Ed Koch’s Mixed Legacy on Gay Rights & AIDS
When Shelley wrote that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," he used "poets" as shorthand for all literary authors. He could have added that they are often its historians.
Whatever people think of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare’s portrayal of a power-mad serial murderer of family members. Writing a century after her death, the great biographer Plutarch is responsible for Cleopatra’s lasting reputation as a wily seductress.
While the jury is certainly still out on Ed Koch, the three-term New York City mayor who died at age 88 on Friday, it may well be that the portrait of him that ends up standing the test of time is the one Larry Kramer wrote in the play "The Normal Heart."
Kramer fought the mayor not only on the page but once face-to-face in the real world. These two men may have loathed each other, but each one could stand as an archetype of how the rest of the world perceives New Yorkers: feisty, ambitious, street- and school-smart Jews personified by the word "chutzpah."
Like all such words in Yiddish (of course), it loses something in translation, but a rough definition would be an presumption of what is right and an intolerance of anyone who dares transgress their own assumptions. If it implies an outlandish arrogance (Leo Rosten, in his definitive book "The Joys of Yiddish" defines it by allusion as a man who kills his parents and throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan), it also encompasses the moral certainty of the Old Testament prophets.
Kramer v. Koch
Kramer’s 1985 play, which was successfully revived on Broadway recently and is finally in production as a film, is a thinly disguised autobiographical polemic about the dark early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. Its protagonist, Ned Weeks, is a gay Jewish activist, a Cassandra who tries to warn the world about a new disease that has begun killing off gay men in his circle of friends.
Weeks becomes deeply involved with a small group of like-minded gay men who have banded together to fight the problem and try to provide social services for its victims. Much of the play involves the men’s fruitless efforts to have an audience with Mayor Koch to solicit the city’s help. His relentless pressure and frequent references to the mayor’s closeted homosexuality eventually gets him kicked out of this inner circle when he directly confronts Koch’s assistant.
In real life, Kramer was one of the founders of what was to become Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which quickly grew to become the world’s largest private AIDS service organization. Like Weeks, he was unceremoniously tossed aside when he became a vociferous critic of what he saw as then-Mayor Koch’s refusal to acknowledge or the situation or take action. Like Weeks, Kramer was hardly silent about what he thought the real problem was: the mayor’s fear that taking the lead in fighting what would become known as AIDS would fuel rumors about his own sexual identity.
Kramer’s barely controlled anger at what he sees as government inaction on every level has scarcely abated in three decades. After the GMHC dust-up, he went on to found ACT-UP, the seminal protest group whose frequent target was the mayor. No ACT-UP demonstration was complete without a few signs of Koch spattered blood red and outing him.
It so happened that at the time, the two men lived in the same Greenwich Village apartment building, which led to one of those only-in-New York scenes. A 2010 story in the New York Observer reprises Koch’s own account in a New Yorker profile, which ended up in a book about the mayor by Jonathan Soffer.
"He was trying to pet my dog Molly and he started to tell me how beautiful it was," Kramer said in the New Yorker article. "I yanked her away so hard she yelped, and I said, ’Molly, you can’t talk to him. That is the man who killed all of Daddy’s friends.’"
Next: Koch’s Policy (Or Not) on AIDS