"About a year or two after I got to know Dick, he said he had something he wanted me to know: Over the course of a couple of years, he had been lovers with Ed Koch, and after they broke up, Ed had made it impossible for him to work in New York. No instance of homophobia hurt him more than the treatment by the man he was in love with ... Dick was worried about his safety. And Dick did feel that if he went public, he would suffer."
-- Frederick Hertz, trustee for the late Richard Nathan, in the 2009 film Outrage
"Dick was threatened, physically threatened and financially threatened ... and he was terrified, in the middle of the night, leaving the city."
-- AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane, in Outrage
To those who claim that we suffer no negative ramifications when public figures stay closeted, I offer Exhibit A of how the combination of the closet and power corrupts: Edward I. Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, widely assumed to be homosexual, who died Friday at the age of 88. At this very moment there are closeted gay politicians in Washington and across the country voting against gay rights in part to cover for themselves, driven by personal ambition. They are dangerous individuals, wielding power while harboring a secret they're pathologically afraid will out itself, abusing and terrorizing those close to them as well as many others. Ed Koch is a possible example of the extremes to which such people will go.
Andy Humm's detailed piece on Koch in Gay City News shows how Koch moved away from gay rights as he courted a larger constituency and sought higher political office. Yes, as a New York congressman for a district in Manhattan, he championed a federal gay rights bill, and, yes, he promised a city gay rights bill within the first six months of his first election as mayor in 1977. But it would be years before such a bill passed, as Koch began to bow to religious leaders' resistance, setting his eyes on the governorship (an effort that ultimately failed) and distancing himself from gays. Koch moved so far to the right that he was seen as the conservative alternative to Mario Cuomo, the liberal, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary of 1982.
So it was horribly predictable that he dismally failed in responding to AIDS, which dropped like a bomb in 1981 on a gay community desperate for political leadership during a right-wing era. As Humm notes:
Needle exchange for injecting drug users was assiduously resisted by the Koch administration, leading to thousands of unnecessary HIV infections. Even Britain under conservative Maggie Thatcher embraced needle exchange early on and virtually contained that end of the epidemic. And public education commenced there almost immediately, with an informational brochure to every household about what was known.
Hospital overcrowding was so acute in New York in the mid to late '80s due to the decommissioning of beds that people with AIDS were often consigned to gurneys in hallways rather than getting the care they needed. Many people with HIV-related illnesses were shunned in city hospitals, their food left at the door by fearful health care workers.
In The Nation Richard Kim explains how, three years into the epidemic, Koch's administration had shockingly only spent $24,500 on AIDS while, 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."
Koch's silence on AIDS in those critical first years spoke volumes. The mayor of New York has perhaps the greatest bully pulpit outside the presidency itself. Think Mike Bloomberg and guns. As President Reagan pandered to religious bigots in the GOP, there was no voice coming from the leader of a city at the epicenter of the epidemic, railing against Washington for its inaction and speaking out for all the thousands of people across the country affected by AIDS. Koch's national ambitions had him running away from gays, fearful of what any association might reveal about himself.
That Koch was gay and closeted should not even be in dispute. He bizarrely alternated between claiming, "I'm heterosexual," as he did to Newsday in 1989, and saying, "I don't discuss whether I am heterosexual or homosexual," as he did to Gay City News, and simply telling interviewers to "fuck" off more than once. In the 2009 film Outrage, David Rothenberg, who served as Koch's human rights commissioner, went public with his knowledge of Koch's boyfriend, Richard Nathan (who died of AIDS in 1996), who told him Koch made it clear that he had to leave town soon after Koch was elected mayor. Larry Kramer and AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane also confirmed speaking with Nathan, as did Nathan's trustee, Frederick Hertz. All three men also spoke of Nathan's grave fear of retribution from Koch if he spoke out.
Humm quotes former Koch administration staffer Denis DeLeon (later the head of the Latino Commission on AIDS) recounting before his death from AIDS in 2009 how Koch, clearly desperate for sex as a man who couldn't be free and open, sexually harassed him upon a visit to his home. One of Koch's friends, the openly gay writer Charles Kaiser, confirms Koch's sexual orientation to Humm even while defending him, saying that, while "it would have been a magnificent thing if Koch had come out of the closet at the height of the crisis," he doesn't think it would have done much to alter the epidemic.
What is clear, however, is that Ed Koch's closet turned him into a monster, harming and abusing those around him while turning his back on suffering and mass death.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile