Edward Irving Koch, mayor of the City of New York from 1978 to 1989 (at one time a Congressman, lawyer, and enlisted in the U.S Army), died on Friday, February 1st 2013, at the ripe age of eighty eight in Manhattan. The cause of death, so one hears, was heart failure. Naturally, speculation is rife on whether or not this implies he may actually have been in possession of one, and if so, how and for what exactly it may have been used.
As is reliably the case when someone with a television presence passes on, his last breath opened the floodgates of hagiography. First out of the gate, The New York Times: Edward I. Koch, the master showman of City Hall, who parlayed shrewd political instincts and plenty of chutzpah into three tumultuous terms as New York’s mayor with all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams.
The obit goes on, and on, and on, five pages in a key somewhere between solemn and sentimental. That’s how these things are done. As the saying goes, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, “Speak only well of the dead”. The media generally loves this stuff; it’s a practical, coincidentally profitable tradition. More papers are sold, web pages viewed and banners clicked, everybody’s happy. Wistful stories of the dear departed do practically write themselves or get recycled from leftover copy.
For example, did you know that the former mayor would have reporters over to his Greenwich Village apartment for grapefruit and coffee? No?
No problem, neither did I, but to civilization’s immeasurable enrichment, we do now. I’d suggest that’s just how Koch would have liked it. His favorite subject was by most accounts he himself – Ed Koch, slayer of dragons, the philosopher-king who (against all odds!) brought the world’s greatest city back from the brink of self-immolation, all the while (a man of the people!) of humble appearance, plain-spoken, all the concentrated authenticity of the outer boroughs made flesh to walk among us. Fine, he laid his head to rest every night in the West Village, with whom we don’t know, but why sweat over scenery details when the show itself makes Broadway look like a school play?
It’s a great story, and some parts of it may even be true.
"If memory serves, and I believe it does, I noticed him staring at my crotch."
I only met Koch a few times in passing, in the elevators of an office building on the Avenue of the Americas where we both worked at the time. If memory serves, and I believe it does, I noticed him staring at my crotch. Take this particular observation with a grain of salt; the morning rush, before I hit Starbucks, is a time of day I’m lucky to successfully dodge traffic, let alone competently evaluate random strangers in an elevator. That said, my gaydar was going off, not at five-alarm levels mind you, but it’s a bit odd to even remember that over a decade after it happened.
In any event, we exchanged some pleasantries about his then-new book, snarled a bit about Rudy Giuliani (the universally despised mayor at the time, still a fascist pig today), and went our separate ways. I saw him a few more times, said hello, smiled, basic anodyne corporate politeness, nothing of great note to the easily distracted.
Over the years, Koch would turn up here and there, with no regularity or pattern, unless carnival barkers have patterns. Against the backdrop of a City scarred by the terror attacks of September 11th and the technocratic blandness of the Bloomberg administration, Ed Koch at least provided a flash of color. Anything and everything can be gentrified with some effort, but not Ed Koch. If a landmark is what seems to have always been in and of a place, its setting hard to imagine without it, then that’s what he became; part of a sense of place, of the particular fiber of New York. No matter who happened to occupy his seat in his City Hall, Ed Koch would always be the mayor of a shining metropolis that lived in perfect form only in his memory. This was the city that needed him as much as he needed it. For the rest of us, the only constant on this scattering of rocks is perpetual change; for Ed Koch, the only constant was Ed Koch. It’s a small miracle, maybe, that he chose a cemetery for his final rest over having a taxidermist prepare his remains for permanent exhibit.
"The rumors and doubts about his sexuality never went away..."
We don’t know that he ever loved a man, or a woman. All things Ed Koch were, as far as Ed Koch was concerned, matters of consuming public interest, but not that. We do know that he loved the city itself with a fierce, burning passion. Attention spans being what they are and the man’s taste for microphones legendary, we would get occasional reminders on the continuing vitality of the affair between man and city. It is altogether fitting and deliciously, richly ironic that a documentary titled simply Koch premiered the week of his passing. Ed Koch wasn’t one to be silenced by the minor inconvenience of death, not for an instant. He didn’t so much die as switch channels.
The rumors and doubts about his sexuality never went away, to be sure, and absent some trove of Polaroids or, God preserve us, a sex tape stashed somewhere in the Tombs, probably never will.
Or we could try something new and exciting, just for shits and giggles. Why don’t we skip the sex tape idea, drop the rumor conceit, go all-in and call the same-sex preference of the late mayor what it really was: common knowledge.
I use the phrase common knowledge with deliberation. When a given fact spawns newspaper articles, blog posts, several movies and dramatic plays, along with the occasional Tony Award, maybe it’s time to claw the open secrets out from under weasel words like rumor.
"If you must know, his boyfriend’s name was Richard Nathan."
Playwrights and authors Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner might agree, maybe even Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, film-maker Kirby Dick in his 2006 documentary Outrage, Max Read at Gawker, Yehudit Mam for Out Magazine, Americablog’s John Aravosis, the incomparable Joe Jervis of Joe My God, even the inevitable Andrew Sullivan. Not exactly, in the aggregate, equivalent to a random crazy person in Times Square with a hand-lettered sign. Now that would justify doubt. Was Ed Koch gay? Yes, and it took me one phone call to confirm it. I made more than one, just to be on the safe side, and still: if ever there was a glass closet, it was his. If you must know, his boyfriend’s name was Richard Nathan. Richard died of AIDS in 1996. Not exactly news over here in Good-Taste-Ville as far as the mechanics are concerned, one might think.
"True enough, Mayor Koch never took that step in front of the cameras to say “I’m gay”"
But when a Bill Clinton can’t even keep a quick blow job off every front page in the known universe, or a certain John Edwards his cliché-hippie mistress from blowing up into a career-destroying media firestorm, while a three-term mayor of the nation’s media capital can manage to evade basic factual scrutiny for decades, something is wrong.
True enough, Mayor Koch never took that step in front of the cameras to say “I’m gay”. He did issue the occasional weak-tea denial or fuck you, but nothing carrying the vehemence of “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky”. If only Bill Clinton had known that fuck you is a magic spell to make journalists vanish. Or Eliot Spitzer. Or Anthony Weiner.
Put another way, if a simple fuck you can put a definitive end to someone’s journalistic research, they should call their journalism school, ask for a tuition refund, and invest the proceeds in a cupcake shop. More cupcakes at least wouldn’t drag down the collective intelligence of the American people or lend a helping hand to discrimination against a minority.
The principal variable of outcome in these cases is the combination of genders. Powerful men involved with women, that’s news, with other men, not so much. The next conclusion would be that a relationship between two men is ipso facto repellent, not the kind of news fit to print.
That is sexism and homophobia, pure and simple. By law, we’re considered innocent until proven guilty, and by society, straight until we bang someone of our own gender on live national television, preferably to a Lady Gaga soundtrack.
This is not a call for more and better gossip columns, by the way. Some more realism and less hypocrisy in reporting would be great, though, as mind-blowing as it might be to some that hetero isn’t the default factory operating system and gay some optional (and rare) piece of software. If someone does want to think along those lines, Windows and Mac OS are a better start; the latter can run the former’s apps if it has to, but it’s still a Mac under the spreadsheet.
The real and important question is whether Ed Koch’s lifelong stay in the closet impacted his politics or the governance of New York City during his three terms.
When Koch was first elected mayor in 1977 as a different kind of liberal, the world was not the place it is now. One can imagine posters braying Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo being shocking even today, let alone almost four decades ago. Open homosexuality would have been a career-killer for any politician at the ballot box, even a mortal personal danger, as the assassination in 1979 of San Francisco’s gay Supervisor Harvey Milk showed with chilling finality. Koch however had higher ambitions than mayor, running for governor in 1982 and sometimes talked about as a possible first Jewish President. If either seems a stretch in hindsight, it did not at the time, not for a young, ambitious politician effortlessly vaulting from Democratic district leader to the City Council and Congress right into the most powerful municipal office in the country. So what if he was that way, it’s not as if anyone needed to know.
That is the way these things work to this day.
"There have been, and still are, any number of closeted men and women in positions of power and fame."
Koch, along with many others, had every reason to expect the underlying gentlemen’s agreement to be honored. There have been, and still are, any number of closeted men and women in positions of power and fame. They’re quite secure as long as appearances are maintained. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valor.
It’s not so much a concern for privacy as it is a witness protection program. In 1977, that made some sense for all involved; in 2013, not so much.
Nor is the glass closet merely an academic issue; LGBT rights are a political matter. The New York Times, for example, was forced to edit its ponies-and-flowers obituary of Mayor Koch to reflect the widespread fury over the mayor’s response to the AIDS crisis after the paper got savaged on Twitter. Did Koch ignore the epidemic for years because it was seen as a gay disease, and guilt by association working the way it does, possibly leading the public to suspect his own preferences and hurting his career? Larry Kramer certainly sees it that way, and he is by no means alone. In later years, after leaving office, Koch went on to support homophobic policies and politicians, opposing marriage equality in New York State, endorsing George W. Bush for re-election, the list just goes on.
At least he’s in excellent company. Consider Ken Mehlmann, George Bush’s 2004 campaign manager – gay. That little fact didn’t stop the man from working his little tail off to pass anti-gay constitutional amendments in nine states that year: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah. In 2012, these states had a combined population of roughly fifty-six million, which translates to one in six Americans, more people than all but twenty-three sovereign nations.
A pretty shitty deal, you might think, not just for LGBT Americans in those states, but for all of us. Queer Americans know from bitter experience that our worst enemies are more often than not our own flesh and blood, lashing out even as they are scared shitless of what they know to be true of themselves. Nor does this hurt only us queers, given how neatly homophobia dovetails with repression of women, racism and injustice at home, imperialism and support of tyranny abroad.
Can this state of affairs change? I believe it can; but change starts with honesty. Yes, New York Times, I’m looking at you.