Here we go again. Was Ed Koch gay and did his closet inhibit him from faster action on HIV and AIDS? I only met him once, when Marty Peretz invited me along for a dinner party at Koch’s apartment. As I recall, there were no women at all, I was the only goy, almost no one else got a word in edgewise and the evening ended with Koch actually demanding we sit and watch his speeches on the TV. In other words, not quite as gay as the Vatican, but sheesh.
Perhaps it’s better to see how Koch approached the subject. He saw it in two ways: about sexual behavior alone and about privacy. In that way, he was, in fact, quite typical of many in a generation of gay men his age, who defined their orientation understandably but entirely in terms of sexual freedom and protection from government scrutiny and prosecution. But AIDS, of course, ripped that sub-cultural eco-system apart. Of course, no one – straight or gay – is entirely defined by their sexual orientation. But it’s a core part of your personality – and Koch was simply too old, too self-loathing, and too prickly to change. Here’s the money quote when he was asked about it:
What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply “Fuck off.” There have to be some private matters left.
Of course they do. And 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.
His opponents certainly knew his vulnerability, hence the infamous “Vote For Cuomo. Not The Homo” posters that cropped up over New York City in an election campaign. Hence the weird first election campaign dalliance with a beauty queen he never had a relationship with. And this is not how a straight guy would react in a public meeting on the AIDS crisis:
One of the few peeks into Koch’s psyche comes from a former adviser, who says Koch was very worried someone would interrupt an AIDS forum (hosted by the New York Post, for the record), and accuse him of being gay.
After the forum, Koch complains of a headache and suffers a stroke, making for just one of the many crises in his third term.
A straight guy would never have proposed the following classified ad either, when prompted by New York magazine:
“White Male, 70-something former C.E.O. and practicing attorney. Have belatedly concluded that everyone, straight or gay, needs a
partner in life. How’m I doing?”
History will judge that. And so will the souls of countless gay men, who perished as their mayor panicked.