Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has been credited with rescuing his city from near financial ruin while also being condemned by gay and AIDS activists for failing to adequately address the AIDS epidemic, died on Friday of congestive heart failure at a New York hospital. He was 88.
Known for his bluntness and New York style “chutzpah,” Koch served three terms as mayor, from 1978 to 1989, winning re-election by overwhelming margins while brushing off and later denying repeated rumors that he was a closeted gay man.
Before becoming mayor, Koch, a Democrat, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1968 to 1977, representing a district that included Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In 1975, he and then U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) co-introduced a sweeping gay rights bill, the first such bill to be introduced in Congress.
The bill called for banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. Like the less ambitious Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, introduced years later that covers only LGBT-related employment discrimination, the Abzug-Koch bill died in committee.
Shortly after taking office as mayor, Koch issued an executive order prohibiting job related discrimination in city government agencies based on sexual orientation.
Although he remained a gay rights supporter throughout his three terms as mayor, Koch alienated a large part of the LGBT community by what gay and AIDS activists have said was a failure to take adequate steps to address AIDS as it wreaked havoc on gay men and others in New York in the early 1980s.
New York gay journalist, TV commentator and LGBT rights advocate Andy Humm said many gays believe Koch’s status as a closeted gay man made him uncomfortable dealing with a disease that at first appeared to be impacting gay men more than any other group.
“It happens that I’m heterosexual, but I don’t care,” Koch said in a 1989 radio interview. “I happen to believe there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. It’s whatever God made you…I do care about protecting the rights of 10 percent of our population who are homosexual and who don’t have the ability to protect their rights,” he said.
“He was probably one of the most famous closet cases of all times,” Humm told the Blade.
Humm and others familiar with Koch’s record as mayor have said most LGBT activists in New York were far more concerned about Koch’s response to the early AIDS epidemic than they were about his sexual orientation.
New York gay rights attorney Bill Dobbs said that Koch’s sluggish response to AIDS prompted many in the gay community, who supported Koch on other issues, into becoming more strident and even radicalized on AIDS matters.
“In a strange way there was a silver lining that came from his lack of response,” Dobbs told the Blade. “His poor response on AIDS triggered greater activism and the creation of ACT UP.”
Among those responding were gay author and playwright Larry Kramer, one of the founders of ACT UP, the direct action AIDS group that engaged in sit-ins and protests across the country, including in New York.
In his now internationally acclaimed play about AIDS, “The Normal Heart,” Kramer’s characters refer to what they claim was the unresponsiveness of the Koch administration in the early 1980s as they struggled to create a community organization to help gay men dying of AIDS.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the organization that Kramer also helped to found in real life and in which his play depicts on stage, became the first of many community-based AIDS service groups to spring up across the country.
In an email exchange on Friday, the Blade asked Kramer if he thought Koch supporters had some merit in saying that Koch faced budget and funding constraints and did what he could in the early days of the epidemic to provide some city resources to address AIDS.
“Bullshit,” replied Kramer. “Evil deeds are evil deeds.”
D.C. gay activist Peter Rosenstein, who lived in New York and worked in politics at the time Koch first won election as mayor, said he supported Abzug over Koch in the hotly contested 1977 Democratic mayoral primary. In the run-off between Koch and Mario Cuomo, who later became New York’s governor, Rosenstein said he backed Cuomo.
“Ed Koch was an enigma,” said Rosenstein. “He was an egomaniac, brash and a bully. He did some good things but was horrendous when it came to dealing with HIV/AIDS.”
Many New York political observers, however, say Koch’s overall record as mayor is considered positive for the city and most of its residents. They note that his transformation from a liberal reform politician in the 1960s and 1970s into a moderate and, on some issues, a conservative Democrat when he ran for mayor alienated many liberals, who accused him of betraying the progressive cause. When he ran for his third term as mayor, he won the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican Party in New York.
“By the usual standards measuring a former mayor’s legacy – the city he inherited, the challenges he faced, the resources available to meet those challenges and the extent to which his work endured beyond his term – historians and political experts generally give Mr. Koch mixed-to-good reviews,” the New York Times said in its obituary on Koch.
“Most important, he is credited with leading the city government back from near bankruptcy in the 1970s to prosperity in the 1980s,” the Times obituary says. “He also began one of the city’s most ambitious housing programs, which continued after he left office and eventually built or rehabilitated more than 200,000 housing units, revitalizing once-forlorn neighborhoods.”