It’s this atmosphere that explains why another woman of Miss America fame—Bess Myerson, who, unlike Anita Bryant, had won the crown—was dragged into a New York mayoral contest between two liberals. Koch was a Greenwich Village bachelor, at the time a scarlet letter of assumed homosexuality second only to being a hairdresser. Myerson was drafted as his steady campaign companion—if not a girlfriend, exactly, a hand-holding BFF—to stave off the accusation that dare not speak its name except in below-the-radar whispers. The Cuomo campaign did what it could to encourage those whispers by running ads trumpeting its candidate as a “family man.” As Election Day approached, posters of mysterious provenance reading VOTE FOR CUOMO, NOT THE HOMO appeared in Brooklyn and Queens.
Both Cuomos have long denied having anything to do with those posters. They could not, however, deny their ostentatious playing of the “family man” card. Whatever went down in 1977 was enough to move Andrew Cuomo to later apologize privately to Koch for the tone of the race. Asked in a recent Times interview if he believed the younger Cuomo was blameless for the homophobic posters, Koch said: “I honestly don’t know. I’d like to believe it. But I don’t know.”
What we do know is that Andrew Cuomo deserves every bit of credit he has received for making same-sex marriage a top priority of his young governorship and for moving heaven and earth—deep-pocketed donors, recalcitrant Albany politicians, and sometimes-disorganized gay activists—to get the job done. If that feat of governance, among others, makes Cuomo a likely presidential prospect for the post-Obama Democratic Party, it’s well earned. But it doesn’t obliterate the record of what came before, including his standoffish relationship to gay-civil-rights battles for much of his preceding three-decade public career. He followed rather than led on marriage equality, not endorsing it until he ran for attorney general in 2006, years behind Eliot Spitzer (who did so in 1998) and David Paterson (1994). By the time Cuomo could act as governor, the issue was a win-win for him in Democratic politics, locally and nationally, the path having been paved by other fighters before him and by fast-moving polls confirming an ever more gay-friendly America. Yet even the preeminent gay magazine The Advocate failed to confront him on his record in its worshipful cover story marking New York’s marriage law; that past was journalistically Photoshopped out of existence. At a time when the most powerful Democrat in the nation still cynically purports to be “evolving” on same-sex marriage, the cautionary tale of Andrew Cuomo’s tardy evolution, particularly if told openly by Cuomo himself, might move hearts and minds in the White House much as his example helped sway once-hostile lawmakers in Albany.
Bill Clinton has also worked hard to spin and skate away from his history on gay issues. His presidential record looks good only when contrasted with the literally lethal passivity of Ronald Reagan, who didn’t think AIDS warranted a speech until 1987, six years into the epidemic and his presidency. Reagan is a very low bar, and that lets Clinton off the hook for a legacy that’s had a far more lasting and egregious impact than any failings, youthful or otherwise, of Andrew Cuomo. Clinton knows it, too. In his thousand-page memoir, My Life, he somehow didn’t find the space to so much as mention the Defense of Marriage Act. While “don’t ask, don’t tell” can be rationalized (by some) as a bungled rookie effort at compromise during his early months in office, DOMA is indefensible. Though now deemed unconstitutional by the Obama Justice Department—and, last week, by a Bush-appointed federal judge in California—it is still in full force.
The bill was strictly a right-wing political ploy cooked up for the year of Clinton’s re-election campaign. It had no other justification. In the spring of 1996, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the country or a top-tier cause for many gay leaders; it was solely in play in a slow-moving court case in Hawaii. But fear and demonization of gay men was off the charts: In 1995, a record 50,877 Americans with AIDS died—a one-year count rivaling the 58,000 Americans lost in the entire Vietnam War. The Christian Coalition, under the Machiavellian guidance of the yet-to-be-disgraced Ralph Reed, saw an opening to exploit homophobia to galvanize a Republican base unenthusiastic about Bob Dole. In a consummate display of bad taste, Clinton announced that he would sign DOMA that spring just two days after the Supreme Court, in a rare national victory for gay rights, struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that had barred anti-discrimination laws benefiting gay men and lesbians. In the months to come, Clinton’s stand on DOMA gave political permission to many nominally liberal Democrats to join Rick Santorum, Jesse Helms, and Larry Craig in voting for the bill that September—among them Charles Schumer (then in the House) and the senators Joe Biden, Tom Harkin, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy, Joe Lieberman, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, and Harry Reid. Only fourteen senators, also Democrats, had the courage to vote against it.