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The Globe and Mail

Is he or isn't he? 'I don't discuss my sexuality,' says New York's Ed Koch

Ed Koch speaks at the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in his honor at The Water Club Restaurant on May 19, 2011 in New York.

JP Yim/JP Yim/Getty Images

Ed Koch's midtown Manhattan office features a breathtaking view of the city skyline. It's also, notably, the only office on his floor that has a television set. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center a decade ago, he recalls colleagues at the law firm where he is a partner crowding in, desperate to see the catastrophe unfolding. "There must have been 25 people in here," he says. "We were like deer caught in the headlights."

It is probably fitting that Mr. Koch has the lone TV set. As well as being nimble during his three terms (1978 to 1989) as New York's mayor, knowing when to stick to a lib-left ideology and when to buck it, he proved to be an incredibly media-savvy politician. He appeared on TV (the first mayor to be host of Saturday Night Live) and in films, and has written numerous books, from memoirs to murder mysteries, and even children's literature. As if to prove his critics correct – that he would do just about anything for publicity – he served as a judge on the daytime reality show The People's Court from 1997 to 1999.

But despite so much time in the limelight – and the title of his 1994 autobiography, Ed Koch on Everything – he has remained mum on one thing: his sexual orientation.

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Long the stuff of Greenwich Village rumour, the idea that Mr. Koch may not be the marrying kind (an old euphemism that now seems quaint, given that same-sex union is legal in the state) is not something he has been willing to discuss. In an interview in 1998, he insisted: "My answer to questions on this subject is simply ... There have to be some private matters left."

In the past few years, that attitude seemed to be shifting. Mr. Koch's sexuality was addressed in Outrage, a 2009 documentary by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick. Then, last year, he took part in two other gay-related documentaries, Stonewall Uprising and Making the Boys.

In the first, he discusses the significance of the 1969 Stonewall riots, widely regarded as the dawn of gay liberation. In the second, he comments on the impact of The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley's landmark play later made into a film.

But when asked if these appearances are a sign of something, he replies: "Like what? Speak up!"

"Like that you might be willing to talk about being gay."

Not so, he replies. "There always seem to be people who are interested in my sexual orientation. I'm rather complimented, because I'm 86 years of age. But I think that's a private matter. I don't discuss it."

His age – he was born in 1924, a year before Rock Hudson, who kept his sexuality to himself right up to his AIDS-related death in 1985 – may explain much of Mr. Koch's reticence. But today the notion of better late than never is growing in popularity, as illustrated in Beginners, last year's film based on a true story in which Christopher Plummer portrays a father who finds happiness only after exiting the closet in his 70s.

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Mr. Koch, however, insists that taking part in the documentaries is simply a reflection of his views. "I have always been very supportive of gay rights, and have been since I was active in politics. I was one of the founders of the Village Independent Democrats when I ran for office in 1964. My program, since I lived in the Village, was to eliminate the sodomy laws, which were still on the books in New York, to eliminate the abortion laws, so abortion would be legal and, third, change the divorce laws. I lost. I have no regret that I lost because, if I'd won, I'd still be in Albany."

Despite that loss, Mr. Koch says he won on all three counts in the larger war. "My program, which ultimately became known among Village Independent Democrats as SAD – for sodomy, abortion and divorce – all those three things, which people didn't run on to change back then, have changed. In the case of sodomy, it was changed in New York by the local courts. In the case of abortion, by the Supreme Court. In the case of divorce, just this year – I was talking about it in 1962 – the state ... adopted no-fault divorce. I'm very proud of having been in the lead."

Of course, public attitudes toward sexual orientation also have changed radically over the years, in no small measure because of some public figures who were "in the lead." The same year that Mr. Koch became mayor, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, his country's first openly gay politician, was gunned down and effectively became a martyr. He argued that all gays must come out, as doing so would demystify homosexuality once and for all.

But even three decades after his death, Mr. Milk's argument doesn't faze Mr. Koch. "I don't discuss my sexuality. I don't intend to discuss it with you. ... Would you support the proposition that a reporter can ask anyone in public life or anyone running for office, 'Are you gay?' and expect an answer? Do you think that would be helpful to America? Answer the question – it doesn't require any great thought. Yes or no?"

"That would depend on the context," he is told.

"In other words, you don't want to answer the question. I get questionnaires all the time about my positions on things. When I was running, that question didn't exist."

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One of Mr. Koch's fiercest critics was Larry Kramer, the veteran AIDS activist and author of the largely autobiographical 1985 play The Normal Heart. In it, the unnamed mayor of New York is eviscerated for being closeted – a status the author suggests hindered the city's ability to deal with the onslaught of AIDS.

A revival of The Normal Heart made its way to Broadway this year, winning three Tony Awards. Mr. Koch has never seen it. "But I've read it. It's a wonderful play ... that I believe is unfair to me.

"In the play, he tries to convince his gay friends and colleagues to stop having promiscuous sex. And they say no. They say that's the joy of life. ... So he felt a failure. Somehow or other, he'd like to lay that blame off on somebody. So, if only Mayor Koch – he doesn't say that name, but that's the thrust of it – had told them not to have sex, or not to have promiscuous sex, they would have listened. That's absolutely ridiculous."

Mr. Koch says this with the look of hardened resolve befitting someone who has convinced himself he should have no regrets. "I have no feeling of having failed in my responsibilities," he insists. "We did more than any other city in terms of AIDS."

Matthew Hays is a writer based in Montreal.

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