top of page

Impoverishment Of The Soul: Gay Conservative Closet Cases-- Ed Koch Finally Outed

A dozen years ago this month, notorious California Republican closet case, former leader of the Golden State's GOP homophobic movement, state Senator Roy Ashburn-- having been recently outed with a young male prostitute-- pretty much said that having been in the closet ruined his life and forced him into an existence predicated on hypocrisy. Madison Cawthorn should watch the video up top; so should Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Patrick McHenry, Tom Cotton... Former GOP Congressman (and the vitriolic homophobic founder of the American Conservative Union and Young Americans For Freedom) Bob Bauman was also living a double life in a frightening closet of his own making and came to personal and political ruin when he was also caught with an underage boy. His excellent book The Gentleman From Maryland: The Conscience Of A Gay Conservative also makes it crystal clear that living in the closet is a life sentence unworthy of any human being regardless of political persuasion. It's a life accepted by personally shabby conservative politicians as a matter of course in this country. Most conservatives are Republicans, but not all of them' and most closet cases are Republicans; but not all of them.

When I was in high school, Ed Koch, a fiery progressive who stood up for the Civil Rights Movement and against the war in Viet Nam, beat the Manhattan Democratic Party machine boss (Tammany Hall) Carmine DeSapio for party leader. And he beat him again in a rematch when I went to college. Koch was a progressive hero for that. He won a swing district congressional seat in 1968 but then slowly transitioned from progressive to vile, hideous, race-baiting conservative, eventually ending his career as the rat who endorsed Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Al D'Amato, Peter King and George W. Bush. By 1989, when David Dinkins, kicked him out of the mayor's office, he was loathed by all progressives. Everyone in New York also "knew" he was a sad silly closet case whose life was built on a tissue of fear and lies. But the mainstream media never discussed it... until this week, almost a decade after his death.

Yesterday, Matt Flegenheimer and Rosa Goldensohn, writing for the NY Times-- which systematically covered up for him for decades-- finally officially outed Koch. "Koch was gay," they wrote. "He denied as much for decades-- to reporters, campaign operatives and his staff-- swatting away longstanding rumors with a choice profanity or a cheeky aside, even if these did little to convince some New Yorkers. Through his death, in 2013, his deflections endured." His deflections only endured because of the NY Times, which made an editorial decision to play along with the patently false asserts of a notorious old queen. The paper of record lied about Koch for decades, helping him advance his ugly conservative agenda and leading to the deaths of many thousands of gay men in the AIDs holocaust for which Koch's bathetic closet dilemma was central.

Instead of apologizing on behalf of their paper, Flegenheimer and Goldensohn seem to be bragging that "the New York Times has assembled a portrait of the life Koch lived, the secrets he carried and the city he helped shape as he carried them. While both friends and antagonists over the years have referenced his sexuality in stray remarks and published commentaries, this account draws on more than a dozen interviews with people who knew Koch and are in several cases speaking extensively on the record for the first time-- filling out a chapter that they say belongs, at last, to the sweep of history... The story of Koch that emerges... is one defined by early political calculation, the exhaustion of perpetual camouflage and, eventually, flashes of regret about all he had missed out on. And it is a reminder that not so long ago in a bastion of liberalism, which has since seen openly gay people serve in Congress and lead the City Council, homophobia was a force potent enough to keep an ambitious man from leaving the closet."

Koch coyly positioned himself as a sought-after heterosexual bachelor in his 1977 mayoral victory, defeating Mario Cuomo and redirecting a Cuomo family dynasty to Albany. He struggled to manage the AIDS crisis-- which some administration officials initially deemed a “gay issue” from which he should remain distant-- in ways that cannot be disentangled from his closeted status.
...During a particularly stressful time in his third term, aides remembered, Mr. Koch stunned senior staff members assembled in his City Hall office one day with a sudden declaration: “I am not a homosexual.”
His team was unnerved. No one in the room had asked about this subject. “You can see how much pain he’s in,” his first deputy mayor, Stanley Brezenoff, told another aide once the mayor was out of earshot.
...[T]he life of a congressman in the 1970s-- shuttling between Washington and New York with minimal media scrutiny-- allowed Koch to cordon off parts of his identity. During this time, he was involved in a sustained romantic relationship with Richard Nathan, a high-achieving, Harvard-educated health care consultant... Koch, though early in his political ascent, was by then around 50; Nathan was in his 30s.
...Hoping to energize his long-shot dream of becoming mayor, he persuaded the city’s most sought-after campaign operative, David Garth, to steer his 1977 race for City Hall.
Garth, renowned for elevating political underdogs, believed that Mr. Koch could win, but he had his concerns: He needed to be assured that rumors about the bachelor congressman’s being gay were not true. Koch told him they were not.
Unsatisfied with Koch’s word, Garth personally investigated several leads about purported dalliances, though he turned up nothing. One day, the combustible Garth stormed into a campaign office to confront Ethan Geto, a Koch friend whom he knew to be an openly gay political fixture. They made their way to the basement.
“Is he a fag?” Garth demanded, veins flaring, according to Geto. “If that sonofabitch lied to me and he’s a fag, I would never have taken him on.”
Geto feigned ignorance. “He says he’s not gay,” he told Garth, “I take his word.” (“Of course I knew,” Geto said in a recent interview. “I had known for many years.”)
At the least, Garth recognized that his candidate had a perception problem. And Koch’s most glamorous surrogate-- Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America-- was called upon to solve it.
The candidate and the beauty queen became strategically inseparable, their pinkies entwined at public events, inviting welcome-if-misguided tabloid speculation about an imminent engagement. Koch himself called her his “first lady” and hinted at how lovely it might be to get married at Gracie Mansion.
Still, the whispers continued. Adversaries deployed the “Greenwich Village bachelor” label, less as a euphemism than a slur. Signs appeared in Queens, the home borough of Koch’s opponent, Mario Cuomo, urging New Yorkers to “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” Cuomo denied responsibility. [His then 20 year old son, Andrew, already a slime ball, put up the signs.]
With his lead in the polls appearing tenuous days before the vote, Koch was unequivocal in his media appearances. “I don’t happen to be homosexual,” he told WNEW, after a day of dismissing questions about whether Myerson’s outsize presence was intended to dispel rumors about him. “But if I were, I would hope that I wouldn’t be ashamed of it. God makes you whatever you are.”
Among some gay allies, the response stung. Misdirection was one thing; this felt almost taunting. “The most hypocritical cover-up,” Geto said.
As the election drew closer, Koch also seemed determined to distance himself from Nathan, expressing wariness when Nathan was discussed for a top health care post in the future administration. “I can’t do that,” Koch said... Koch held on to win the election. Shortly afterward, Nathan told friends, associates of the new mayor unsubtly urged him to find work outside New York. [He moved to California, "the only long-term relationship anyone in Koch’s orbit could remember was over.]
...[T]he mayor wrestled with gay rights as a cautious ally. He seemed at once determined to demonstrate allegiance to gay New Yorkers where he felt he could-- in certain conditions, on certain issues-- and sensitive to the political risk involved in doing so.
Koch signed a landmark executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, appointed gay bureaucrats and judges and became the first mayor to march in the city’s Pride parade.
“It is not easy to stand up on that issue when you are single and male in New York City,” Koch said many years later. “I did it anyway.”
In smaller settings, the mayor would sometimes share disarming fragments of himself with gay friends, even some journalists he trusted.
David Dunlap, a former New York Times reporter who chronicled gay life in the city, remembered a 1985 lunch during which the mayor seemed emotionally consumed by a documentary he had just seen about Harvey Milk, the trailblazing gay officeholder in San Francisco.
Koch was especially moved, he told Dunlap, by the images of Milk’s friends revisiting his assassination. Dunlap left the encounter wondering if Koch had been trying to tell him something about himself. “What he saw in Milk was perhaps, albeit a tragic figure, a fulfilled one,” Dunlap said in an interview.
[PERSONAL NOTE: I worked as Milk's photographer and the stills in that documentary are credited to me, the only accreditation for those pictures, which are widely used, I have ever gotten.]
In other moments, Koch was more direct.
Kaiser, another former reporter and the friend whom Mr. Koch would later ask to help find him a partner, said the mayor came out to him at a private dinner around the same time. He described the scene in a 2019 edition of The Gay Metropolis, his history of gay life in America.
Koch opened the meal with a question: “Do your parents know that you’re gay?”
They do, Kaiser replied.
“Too late for me,” the mayor said.
Those close to Koch had long described him as a master partitioner. But as his time in office wore on, amid overlapping crises of politics and public health, his finely crafted dividers began to crumble.
Gay men were dying by the hundreds, then the thousands. The disease was menacing every corner of the city, ravaging Koch’s own neighborhood. And New York’s broadly popular mayor, who won a third term in 1985 by more than 60 points, seemed unwilling to spend political capital on the issue.
Despite the increasingly urgent situation, some city officials were blunt with activists: Voters already had their suspicions about Koch. He had to proceed carefully before throwing himself into a “gay issue,” as some advisers saw it.
“Come on, you get it,” Rickman, the senior aide, told Bloom, according to Bloom, a former city health official and onetime friend of Koch’s who had joined the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “This is a difficult issue, given the rumors.”
If Koch had for a time sought a fragile balance between advancing gay rights in targeted ways and maintaining some distance from the community, the AIDS emergency was simply too vast, too merciless in its march, to accommodate triangulation.
It is impossible to know just how Koch’s personal identity might have colored the city’s approach to the disease. The administration did start a division of AIDS services and eventually facilitated a needle exchange pilot program. But years into the crisis, private citizens were still scrambling to fill a vacuum of services for the sick, from bedside care to medical information to meal delivery.
...As his third term teetered, the mayor began betraying the psychic strain of the job as never before, particularly when he worried his privacy might be punctured. It did not help that several Chekhovian guns seemed to fire in succession: Myerson, the would-be “first lady” whom he had given an administration post, became enmeshed in a bribery scandal that reinforced escalating concerns about corruption in his government. Nathan, who would seethe for years from California, had mentioned his past relationship with Koch to Larry Kramer, the playwright and activist who fiercely criticized the city’s AIDS response. Kramer was by then actively working to out the mayor, telling reporters about his conversation with Nathan and urging them to write about it.
In his final, futile re-election campaign in 1989, Koch unfurled a denial about his sexual orientation that went beyond his stock deflections. “It happens that I’m heterosexual,” he said in a radio interview that March.
Two weeks later, an estimated 3,000 AIDS activists descended on City Hall, some with signs mocking the mayor’s pronouncement. “And I’m Cary Grant,” one read, beside a headline declaring Koch straight. A new chant was born, too, wafting over Lower Manhattan as hundreds of protesters faced arrest:
“AIDS care’s ineffectual. Thanks to Koch, the heterosexual.”
...Friends suspected that Koch’s reluctance, even long after being openly gay would have posed a political issue, owed largely to his grudges and his pride: He did not want to give activists like Kramer the satisfaction of seeing him come out, after they had tried so hard to see him outed. (Shortly before his death, Koch could still simmer at old foes, once defending the imprisonment of members of the dissident Russian band Pussy Riot by comparing their actions to those of ACT UP, the organization that Kramer helped found.)
Publicly, Koch often said his silence served a higher principle, setting a precedent that might protect other politicians against those inclined to “torture everybody running for office.”
Privately, pressed by those close to him about his hesitation to come out, Koch would simply repeat, “I don’t want to.”
“That’s as far as that conversation ever got,” Kaiser said.
As his health faltered in his final years, Koch made clear he was lonely, suggesting that finding a partner was the only pursuit of his life that he counted as a failure. Old age was probably not so bad, he said sometimes, “as long as you have someone.”

Built in 1909, the Queensboro Bridge over the East River connects the Upper East Side in Manhattan to Long Island City in Queens. When I was a kid everyone called it the 59th Street Bridge. I know that well because underneath the 59th Street Bridge was a tiny, little known club, Ondine (308 East 59th Street) and in the summer of 1966 an L.A. band unknown on the East Coast was doing overdubs and remixing of their debut album and playing every night at the club. I went every night and soon became friends with the lead singer, Jim Morrison. I always told friends to meet me at "Ondine, under the 59th Street Bridge," never "Ondine under the Queensboro Bridge." Republican billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg had a party for Koch in 2010 and announced he was remaining the bridge "The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge." No one has ever called it that and the designation has infuriated everyone in Queens. People still call it the 59th Street Bridge. If Anything, the name should be changed to the Doors of Perception Bridge or the Jim Morrison Bridge.

bottom of page