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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Ed Koch came under furious assault in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis from activists who charged he didn’t do enough to publicize and combat the plague — much less come out himself. They declared he was a closeted homosexual and a hypocrite.
In 1990, John Penley was a freelance photographer covering the Downtown scene for the daily newspapers as well as The Villager. One evening he was shooting a march by the group ACT UP. There had been a gay-bashing on St. Mark’s Place and the demonstrators were starting out in the West Village and heading over to the scene of the attack. Suddenly, former Mayor Ed Koch appeared and tried to get through the ACT UP protesters to return to his Two Fifth Ave. residence.
“He was coming home from a movie,” Penley recounted. “He had a police detail with him. He wasn’t mayor at that point, but he still had police protection.”
Typical of Koch, he tried to plow right through the protesters, but it quickly turned tense.
“I’m surprised he walked through them,” Penley said, though adding, “That’s Koch: ‘F— you, I’m walking through.’ It was ACT UP, they hated him. People got right up in his face. I think he thought he was going to get hit. They got him out of there pretty fast when the guy stuck his finger in his face.”
Penley, who was also an East Village activist, felt the protesters’ anger on a personal level.
“Back in those days, you were going to die,” he recalled of people with AIDS. “It was just how much you were going to suffer. There was no saving them.”
Penley had friends with the virus in the Tompkins Square Park “Tent City” homeless encampment who went through sheer hell before they perished, as they were ravaged by the disease, he said.
“It seemed like almost every week one person you knew was dying,” he remembered. “If you’d go to ACT UP meetings, the leadership would always be changing because people were dying.”
Penley personally didn’t yell anything at Koch that night, because he was too busy snapping shots.
“I took my film right away to the New York Post,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Great, I’m going to get some money and this is my revenge on Ed Koch.’ I knew I was going to sell it somewhere.”
A photo of Penley’s similar to the one above, but slightly different, ran on the Post’s front page the next day with the headline “Gay Rage” and is one of the photographer’s all-time favorite shots of his.
“My feeling was that Koch’s crime was to stay silent during the AIDS epidemic,” Penley said. “Koch said nothing, and to me that’s unforgivable.
“Some of the media reports I read said that he was afraid it would hurt tourism to New York City. I always thought he was worried if he did talk about it, people would ask if he was gay.
“I think he was,” Penley said. “I really do. I think it’s pretty much commonly accepted. He didn’t come out of the closet. On top of that, he became a conservative.”
In later years, Penley and Koch would joust in the pages of this paper.
“We had some back-and-forths in The Villager,” he recalled.