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.”

 

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.