NY’s Ed Koch: Why the Big City Mayor Kept a Big Secret

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German Lopez
for The New York Times

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, had a bombastic style that defined the image of a big-city leader in the 1980s. Koch served in the US House of Representatives (1969-1977), and as New York City Mayor (1978-1989). He died in 2013.

But as open as Koch could be–reports Matt Flegenheimer and Rosa Goldensohn in a new profile of him for the New York Times–he strained to conceal one aspect of his life: He was gay.

Flegenheimer’s colleague, German Lopez, interviewed the reporter about the Ed Koch profile, in a Q&A reprinted here:

Lopez: Why write about Ed Koch and his private life now?

Matt Flegenheimer: This isn’t a story about his sex life. It’s about his life and how that life had profound implications for his city. As much as he tried to compartmentalize his public and private existence, he was fundamentally one man. Our aim was to capture that — the ways in which his choices and burdens shaped the city he was leading.

Koch’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis is a big part of your story. Did his sexuality play a role?

It’s really impossible to measure what effect his own identity might have had on the city’s stewardship of the crisis. But some of Koch’s aides explicitly told activists at the time that this was a sensitive issue for the mayor, given the rumors about him. They suggested he had to keep a political distance.

It was unusual for Koch to be missing in action on major issues.

On issues major or minor. Neil Barsky did a great documentary shortly before Koch died. There was a quote from Wayne Barrett, the journalist, that if you could bring a camera into the operating room, Koch would never die — he was so thrilled to be seen and listened to. He loved being this kind of master of ceremonies over this circus of New York.

A couple years before he died, at this ceremony to rename the Queensboro Bridge in his honor, Koch said his great wish was to be relevant until the day he died. On that score, he succeeded. For all the emotional strain that his sexuality might have brought him, there was nobody who projected more zeal for the job of being mayor.

What was so frustrating to activists was that they were not seeing that vitality and public-facing energy around the AIDS crisis.

AIDS was affecting people he was close with. How did Koch cope with his failure?

It’s hard to say. There’s a meeting he had with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis leaders. They had a hard time getting on his calendar. But when they did, Leonard Bloom, who was on the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told us that Koch was incredibly uncomfortable. He looked at the ceiling, he looked down. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world. This stayed with Bloom.

It’s hard to know how Koch processed it. This was a disease that was ravaging his own neighborhood. And he did have friends who died of AIDS. There was certainly a sense that he was not grasping the urgency of the crisis.

You report that Koch at one point gathered his aides and declared that he was straight. Was that as random as it seemed?

This is in his third term. We’re well into the AIDS crisis. A former romantic partner of his told Larry Kramer, the playwright and activist, about his past relationship with Koch. Kramer told reporters. So there is a real fear about what stories might be percolating. Even though nobody in the room asked, Koch felt compelled to say to his senior team, “I am not a homosexual.” As somebody said once he was out of earshot, you can see how much pain he’s in.

Getting outed seemed like an existential threat to him.

Koch belonged to maybe the last generation of New York politicians for whom being openly gay was politically prohibitive. He had a campaign consultant who made homophobic remarks and demanded to know if the rumors were true. Koch insisted they were not. And there was this political gambit about sending Koch around the city with a supporter, a former Miss America, Bess Myerson, and ginning up tabloid speculation that they were an item.

For the rest of his life, he just would not give an inch on the question of whether he was gay.

It was a good reminder of how much things have changed. It was so fast even Koch couldn’t keep up with it.

There’s no question that’s true. There’s this counterfactual: Wouldn’t it have been valuable for people to see a popular elected leader of New York come out of the closet?

But when gay friends of his would nudge him and then encourage him to come out later in life, Koch would just say, “I don’t want to.” That was as far as the conversation got.

You can feel his pain through the story. As a gay man, I appreciated seeing what people like me went through for gay rights — it makes me recognize what I have.

There’s a real sadness to it. Later in his life, Koch asked friends if they knew anyone who might be partner material. And it’s an aching admission. Ultimately, he doesn’t find a partner. He told one friend that was the great failure of his life. And Ed Koch did not think Ed Koch failed very often.

Click to read the New York Times story (may require subscription)

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