It was certainly intriguing to read the obituaries for Ed Koch, the famous former mayor of New York who died Feb 1 at the age of 88. Most mainstream papers were coy about the fact that Koch was gay – while some noted that he had remained a bachelor his whole life and had no children. Reading lines like that always makes me think about how far we’re really come – or rather, not.
I feel lucky that I got to talk to the man. It was the summer of 2011. I was on my way to New York and thought it might be a good time to interview Koch.
In the previous year, he had appeared in two brilliant documentaries, Stonewall Uprising, about the pivotal riots many regard as the beginning of contemporary queer liberation, and Making the Boys, about the phenomenal success and ongoing impact of Mart Crowley’s landmark play (and subsequent film) The Boys in the Band. Were appearances in these films Koch’s way of coming out gently, as if by osmosis?
Getting the interview proved strangely easy. I just Googled Koch’s name, then clicked on the first link and an email popped up. Within about two hours I heard back from an assistant and we’d arranged a time for me to meet with Koch in his swank high-rise office. Good thing al Qaeda wasn’t out to get him – he didn’t seem to have a heckuva lot of security.
After about two non-gay questions, I brought up the documentaries and his appearance in them. “It seemed like perhaps you were moving towards talking about something you hadn’t discussed before,” I said.
“Like what?” he snapped. “Speak up!”
“Like about being gay.”
“My position about speaking about sexual orientation is that I feel that that’s a private matter. There always seem to be people who are interested in my sexual orientation. I suppose I should be complimented because I’m 87 years of age. But I think it’s a private matter, for people who decide if they want to discuss their heterosexuality or homosexuality. I don’t discuss it.”
I pressed on: “But you seemed to be willing to discuss it through appearances in these films.”
“No,” he shot back. “I don’t think so at all. I have been very supportive of gay rights in the past, if you’ll look at my record. I’ve been supportive of the rights of blacks, too, and, of course, Jews and Catholics.”
“But billions of people know who you are,” I pointed out. “If you came out it would have tremendous impact.”
“I don’t discuss my sexuality,” Koch said. “I don’t intend to discuss it with you. I’m asking you the question: would you agree that every politician be asked the question ‘Are you gay?’ Answer the question! Yes or no?”
“That would depend on the context,” I replied.
“In other words,” Koch retorted, “you don’t want to answer the question. I get questionnaires all the time, but when I was running, that one didn’t exist. If we pursued your view of life, that’s not an illegitimate question.”
Koch wouldn’t budge. There was no way he was going to say if he was gay or not, though it was pretty obvious in the way he was not saying it that he was.
I asked him if he’d ever seen The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS crisis, in which the characters curse a closeted New York mayor for his inaction on the epidemic. “Never seen it, but I’ve read it. It’s a wonderful play, but it’s one that I believe is unfair to me . . . I think Larry Kramer felt guilty because he warned people not to have promiscuous sex, but they did anyway. So he’s seeking to lay guilt off. I have no feeling of having failed in my responsibilities. We did more than any other city.”
As our interview came to a close, I offered Koch a copy of my book on queer cinema, knowing he is a huge film buff. I signed a copy and handed it over to him, wondering how he’d react to the photo of drag legend Divine on the cover. He thanked me and smiled, saying something about liking Divine. I never would have pegged him as a John Waters fan, but there you are.
I left the office with a strange sensation and a bit of an adrenaline rush. After all, I’d just spent about an hour trying to get Ed Koch to say he was gay.
It was worth a shot.