Koch’s closet

Exploring the former mayor's legacy must include how his sexual orientation perhaps affected his policies

Ed Koch drew a curtain around his sexual orientation during his life, but after his death, gay writers in the mainstream press gave full voice to the betrayal and anguish they felt during his three terms as New York City’s mayor. Many of them think that he was a closeted gay man, and that this was what made him move too slowly when AIDS first reared its lethal head in New York City.

Andrew Sullivan writes:

I sure don’t want to know about Ed Koch’s sex life, if he had one. But the plain fact of your orientation is not the same as the details of your sex life. And when you are such a public figure and single and your city is grappling with an epic health crisis among gay men, it does become other people’s fucking business — especially if he was inhibited from a more aggressive response because of not wanting to seem gay.

That’s key for many people who care about gay issues, says Richard Kim at The Nation: Koch seemed to spend a lot of energy “aggressively — if unsuccessfully — attempting to eliminate any whiff of homosexuality from his profile,” partly by escorting former Miss America Bess Myerson to many public events, though he admitted later they were never romantically involved. Like Sullivan, Kim says that we should look at how “the particular way in which Koch was closeted shaped his halting, seemingly indifferent reaction to the epidemic.” By January 1984, Kim says, Koch’s New York City had spent only $24,500 on AIDS while, in a San Francisco with one-tenth the population, Mayor Dianne Feinstein had spent $4.3 million.

This meant that New York suffered in a way that San Francisco didn’t. David France, director of the Oscar-nominated “How to Survive a Plague,” writes in New York magazine, where he is a contributing editor, about how people in the city were turned away from hospitals because of overcrowding and how nurses, terrified, refused to bandage the wounds of AIDS patients. “In the days before cell phones and the Internet, when the New York Times still refused to use the word gay and the hometown gay newspaper sold just 6,000 copies — a time when it was impossible to reach the at-risk community outside of the mainstream — he could have shown leadership,” he says. “He could have promoted risk reduction and community education… . Koch’s failure in AIDS should be recalled as the single-most significant aspect of his public life.”

But potential fallout from closeted public figures is not just a historic relic, says Michelangelo Signorile in the Huffington Post. Koch is “Exhibit A” of what happens, still, when powerful people are in the closet. “At this very moment, there are closeted gay politicians in Washington and across the country voting against gay rights in part to cover for themselves,” he writes.

Koch was not all bad for gay people. In fact, he was pretty good, at least early on. His friend Charles Kaiser, the author of The Gay Metropolis and a former journalist, points out in an op-ed on CNN.com that “Koch had the longest and strongest pro-gay rights record of any public official of his generation, dating back to 1962, when he first called for the repeal of the New York state law prohibiting sodomy.” Kaiser notes that one of Koch’s first acts as mayor was “to sign an executive order banning discrimination against gay employees of New York City.” (Andy Humm, in an exhaustive piece in Gay City News, notes that this progressive streak faded as Koch eyed the governorship; though he had promised to get a city-wide gay rights bill passed within his first six months in office, it took years.)

Some people see all this public wrangling with Koch’s sexuality as outing him. In a Daily News op-ed about whether Koch’s orientation should even be talked about, New York University Professor Jonathan Zimmerman says no. It’s “cruel” to out gay people, he says, as “all of us lead private lives that sometimes clash with our publicly held principles.”

The tradition of outing closeted figures is perhaps one of the most controversial things that gay activists and writers do. Some see it as a critical tool in the fight for gay rights — gay visibility has always been an important way to calm social fear. Other activists want to punish the hypocrisy that happens when closeted figures make anti-gay remarks or pass anti-gay legislation. Others, like Zimmerman, think that revealing the gay sexual orientation of people who don’t want it revealed pierces their privacy in an unacceptable way.

But was this even outing? I don’t think so. Though Koch avoided talking about his sexual orientation and once, in a 1989 radio interview, even said he was heterosexual, there is enormous evidence that he was gay (Humm goes through it step by step). And speculation about his homosexuality has been floating around in the public consciousness at least since 1977, during his mayoral primary against Mario Cuomo (New York’s future governor and father of the one currently serving) when, the Daily Beast notes, “posters of mysterious origin appeared saying, ‘Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

Important public figures like Koch, who affected the lives of millions of people, deserve to have their impact and legacy evaluated carefully, and that’s what these gay writers did. In the end, we should have sympathy for such a complex man, Richard Socarides writes in The New Yorker, though he says that he, too, wishes that Koch had come out. It would have made the mayor a light to young gays and lesbians, like Socarides, who had needed one. Even so, he says, “How difficult it must have been, to maintain that kind of secret for so long and in the context of such a public life.”

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , , , ,