The Koch Conundrum

Ed Koch, mayor of New York City during the height of the AIDS epidemic, evokes conflicting views on his record, even after his death.

BY Trudy Ring

April 03 2013 4:00 AM ET

A closeted gay man, considered a friend to gay people by some and an “evil man” by others, former New York City mayor Ed Koch leaves a complicated legacy.

Koch, who died February 1 at age 88, was criticized by many LGBT and AIDS activists during his 1978-1989 mayoral tenure for what they saw as his lack of action on the epidemic. Some said he was gay and that his desire to hide that fact inhibited his response to AIDS. Koch never confirmed that he was gay, but at least one longtime friend, writer Charles Kaiser, now says that was indeed the case.

 “I saw no evidence that he was self-hating because he was gay,” says Kaiser, a former Advocate columnist and author of The Gay Metropolis, a New York–centered study of 20th-century gay American life. Kaiser attributes the late mayor’s reticence to the fact that he came from a generation that tended not to discuss such matters.

Others, however, think that a desire to quash gay rumors affected how Koch addressed AIDS during his tenure, which saw the first reported AIDS cases and the disease’s growth into an epidemic. “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,” wrote Richard Kim in The Nation shortly after Koch’s death, quoting Shilts to the effect that the mayor was willing to take steps that cost the city nothing but resisted spending much on the effort, lest anyone think gays were getting special treatment.

To filmmaker David France, whose 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague chronicles the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s, it doesn’t matter if Koch was gay, and he doesn’t think fear of being called gay shaped the mayor’s policies. But he has damning words about Koch just the same. “I think he lacked a certain quality to show empathy, to feel for other people,” France tells The Advocate.

During Koch’s administration, France says, hospital space and other public services for people with AIDS were sorely lacking. “Patients were turned away from hospitals,” he says. “Patients died in the hallways of hospitals. It was positively medieval.”

New York, he says, spent a fraction of what another hard-hit city, San Francisco, spent on AIDS services, and it took years to get Koch to meet with gay activists about the crisis.

Koch, who wrote movie reviews late in life, actually praised France’s film last fall and said the activists it chronicles, such as Larry Kramer, deserve presidential medals for their efforts — to which Kramer responded with online comments calling Koch an “evil man” who “was an active participant in helping us to die.”

Kaiser has a far different view of Koch. He allows that Koch should have done more to assure sufficient hospital beds, but also says the mayor expressed regret about actions he didn’t take. Also, there was really nothing he could have done to stop the spread of HIV, and on this France concurs.

“I don’t really believe he could have done much for containment,” says France, deeming that more of a federal government responsibility.

Kaiser also touts many pro-gay actions taken by Koch, such as calling for an end to New York State’s sodomy law in 1962, when he was a grassroots Democratic activist; introducing, while a congressman in 1974, a bill to ban antigay discrimination nationally; and as mayor, issuing an executive order preventing such discrimination against city employees. “He has the longest continuous pro-gay record of any politician of his generation,” Kaiser says.

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