June is National Pride month when LGBT communities around the country celebrate the night that effectively kicked off the modern gay civil rights movement. In the early hours of June 28, 1969, gay and lesbian patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street decided they had enough of the constant police harassment and arrests. That night, drag queens, lesbians, homeless gay youth and gay men in the bar fought back. As word spread throughout the city, other gay men and women joined in the fracas, leading to several days of riots. The “Stonewall Rebellion” was the first time the NYC lesbian and gay community stood together and fought back.
The first Pride march was held on the anniversary of the Rebellion. The event was peaceful, channeling an air of change and excitement. Soon, lesbian and gay rights groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front pushed for legal protections that were then completely absent from municipal codes. In 1971, the activists worked with Mayor Lindsay’s administration to propose in the New York City Council the first-ever bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Six years later, after a campaign that prominently included a promise to pass the civil rights bill, Mayor Edward I. Koch took office.
On January 23, 1978, a few weeks into his first term Mayor Koch issued an Executive Order—no. 4 to be precise—that for the first time provided protections against discrimination towards the lesbian and gay community in New York City. Recognizing that the gay rights bill was bottled up in the Council, with no prospect of passage, the Executive Order prohibited City agencies from discrimination based on sexual orientation or affectional preference. Yes, it covered only City agencies but it was a first step, one that had taken nine years after Stonewall to become the City’s policy.
The mayor did not stop with his Executive Order. At that point, Mayor Koch became New York City’s most visible political LGBT proponent. He issued another Executive Order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation at any entity doing business with the City. Opponents fought back and the Courts decided that he had overstepped his authority, ruling that this action required local legislation. Finally, in 1986, Mayor Koch signed the controversial Gay Rights Ordinance which amended the administrative code of New York City in relation to unlawful discriminatory practices. This ordinance expanded those protections to prohibit discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment.
The preamble to the new ordinance made specific note that:
…throughout the history of the city, many New Yorkers have encountered prejudice on account of their sexual orientation. In some instances, the prejudice has impaired access to employment, housing and other basic necessities of life leading to deprivation and suffering.
Mayor Koch’s relationship with the LGBT community was not entirely without controversy, especially during the 1980s AIDS crisis. On the one hand, Koch did create the City’s Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns in response to the AIDS epidemic. The idea behind this newly created agency was to identify and restructure various existing programs to better reach and serve the gay community. He also outlined new measures to identify AIDS cases amongst gay men and in other high risk communities, stating that, “The city is sparing no effort to bring the needed attention to the concerns created by this disease.” And beginning in 1983, the City’s Human Rights Commission pursued complaints of AIDS-related discrimination, documenting violations of the civil rights law.
However, many in the LGBT community felt that the mayor did not do enough to stem the rising epidemic, and what he did do came too late for the thousands of gay men dying at a terrifying rate. In 1985, the mayor supported the New York City Health Department's decision to shut down the city's gay bathhouses in response to concerns over the spread of AIDS, while, for a time, the city’s heterosexual bathhouses remained open. This further perpetuated the myth that AIDS was only a homosexual disease. Notably, ACT UP members (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) spoke out virulently against Mayor Koch and his administration’s lack of speed in dealing with the AIDS epidemic. They blamed him (and President Ronald Reagan) for the high mortality rates, as well as the lack of knowledge of the disease itself, putting Mayor Koch at odds with many in the lesbian and gay community.
Throughout the years, New York City has become a relatively safe place for the LGBT community to live and work. Protections are in place and continue to expand, including the 2011 passage of a State marriage equality law. While many rightly argue that he failed during a critical juncture in the AIDS crisis, Koch was the first mayor to so vocally and consistently advocate for this community.
During his tenure as a three-term mayor, Koch also openly supported several anti-discrimination bills, elevated openly gay staffers and renamed the block of Christopher Street between Waverly Place and Seventh Avenue South “Stonewall Place.” This renaming legitimized a very powerful moment in both New York and America’s history, by adding a public monument honoring the LGBT civil rights struggle.
Thanks in great part to Mayor Koch, June is still dedicated to the brave patrons of the Stonewall Inn, culminating in a march down Fifth Avenue. The Stonewall Inn with its landmark status remains a strong and visible symbol of LGBT rights, and a safe meeting space for protests and celebrations in the City.
The materials used in this blog post reflect the material we have in our Edward I. Koch collection.
The current, most inclusive and correct acronym for the gay community as a whole is LGBTQ. However, this was not the case during Mayor Koch’s tenure, and would be out of place to use when writing about his work. Therefore, we chose to use the LGBT acronym throughout the piece.