Ed Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 until 1989, died Friday (1 February) of congestive heart failure at the age of 88.
Koch was a life-long bachelor who steadfastly refused to discuss his sexuality amid widespread speculation that he is gay. He died on the same day that a documentary about his life, simply titled Koch, opened in New York.
Koch was mayor during a period of time during which the AIDS epidemic broke out – a crisis that many have said Koch essentially ignored during his time in office.
Because of this, feelings about Koch continue to run deep even on the day of his death. After lesbian NYC mayoral candidate Christine Quinn released a statement calling Koch a ‘great mayor’ and a ‘great man,’ LGBT activists pounced.
Among those critical of Quinn is Peter Staley, one of the key members of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) whose activism and innovation is credited with playing a crucial role in HIV-AIDS going from a death sentence to a manageable condition with the help of certain drugs.
‘I’m supporting Christine Quinn for mayor, but this mass email she just sent out is completely tone deaf to the generation of gay New Yorkers who worked tirelessly to throw (Koch) out of office (and we succeeded),’ Staley writes in a Facebook post. ‘We will never forget his contemptible legacy of neglect during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.’
In his final years, Koch began doing movie reviews and last October, he turned his focus on the AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary that tells the story of ACT UP and TAG and features Staley prominently.
Koch described the film as ‘superb’ in his review and suggested that key ACT UP members including Larry Kramer should receive the highest national award in the US for a civilian.
‘I don’t know if these individuals were ever honored by the White House for what they did in fighting government and powerful corporations,’ Koch wrote. ‘If not, I urge President Obama to do so by presenting them and other leaders recognized by Act Up with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.’
Kramer, who wrote the Tony Award winning play The Normal Heart, was anything but pleased to be getting praise from Koch.
‘What is this evil man up to as he approaches his death?’ Kramer wrote of Koch. ‘Is he trying to make up to us? National Medals of Freedom from the White House! Would these provide a big enough enema to clean out his rotten insides?’
In the new documentary about Koch’s life, lobbyist and longtime gay activist Ethan Geto addresses Koch’s inaction during the AIDS crisis.
‘So many people, particularly in the gay community, thought Koch was gay and that because he was a closeted gay man he wouldn’t do anything on AIDS,’ Geto says in the movie. ‘It would have been so incredibly invaluable for a popular mayor of New York to declare he was gay.’
Koch told the New York Post he was ‘shocked, frankly’ by Geto’s comments in the film.
‘Why would he do that?’ Koch wondered.