While AIDS Ravaged New York City, Mayor Ed Koch Stayed in the Closet

Sunday May 15, 2022
Originally published on May 8, 2022

Ed Koch
Ed Koch  (Source:Associated Press)

"I want a boyfriend," former New York City Mayor Ed Koch told his friend Charles Kaiser in the 1990s, according to a report in the New York Times. (Kaiser is the author of "The Gay Metropolis.")

That admittance, coming to press some nine years after Koch's death, is likely to rile a generation of AIDS survivors who often vented their anger against government inaction at the epidemic in the 1980s at Koch's feet. Many accused him of being gay at that time, which he denied and was enabled by his close supporters, some of whom were interviewed in the Times reporting.

"The story of Mr. Koch that emerges from those interviews is one defined by early political calculation, the exhaustion of perpetual camouflage and, eventually, flashes of regret about all he had missed out on," the NYTimes story reads. "And it is a reminder that not so long ago in a bastion of liberalism, which has since seen openly gay people serve in Congress and lead the City Council, homophobia was a force potent enough to keep an ambitious man from leaving the closet."

While some of his closest political supporters knew he was gay, Koch compartmentalized his life in such a way that others didn't, even members of his own family. In winning his 1977 campaign for mayor, where he defeated Mario Cuomo, he posited himself as "a sought-after heterosexual bachelor." But when New York City became the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, he struggled with his aides in dealing with it, who told him it was "gay issue.'"

He beat Mario Cuomo for mayor in 1977, when he posited himself as an "eligible bachelor," from which he should remain distant — in ways that cannot be disentangled from his closeted status."

At one point, former staffer recall, during his third term he called senior members into his office on day for a statement: "I am not a homosexual," Koch told them.

To this day, amongst his supporters there is debate over whether Koch should have come out during his lifetime. "Some had nudged Mr. Koch for years to come out, suggesting he might be happier for it, that the city might be better for it. Their failure disheartens them to this day.

"For the loyal lieutenants who protected Mr. Koch and feel compelled to protect him still, the topic remains uncomfortable. To them, some facts will always be best left unconfirmed."

"He was our father," George Arzt, his longtime spokesman, said. "You don't ask a father those questions."

After Koch established himself "as a reform-minded Democrat" from Greenwich Village," he won a seat in the US Congress. "But the life of a congressman in the 1970s — shuttling between Washington and New York with minimal media scrutiny — allowed Mr. Koch to cordon off parts of his identity," the Times reports. "During this time, he was involved in a sustained romantic relationship with Richard W. Nathan, a high-achieving, Harvard-educated health care consultant, according to on-record interviews with six people who knew about the pair." At the time Mr. Nathan said there was "something thrilling" about "being courted by a powerful man."

Ed Koch and Bess Myerson
Ed Koch and Bess Myerson  

But when fears of Koch being perceived as gay led to involvement of Bess Myerson, the former Miss America. "The candidate and the beauty queen became strategically inseparable, their pinkies entwined at public events, inviting welcome-if-misguided tabloid speculation about an imminent engagement. Mr. Koch himself called her his 'first lady' and hinted at how lovely it might be to get married at Gracie Mansion," adds the Times.

When running for mayor against Cuomo, he was labeled a leading euphemism: Greenwich Village bachelor." Days before the election, Koch told local NYC television station WNEW: "I don't happen to be homosexual. But if I were, I would hope that I wouldn't be ashamed of it. God makes you whatever you are."

But by the mid-1980s, AIDS was ravaging segments of the New York City's population, but mostly gay men. "The disease was menacing every corner of the city, ravaging Mr. Koch's own neighborhood. And New York's broadly popular mayor, who won a third term in 1985 by more than 60 points, seemed unwilling to spend political capital on the issue."

Koch, it appeared, allowed his personal need to hide his homosexuality to affect his policy when dealing with issues pertaining to gay men. "If Mr. Koch had for a time sought a fragile balance between advancing gay rights in targeted ways and maintaining some distance from the community, the AIDS emergency was simply too vast, too merciless in its march, to accommodate triangulation."

The Times concludes: "It is impossible to know just how Mr. Koch's personal identity might have colored the city's approach to the disease. The administration did start a division of AIDS services and eventually facilitated a needle exchange pilot program. But years into the crisis, private citizens were still scrambling to fill a vacuum of services for the sick, from bedside care to medical information to meal delivery."

It wasn't until 1988 did the city of New York issue its first comprehensive AIDS. "Pleas for increased funding and the full use of the executive bully pulpit often went unheeded, a reticence that advocates found especially maddening. If New Yorkers had learned anything about Mr. Koch by then — through a fiscal recovery, a transit strike, a Broadway musical adapted from his memoir — it was his capacity to drive attention to the causes dearest to him."

A demonstrator holds a sign at an AIDS rally in NYC in the 1980s
A demonstrator holds a sign at an AIDS rally in NYC in the 1980s  

In July 1987, Richard Dunne, the executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis, wrote Koch a letter in which he stated: Indeed, one would expect AIDS to be on your agenda every day. Yet in your most recent State of the City address, AIDS wasn't even mentioned." By the end of the year, 10,000 people had died of AIDS in the city.

Even when activists like Dunne were able to get a meeting with Koch on the subject, they didn't find a sympathetic ear. "Ed was looking at the ceiling, he was looking at the floor," Leonard Bloom, a former city health official said, recounting a mid-1980s session with the mayor, senior city officials and Mr. Dunne, Bloom's colleague at Gay Men's Health Crisis. "When the meeting was over, Richard and I said to each other, 'It's like he wasn't even paying attention.'"

But by 1989, Koch's political fortunes went south.His beard — Myerson - was emeshed in her own scandal, he experiences a stroke, and lived in fear that AIDS activist Larry Kramer was planning on outing him. His denials became even more blunt: "It happens that I'm heterosexual," he said in a radio interview that March.

"Two weeks later, an estimated 3,000 AIDS activists descended on City Hall, some with signs mocking the mayor's pronouncement. "And I'm Cary Grant," one read, beside a headline declaring Mr. Koch straight. A new chant was born, too, wafting over Lower Manhattan as hundreds of protesters faced arrest

"AIDS care's ineffectual. Thanks to Koch, the heterosexual."

Out of office, Koch, the Times says, appeared more comfortable with his gay identity. "With other gay people, he seemed completely comfortable as a gay man," said Charles Kaiser, the author of "The Gay Metropolis" who knew Koch was gay. "He went to every gay movie, so the chauffeur had to know."

"Mr. Koch grew close to Maer Roshan, an editor at the gay weekly NYQ and later New York magazine, who became a regular platonic movie date and social wingman," writes the Times.

But even late in life, Koch couldn't describe himself as a gay man. In 1999, the former mayor agreed to a run a personal ad at Roshan's urging in New York magazine looking for a relationship."The proposed script read, "GWM" — a shorthand for "gay white male" — "interested in politics, seeks same for love and friendship," according to Mr. Roshan.

"Mr. Koch balked, Mr. Roshan said, citing 'family that didn't know,' and drawing up revisions that hedged his sexuality. 'Have belatedly concluded that everyone, straight or gay, needs a partner in life,' the final version read."

The Times concludes: "Friends suspected that Mr. Koch's reluctance, even long after being openly gay would have posed a political issue, owed largely to his grudges and his pride: He did not want to give activists like Mr. Kramer the satisfaction of seeing him come out, after they had tried so hard to see him outed."

And, the Times adds, Koch couldn't let go of old animosities. "Shortly before his death, Mr. Koch could still simmer at old foes, once defending the imprisonment of members of the dissident Russian band Pussy Riot by comparing their actions to those of ACT UP, the organization that Mr. Kramer helped found."