Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

The Queer Sexual Politics of New York and America

Does the death of former NYC mayor signal a new sort of sexual politics?

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch died this week and perhaps so did an era- the era of the closet. In our hyperpublic present, we must all announce ourselves and if we don't, someone will do it for us. Of course, Koch took to the grave the answer to whether or not he was gay or just a "lifelong bachelor."According to the New York Times,  

Mr. Koch, for whom the headline “Hizzoner” seemed to have been coined, was a bachelor who lived for politics. Perhaps inevitably there were rumors, some promoted by his enemies, that he was gay. But no proof was offered, and, except for two affirmations in radio interviews that he was heterosexual, he responded to the rumors with silence or a rebuke. “Whether I am straight or gay or bisexual is nobody’s business but mine,” he wrote in “Citizen Koch,” his 1992 autobiography.

Of course some of the commentators on the New York Times website saw it differently.

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No proof was offered" that Koch was gay? PUH-leeze, as Koch himself might say. His own Human Rights Commissioner David Rothenberg has spoken publicly about Koch's late partner Dick Nathan, having been social friends with them in the Village. (Koch shut Dick out of his life after getting elected mayor.) My colleague... told me about Koch propositioning him when he was younger and working in the City Law Department. But Koch felt he was doing a public service by not acknowledging who he was because he believed such questions were out of bounds. Yet his closetedness contributed to his abysmal record on AIDS which started on his watch in 1981 and got out of control because he failed to address it as the emergency it was..."

But if Koch's death signals the end of closets and coyness, it in no way signals an end to the queer sexual politics in New York City. In the upcoming election Christine Quinn, Speaker of the City Council, is running. Quinn, a lesbian who very publicly married her partner, Kim Catullo, last year, will certainly be a strong candidate with backing from the Human Rights Campaign. Brooklyn Public Advocate Bill de Blasio also represents a queering of the New York political scene and not just because "Sex and the City" star  and gay marriage activist Cynthia Nixon has come out in favor of him. De Blasio's wife of two decades is Chirlane McCray. McCray was for many years a very visible lesbian poet and writer. In 1979, McCray wrote a piece for Essence magazine explaining "I am a Lesbian" and was part of the black, lesbian feminist Combahee River collective. Now, McCray says

“In the 1970′s, I identified as a lesbian and wrote about it. In 1991, I met the love of my life, married him.”

Clearly this is not the same political game that Ed Koch was playing, in part because the closet is no longer an option, but perhaps because it is no longer the point. The real defining difference between "good" politicians and those seen as unfit to lead now seems to rest on married or not married. A life as a bachelor is now a political liability, regardless of sexuality, whereas a married life attracts voters, regardless of sexuality. Koch wouldn't survive a New York minute in this sexual politic. 

And what's going on in the Big Apple is going on across the US. Take, for example, the Institute for American Values' announcement this week that they would no longer fight against gay marriage, but rather for more marriage for all, straight or gay. According to their website, 

We propose a new conversation that brings together gays and lesbians who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same. The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is, Should gays marry? The new question is, Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?

So long lifelong bachelor mayors; hello gay married ones. It seems we now live in a post-closet America where the only thing left to hide is being single.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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