By January 1984, New York City under Koch’s leadership had spent a total of just $24,500 on AIDS. That same year, San Francisco, a city one tenth the size of New York, spent $4.3 million, a figure that grew to over $10 million annually by 1987. The mayor of San Francisco during those years was Dianne Feinstein, who like Koch was no radical. She came from the centrist coalition that included Dan White, the city supervisor who murdered Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, whose office Feinstein assumed in the wake. Like Koch, she had a troubled relationship with the gay community (she infamously vetoed a domestic partnership bill in 1983). And like Koch, she was, above all, a political opportunist with national ambitions who happened to live in a liberal city with a large, politically active gay population. But she was straight, and paradoxically, that made a difference in how those two cities treated people with AIDS in those formative years.
David France, the director of How To Survive A Plague, refuses to label Koch a murderer:
I chose not to interview Koch for How to Survive a Plague. His inaction was simply a fact, nothing I cared to hear him defend. I do not agree with Larry Kramer, who charges Koch with the murder of so many back then. What people died of in Koch’s New York was a viral infection. How they died and how quickly they died — those are the things he might have helped ease. And he didn’t. It is as though he couldn’t empathize with the dying or the rest of us who stood helplessly at their bedsides.
France says, “I was startled when I learned that Koch had seen my film”:
What happened to him in that darkened theater remains a mystery. But by the time he was home — and working up a review of the film for the West Side Spirit — he was apparently a changed man. He called the demonstrations against him “necessary to keep the issue on the front burner” and called upon Obama to grant them Presidential Medals of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Whether this was the beginning of a mea culpa is not known. But he plainly saw that history — his history — in a different light.
(Image: An Act Up poster from the Koch era.)