When former mayor Ed Koch died early yesterday morning, the accolades were quick to descend: he was a "a great man," who "did good," ebulliently pulling his city out of the worst financial disaster it had ever faced. Still, his incredibly long tenure also coincided with both the crack and AIDS epidemic, the latter of which, activist and documentarian David France writes in a piece for New York, he turned a blind eye to:
"To be fair, no mayor could have stopped the virus from its diabolical campaigns in the bloodstream. But in the days before cell phones and the Internet, when the New York Times still refused to use the word gay and the hometown gay newspaper sold just 6,000 copies - a time when it was impossible to reach the at-risk community outside of the mainstream - he could have shown leadership. He could have promoted risk reduction and community education. This is what was done in San Francisco, where Dianne Feinstein was mayor. The money and the bully-pulpit worked. The epidemic there, while devastating, was nothing like it became in New York.
Koch's failure in AIDS should be recalled as the single-most significant aspect of his public life. The memories of all we've lost deserve no less."
Koch ended up seeing France's Oscar-nominated film How To Survive a Plague, which chronicles activists' crusade to speed up research and spread awareness about AIDS, and wrote a review, urging the film to be shown in all public schools and recommending ACT UP for the Presidential Medals of Freedom. (Its archives, some of which we've republished below, are available at the New York Public Library.)
But now Koch is dead. For one of the most high-profile closeted gay men of the eighties, this after-the-fact turnaround does little to make up for the lives he could have saved, or the suffering and embarrassment he could have spared the gay community.
Two posters by the ACT UP-affiliated artist collective Gran Fury:
ACT UP poster:
Gran Fury poster at the base of a traffic light: