Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is dead at the age of 88. During his three terms in the 1980s, Koch was both hailed and vilified for his no-holds-barred style of governing, famous for coining the phrase, “How’m, I doin’?” But at a time when HIV and AIDS was beginning to make its death grip known in major cities like New York and San Francisco, Koch was hardly the guy for the job.
In fact, his legacy in the early days of the AIDS crisis will long be controversial and criticized – and for good reason. He was regularly the target of groups like ACT UP, who demanded a serious response on both the local and federal level. And while no man should be judged based on only a few of his deeds (or in this case, misdeeds), his apathy and the apathy of other leaders can be blamed for thousands, if not millions of deaths in this country. That’s why we need to be especially careful in the coming days about how we eulogize this American icon – for better and for worse. While yes, he did many great things for the city he loved. But he also failed so many by ignoring a health crisis that could have taken a very different path had Koch and others like him in power bothered to pay attention and, well, act up.
And while Koch himself long avoided rumors about his own sexuality, he’s been in the crosshairs of many an AIDS activist’s sights for decades now – including Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart playwright who accused the former mayor of being closeted and afraid to take action against a disease that was decimated the city – all because of his internalized homophobia.
I’d encourage young people who may not have lived through these turbulent years to watch documentaries like How to Survive a Plague (it’s nominated for an Oscar for best documentary this year and is available for download on Netflix) and We Were There, another documentary that discusses early AIDS activism by both men and women on the West Coast, namely San Francisco. It’s a smart addition to Randy Shilt’s epic look at the early days of AIDS in And the Band Played On. All of these resources paint a realistic portrait of how politics and government failed health and essentially created an unnecessary epidemic that the world still struggles with today.