Former New York mayor Ed Koch passes, leaves controversial legacy among LGBT community

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By Anna Peirano

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch died Friday morning at the age of 88 from congestive heart failure. 

Koch was a controversial figure in New York politics, serving in the United States House of Representatives from 1969 to 1977, and three terms as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989.  

Koch never married, and many believed he was a closested gay man throughout his life – something he first denied, and later refused to comment on. His supposed sexual orientation became an issue during the election of 1977 when posters, not endorsed by the Cuomo campaign, began going up with the slogan “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” 

In 1989, Koch gave a radio interview about a book he co-authored with Cardinal John J. O’Conner. When the interviewer asked him to clarify his views on homosexuality relative to O’Connor, Koch said, “it happens that I’m a heterosexual.” 

In a 1998 issue of New York Magazine, regarding his sexual history, Koch wrote:

Listen, there’s no question that some New Yorkers think I’m gay, and voted for me nevertheless. The vast majority don’t care, and others don’t think I am. And I don’t give a shit either way! 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.

Koch was featured in the 2009 documentary titled “Outrage” about closeted gay elected officials. In the film, Koch was said to have had a boyfriend named Richard Nathan, who supposedly left the city when Koch was first elected mayor, and later died of AIDS. However, Koch denied having a romantic relationship with Nathan, according to the New York Daily News.

Koch is credited as having been instrumental in lifting New York from an economic crises to a level of prosperity during the 70’s. However, his term in office was also marked with criticism surrounding racial tensions, corruption among his political allies, and the rise in homelessness and crime rates. 

In addition, many in the LGBT community felt Koch never did enough to address the rising epidemic of AIDS and HIV during his time as mayor. Writer and activist Larry Kramer called Koch “a murderer of his own people,” in reference to his supposed sexuality and lack of action or support of LGBT New Yorkers. 

In a New York Times obituary published Friday, author Robert D. MacFadden writes, “Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency, and critics, especially in the gay community, accused [Koch] of being a closeted homosexual reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed.”

In a 1994 interview with New York Times correspondent Adam Nagourney, Koch insisted that New York had done more for AIDS victims than San Francisco. “But that never got through to the gay community,” he said. “They were brainwashed that they were getting short-changed in New York City and in San Francisco they were getting everything. And it wasn’t true, but you could never convince them.”

Even though Koch may never be known as an icon or role model of the LGBT community, he’ll live on as a seminal figure represenative of New York. He’ll be buried in Manhattan’s Trinity Cemetery where he secured a plot in 2008. On the reason for his choice, he gave the New York Times a very New York answer, saying, “The idea of leaving Manhattan permanently irritates me.” 

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