The instant beatification of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch has a lot of folks itching to do some grave-dancing. Leftists will denounce Koch because he was one of the original neoliberal mayors, ushering in a regime of gentrification and finance-driven inequality that defines the city to this day. Minorities regard him with suspicion because he marginalized the city’s black and Hispanic leadership and inflamed racial fault lines to corner the white vote, presaging the Sister Souljah moments that would come to afflict the national Democratic Party. And yet even there, among the new Democrats, Koch was never a stalwart, breaking with the party to endorse George W. Bush for president in 2004 and flirting with the neocons over Israel late in his life.
All that said, there is a special place reserved for Koch in gay hell—because he was mayor during the onset of the AIDS epidemic, which he is widely seen as failing to do enough about, and because it’s commonly assumed that Koch was a closeted gay man. “I hope he’s burning next to Roy Cohn”—or sentiments quite like it—have appeared frequently on my Facebook feed, especially from vets of ACT UP.
You’ll find very little of this criticism reflected in the New York Times obituary, which thinly and inconclusively grapples with Koch’s political legacy only after fawningly and provincially portraying Koch as a real-life, benignly obnoxious, wacky Grandpa Munster. Sure not everyone liked his politics, but Hizzoner sure was zesty! The first version of the Times obit, in fact, mentions AIDS only in passing, alongside the “scandals and the scourges” of crack cocaine and homelessness, and it was only after the Twitterverse flogged the Gray Lady that new paragraphs on AIDS were added.
The gay brief against Koch comes in two stripes. The first is that he should have been out and that had there been an openly gay political leader of national stature urging action on AIDS, the course of the epidemic might have been very different; countless lives could have been saved. I find this counterfactual an exercise in magical thinking and ultimately unfalsifiable and unhelpful. It’s not clear that an out gay man could have been elected mayor in 1977 in the first place, especially given the “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” signs that current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is accused of orchestrating on behalf of his father in that primary, or that an out or outed gay mayor would have won re-election in 1981 or 1985. It’s also not hard to envision a scenario in which an out or outed gay mayor would have driven from office by scandal, perhaps only adding to the shame and ostracization the gay community faced then. The point is, we just don’t know, and there are simply too many variables to plot out what kind of impact an openly gay elected official like Harvey Milk, whom Koch fell short of on many levels, would have had on the epidemic.