch’s apartment at the time. Koch, along with Bella Abzug, a fire-breathing, left-leaning congresswoman from an adjoining district, introduced the first federal bill to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
One of his first edicts as mayor was a ban on such discrimination in all city agencies. He boasted of appointing gay judges. He was also the first mayor to march in a Gay Pride march.
All of these were pioneering steps -- especially notable considering the nation was then in full retreat on gay rights. Anita Bryant’s successful crusade to rescind an LGBT discrimination ban in Miami-Dade County, Fla., was firing up the Evangelical Right into a "Moral Majority" that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House.
His decision to close down the city’s bathhouses in 1985 met with a mixed response. Although it was one of the few instances where Kramer agreed with the mayor, most of the city’s gay activists at the time condemned the action as overreaching, anti-gay and an ineffective response to fighting AIDS.
Activists fought for years for a citywide non-discrimination ordinance. The City Council dragged its feet until finally passing a bill in 1987, which Koch enthusiastically signed into law.
Perhaps the most controversy concerns the city’s thriving LGBT Center. Located in the heart of Koch’s own Greenwich Village, the center is housed in a former public school. Activists lobbied Koch to sell the long-abandoned building for a nominal fee, but he held out for the then-substantial sum of $1.5 million. For several years, paying off the mortgage kept the center from making much-needed improvements.
Late-in-Life Right Turn
Late in life. Koch’s steady move from the traditional liberalism of his congressional years during his mayoralty became more pronounced. He supported Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican, against David Dinkins. He later supported another Republican, Michael Bloomberg, for mayor.
People were surprised when he campaigned for a an anti marriage-equality candidate in one of the most closely watched congressional by-elections of recent years.
The 2011 race pitted Tea Party activist Bob Turner against New York State Assemblyman David Weprin. Pundits looked the race was to replace Anthony Weiner, who resigned after a sexting scandal, as a gauge of the nation’s political temperature. Weiner defied the Brooklyn-Queens district’s conservative reputation with liberal views that included gay marriage.
Weprin, an Orthdox Jew, supported same-sex marriage, which hurt him in his own community. Turner’s win gave new life to the Tea Party. For Koch, making a statement about what he saw as President Barack Obama’s soft support for Israel trumped marriage equality. (He later backtracked and supported Obama last year.)
To the end of his life, LGBT New Yorkers will have to think long and hard before giving the final answer to Koch’s famous mantra, "Who’m I doing?"