The Ed Koch and AIDS Controversy

The Koch Legacy

My last post was a favorable one on Ed Koch based on my personal remembrances of the mayor and on his record for turning the city around financially when in office. Having grown up in New York, I know he got it through some very tough times and for that he deserves a lot of credit.


Riding the subway in 1978

Imagine if Koch had been mayor ten years earlier in the 60’s … he could have turned things around even earlier. Perhaps Penn Station and the West Side Highway would still be standing; the Rockaways and South Bronx might have been saved; and, he might not have been faced with the AIDS crisis, but he was. And that response has become the most controversial aspect of his years as mayor.

Strong Feelings

Articles attacking Koch on his AIDS record have appeared since his death in The Nation, The New YorkerThe Huffington Post,The Gay City NewsNew York Magazine and others. Their point in general is that he had a slow and ineffective response to AIDS, which was in part because he was gay and in the closet. Even the New York Times, which left out an AIDS discussion of Koch initially from its obituary, revised it and added the following:


NY AIDS Protest in 1986

Mr. Koch was also harshly criticized for what was called his slow, inadequate response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill and dying in a baffling public health emergency. Critics, especially in the gay community, accused him of being a closeted gay man reluctant to confront the crisis for fear of being exposed.

For years, Mr. Koch was upset and defensive about the criticism. In a 1994 interview with Adam Nagourney, a New York Times correspondent and co-author, with Dudley Clendinen, of “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America,” Mr. Koch said that New York had done more than San Francisco for people with AIDS. “But that never got through to the gay community,”

Mr. Koch said. “They were brainwashed that they were getting shortchanged in New York City and in San Francisco they were getting everything. And it wasn’t true, but you could never convince them.”

The scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS were compounded by a widening rift between Mr. Koch and black New Yorkers. The mayor traced his contentious relationship with black leaders to his first-term decision to close Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, where, he said, the city was paying too much for inadequate care. He would regret the decision.

The revised obituary became a story of its own, mentioned by the Times itself . My pro Koch blog post got some angry retorts as well. What did Koch do to draw such fury from the gay community?

On Not Coming Out

The gay and lesbian community has always believed that Koch was gay and wanted to conceal it for political reasons. He was a perennial bachelor, and rumors of lovers always persisted in the background. Why would choosing not to admit he was gay have a direct impact on his response to AIDS? The answer is part perception and part reality. The perception was that he felt he had to distance himself from gay issues, particularly AIDS, in order to to stay palatable to the mainstream electorate. The reality is that any misstep he might take would be viewed as confirmation of this.

Koch and Bess Myerson, 1977

To the gay and lesbian community, coming out is a critical step in the process of one’s own gay liberation. Anthony D’Augelli, professor of human development at Penn State, says it “lifts a veil of secrecy.” Not coming out is also believed to lead to Internalized Homophobia, which is generally  described as the outward expression of one’s own repressed negative feelings towards their own and others homosexuality.

Any misstep by Koch, perceived or otherwise, would be considered proof of his own homophobia. There is nothing people hate more than having one of their own turn against them.

Jan 1, 1978, Koch with D. Wolf of the Village Voice  (Getty Imgs)

The Gay Rights Bill

On his first day in office, Jan 1, 1978, Koch issued an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in city government; he had also promised to get a gay rights bill passed. He had courted much of the gay vote with that promise. The bill was the brainchild of Allen Roskfoff’ who would later say that Koch stalled and delayed when he could have gotten the bill passed sooner.

Gay activist Christopher Lynn defends Koch when he says the bill couldn’t be passed because city council majority leader Tom Cuite wouldn’t allow it. When it did pass in 1986, Koch vetoed an amendment that would have reduced the bill’s strength.

In the end, how you choose to look at Koch’s record on the gay rights bill is probably a byproduct of how you feel about Koch. You can find enough to say he did a lot to get it passed; you can find enough to say he should have done it earlier. The bill was something Koch could do in good part on his own, without spending a lot of money. The fight on AIDS required a lot of money and a strong coordinated effort from Koch and his staff. It got neither.

Larry Kramer and the GMHC

The person who would come to most embody the anger, frustration, and contempt the gay community had for Koch was Larry Kramer. Kramer grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, went to Yale University, became a successful screen writer, and was nominated for a best screenplay academy award in 1970. He left the film industry in the late 70’s to became a leader in the gay community.


Larry Kramer and Barbra Streisand, 1993

Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 to help fight AIDS and assist patients. He was passed over as president because of his combative nature. The GMHC met with Koch aide Herb Rickman in October 1982 who promised to get out a mayoral warning to the public about AIDS that never came.

In March 1983 an impatient Kramer published the open letter 1,112 and counting to the public, which lashed out at just about everyone for not doing enough to stop AIDS, but in particular Ed Koch. Kramer wrote that Koch “appears to have chosen, for whatever reason, not to allow himself to be perceived by the non-gay world as visibly helping us in this emergency.”

Koch did open an Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns which, as Andy Humm wrote in the Gay City News “did good work, but was not the kind of coordinated city response needed to control spread of the disease.” Koch met with the GMHC in April 1983 (the only time he would do so). He agreed to confidentiality fight for AIDS patients and to join an AIDS task force of mayors, but he made no monetary commitments to the group. Kramer wasn’t at the meeting. The GMHC wouldn’t let him go because they were afraid to put him in the same room with Koch, and for that reason he quit the organization in protest.


Herb Rickman and Ed Koch, circa 1987

Randy Shilts, who chronicles the 80’s AIDS crisis in And the Band Played On, wrote that after the meeting, “For the next two years, AIDS policy in New York would be little more than a laundry list of unmet challenges, unheeded pleas, and programs not undertaken…. All the ingredients for a successful battle existed in New York except one, leadership.”

Kramer would go on to co-found the more political, more effective, and sometimes more violent organization ACT UP, with former bond trader Peter Staley. The group continued the crusade to get better help and assistance for AIDS victims, often with great success.


Koch did seem to become more sympathetic to the AIDS movement in later years. In a May 30, 1989 speech to the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center he said, “The AIDS epidemic is a knife at the throat of civilization itself. The gay community is suffering tremendously, and at the same time is leading the fight to care for persons with AIDS and most important to find a cure. When the history of this era is written, I believe it will show that the eventual victory over AIDS was made possible by heroes in the gay and lesbian communities who led the battle.”


The building Koch and Kramer both lived in

In a strange coincidence, after he left office, Koch  wound up living in the same building Kramer did on Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square. Once in the early 90’s, Koch went to pet Kramer’s dog upon which Kramer said to the dog, loud enough for Koch to hear, “There’s the man who murdered all of Daddy’s friends.”

In another coincidence, Koch reviewed David France’s documentary movie on AIDS activism “How to Survive a Plague” for his New York movie column last year. Koch, who plays what France termed an “obstreperous” role in the film, recommended it and praised it. He said that ACT UP leaders Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Robert Rafsky, and Ann Northrup, all of whom appear in the film, should be “‘honored by President Obama and presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.”


Ed Koch, movie critic logo

France thought the Koch review could be looked at as part of the healing process. He hoped it might lead to some sort of reconciliation between Koch and the activists. You have to give Koch credit for not ignoring the film and for speaking positively about its message. We don’t know how he felt about his own role in the film.

France’s vision of a Koch reconciliation is no longer possible with his passing, but it wasn’t very likely to happen anyway. Staley wrote of Koch’s review, “I’m glad he saw the film, and gave it a positive review, but it was missing two words: ‘I’m sorry.'” Kramer probably wouldn’t have cared if “I’m Sorry” was the review headline. He wrote, “What is this evil man up to as he approaches his death? … We must never forget that he was an active participant in helping us to die.”

In the End

In 1978, Koch came into office in New York City determined to get the city back on its financial feet; he and his staff were focused on minimizing costs and limiting crisis. They weren’t crusaders, they weren’t people focused on combating a health crisis. It wasn’t what they did, but they don’t get a pass. If Koch’s own people weren’t up to the task, he should have found people who were. You have to count this as a blemish on Koch’s record, and even he must have realized in the end that it was. Nevertheless, I will still remember Koch as the funny bald guy asking me how he was doing. If I could answer, I would say, pretty good, but you need to take a closer look at what is going on with AIDS.

Leave a comment


  1. MediaHo

     /  February 20, 2013

    You’ve truly missed your calling, Todd — great piece of writing!

    After hearing of his passing, I thought, wow, he was a great mayor during his first two terms, but the third one was a complete disaster, rife with scandal and corruption. So I was a bit ambivalent about it at first, until reading several FB posts by gay friends who had a whole ‘nother perspective, which you so thoroughly explored above. That, coupled with Term Three, makes my response to his “How’m I doing?” more like, “Um, feh. Not so great.”

    And that bridge connecting Queens to Manhattan will always be the Queensboro or the 59th Street Bridge (“Feelin’ Groovy”) to me.


  2. Jack Murray

     /  February 20, 2013

    Thank you for this great post. A fair and balanced view of the man and his time.

    And thank you even more for linking here to my own “angry retort” to your original post. I lost some of the best friends I ever had to AIDS, just when they were coming into their own. I will always miss and remember them, and keep alive the memory of what we went through.

    Lastly, thank you for your continuing stream of great old pictures on Facebook!

  3. Karen,

    Thanks, now we can understand why it will be hard for some of the people to drive across a bridge named for him. It will be interesting to see how the mayors legacy progresses with time and more information is found out about his record . For myself and a lot of others, we found out a lot that wasn’t good, with the help of being reminded by those who lived through the time.

  4. Jack,

    Sometimes an angry retort can serve some pretty important purposes, thank you for making it. There is no way to equate how the loss must have felt while nobody was doing enough about it. Your post clued me in that there was more to be found out.


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