Former New York City May Ed Koch died today after a short-term illness. And there are undoubtedly hundreds of articles memorializing him already online or still being written as I type this. The last thing I’d like to do is to join the chorus, so I thought I’d focus on one small, but important aspect of his political and personal life, and it begins with the 1977 New York City mayoral election:
In his 2005 book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, historian Jonathan Mahler declared that the blackout of 1977, and the rioting that ensued, enabled Koch–the law-and-order candidate–to beat out mayor Abe Beame in a six-candidate Democratic primary. The other candidates, who included Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, were considered too liberal and passive to save New York City from itself.
Cuomo stayed in the race, running on the Liberal Party line, and his supporters were frustrated that the New York Secretary of State (and future governor) appeared to have no chance in a three-way race that also included a Republican candidate, Roy Goodman.
Koch was a lifelong bachelor and there were whispers about his sexuality while he served in Congress. But suddenly, homosexuality became an issue in the campaign and placards saying “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” appeared throughout New York. Koch denounced the attack and Cuomo disavowed it. But as the race continued, and even during the early days of his administration, Koch felt the need to attend events with “a beard,” a female to rubber-stamp his heterosexuality. That beard was often former Miss America and consumer advocate Bess Myerson.
But as the years dragged on, people seemed to care less and less about the Mayor’s sexuality. And in his post-mayoral years, Koch morphed into an asexual imp in the eyes of many, much to his approval. Koch commented on his sexuality only once stating:
What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply “Fuck off.” There have to be some private matters left.
But in his book, And the Band Played On, author Randy Shilts contends that Koch’s closeted sexuality may have contributed to his ignoring the developing AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. Shilts believes that Koch was afraid of lending credence to the rumors about him.
And author and activist Larry Kramer declared that Koch was a “closeted gay man” whose fear of being outed kept him from aggressively addressing the epidemic. In his play, The Normal Heart, Kramer lampooned Koch’s indifference to the epidemic. The play’s protagonist, an AIDS activist, lamented that the only way to get the mayor’s attention was to “hire a hunky hustler and send him up to Gracie Mansion with our plea tattooed on his cock.”
Whether or not Koch was gay is irrelevant, however. What’s noteworthy is how Koch ran from these rumors, and that his fear of being outed may have pushed him into ignoring the plight of gay men in New York City.
But Koch’s indifference left a lasting, unintended effect: Because of his lack of sympathy, the city’s residents banded together to create many notable health services for HIV/AIDS sufferers. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis sprouted out of Koch’s inaction (and Kramer’s anger), and is now one of the most influential community-based HIV/AIDS service organizations in the United States.
Today, New Yorkers are on the brink of another Mayoral election, with the leading candidate being a lesbian woman, Christine Quinn. She is not shy or apologetic about who she is. Moreover, the man who now occupies Koch’s old 18th Congressional District Seat (albeit further north these days), Sean Patrick Maloney, is not only a gay man, but a gay man with children in a long-term committed relationship. What is even more amazing, nobody really cares! Yes, New York has come a long, long way in a little more than 30 years.