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In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Edward I. Koch (1924-2013)
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/01/13
Last updated on: 02/02/13
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Edward I. Koch, colorful former Mayor of New York City, died on February 1, 2013 of congestive heart failure at New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital. Described as the "master showman of City Hall," Koch was elected to five terms in Congress and three terms as Mayor of America's largest city. Throughout his career he was rumored to be gay, but never publicly came out.

As Robert McFadden reports in the New York Times, "His political odyssey took him from independent-minded liberal to pragmatic conservative, from street-corner hustings with a little band of reform Democrats in Greenwich Village to the pinnacle of power as New York City's 105th mayor from Jan. 1, 1978, to Dec. 31, 1989. Along the way, he put an end to the career of the Tammany boss Carmine G. De Sapio and served two years as a councilman and nine more in Congress representing, with distinction, the East Side of Manhattan."

Koch is widely credited with rescuing New York City from near bankruptcy in the 1970s to prosperity in the 1980s, for beginning an ambitious housing program, for revitalizing once-blighted neighborhoods, and for reversing a marked decline in the quality of life in the city. But his time in office was also marked by increased racial tensions, an inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, and corruption scandals.

Koch's gay legacy is complicated by his refusal to acknowledge his homosexuality and by charges that he failed to respond effectively to the AIDS crisis that ravaged New York City during his mayoralty.

Because of his inaction and lack of urgency in the face of the epidemic, Koch was pilloried by AIDS activists, including members of ACT UP and Larry Kramer, whose The Normal Heart presents a scathing portrait of him.

As McFadden notes, for years, Koch was defensive about the criticism. In a 1994 interview with Adam Nagourney, a New York Times correspondent and co-author, with Dudley Clendinen, of Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (1999), Koch insisted that New York had done more for AIDS victims than San Francisco.

"But that never got through to the gay community," Koch said. "They were brainwashed that they were getting short-changed in New York City and in San Francisco they were getting everything. And it wasn't true, but you could never convince them."

But as David France, director of the searing documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012), pointed out, "Koch stood silent through years of headlines, obituaries, and deaths. He refused meetings with community members, Larry Kramer chief among them. Administratively, he created inter-departmental committees and appointed liaisons, but he gave them neither power nor resources to do anything real. By January 1984, in the epicenter of a ballooning epidemic when tens of thousands of New Yorkers were infected and 864 were already gone, Koch's New York had spent a total of $24,500 in response."

France also observes that Koch may have been a changed man at the end of his life, for in an unexpected review of the film, Koch acknowledged that the demonstrations against him "were necessary to keep the issue on the front burner" and recommended that the leaders of ACT UP, including Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Robert Rafsky, and Ann Northup, be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor.

Notwithstanding his failure of leadership in combating AIDS, Koch deserves credit for a number of gay rights achievements.

He and former Congressman Bella Abzug introduced the first nondiscrimination law in Congress, the Equality Act of 1974, a sweeping federal bill to ban discrimination against lesbians, gay men, unmarried persons, and women in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Abzug and Koch's bill was the first-ever national legislative proposal to end discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

Although the bill was introduced with some optimism, it floundered and became victim to the anti-gay backlash promoted by Anita Bryant and the rise of the New Right.

When Koch was elected mayor, one of his first acts was to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by city agencies.

In 1984, Koch became the first New York City Mayor to march in the city's gay pride parade.

In 1986, after years of pressuring City Council, he was finally able to sign a nondiscrimination ordinance that covered private as well as public agencies and that applied to housing and accommodations as well as employment.

During his tenure, the Mayor also appointed a number of openly gay and lesbian judges and other officials.

Although he was hounded by rumors of homosexuality throughout his career, the most blatant exploitation of the rumors came in his 1977 campaign for mayor, when placards sprouted, especially in conservative areas of the city, saying "Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo."

Mario Cuomo, his chief opponent in the 1977 election, disclaimed responsibility for the posters, but Koch never forgave him. In his 1989 book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, the former mayor said, "When I first saw those posters, I cringed, and I wondered how I would be able to bear it."

In most of his political campaigns Koch appeared with his close friend and advisor Bess Meyerson, who served as a kind of beard for him. In his first mayoral campaign, they were often seen to be holding hands at public events.

In the 2009 documentary Outrage, about closeted politicians, filmmaker Kirby Dick identified Richard Nathan as Koch's lover. Nathan, who moved out of New York when Koch was elected mayor, later died of AIDS. Koch denied that he and Nathan were lovers.

Koch steadfastly refused to answer repeated questions about his sexual orientation. In his 2009 autobiography, Citizen Koch, he said, "Whether I am straight or gay or bisexual is nobody's business but mine."

On another occasion, he explained his reticence: "I do not want to add to the acceptability of asking every candidate, 'Are you straight or gay or lesbian?' and make it a legitimate question, so I don't submit to that question. I don't care if people think I'm gay because I don't answer it."

Koch is survived by a sister, Pat Koch Thaler.

The video below is the trailer for Koch, a documentary by Neil Barsky that opens on February 1, 2013.

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