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.
What we do know, or can usefully conjecture, forms the basis of a more sober if no less damning indictment of Koch—which is that the particular way in which Koch was closeted shaped his halting, seemingly indifferent reaction to the epidemic. Unlike the coy posture he adopted later in life, Koch didn’t just refuse to answer questions about his sexuality during his years in office. He aggressively—if unsuccessfully—attempted to eliminate any whiff of homosexuality from his profile. If Kirby Dick’s documentary Outrage is to be believed, Koch had a long-term relationship with a man named Dick Nathan, but broke it off before his first mayoral race (this account comes from David Rothenberg, whom Koch appointed NYC’s human rights commissioner). Nathan moved to Los Angeles (where he died of AIDS in the ’90s) and was conspicuously replaced by Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, as Koch’s beard. Koch also proclaimed himself a heterosexual in a 1989 radio show when he was running against David Dinkins, and generally took pains to distance himself from New York’s gay community.
Reading Randy Shilts’s account in And the Band Played On, it’s impossible not to conclude that Koch’s personal paranoia came to determine his policy response to AIDS. According to Shilts, Koch “warmly embraced requests that cost the city nothing,” but routinely rejected any requests—for housing for people with AIDS, for a health center in Greenwich Village, for hospice space—that came with a price tag. Koch, Shilts writes, wanted to avoid the perception that gays would get “special treatment” in his administration. The result is that “for the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken.” “All the ingredients for a successful battle against the epidemic existed in New York City” concludes Shilts, “except for one: leadership.”
As David France, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague points out, by January 1984, New York City under Koch’s leadership had spent a total of just $24,500 on AIDS (full disclosure: the producer of HTSAP is my partner, Howard Gertler). That same year, San Francisco, a city one-tenth the size of New York, spent $4.3 million, a figure that grew to over $10 million annually by 1987.
The mayor of San Francisco during those years was Dianne Feinstein, who like Koch was no radical. She came from the centrist coalition that included Dan White, the city supervisor who murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, whose office Feinstein assumed in the wake. Like Koch, she had a troubled relationship with the gay community (she infamously vetoed a domestic partnership bill in 1983). And like Koch, she was, above all, a political opportunist with national ambitions who happened to live in a liberal city with a large, politically active gay population. But she was straight, and—paradoxically—that made a difference in how those two cities treated people with AIDS in those formative years.
Ed Koch might not have been in a position to accelerate antiretroviral drug development or slow the transmission of HIV on a national scale, but he definitely could have made the lives of thousands of people with AIDS in New York City a whole lot more humane, which might also have extended some of those lives until an effective treatment was available. That he has blood on his hands seems likely. That he is guilty of the curious combination of paranoia, myopia, self-interest and callousness that so often attaches to closeted public officials seems undeniable. Would the fight against AIDS been helped had Ed Koch come out of the closet? Possibly. But it definitely would have been better had he just been straight.
God bless his surely weary soul. I won’t.