Jeffrey Escoffier, whose remarkably varied career included helping to shape public health campaigns in New York City and writing extensively on gay identity and how it has been influenced by gay pornography and other factors, died on May 20 in Brooklyn. He was 79.
His family said the cause was complications of a fall he took while on his way to teach a class at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
New Yorkers encountered Mr. Escoffier’s work on trains, buses and elsewhere for years, although few knew it. From 1999 to 2015 he was the director of health media and marketing for New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which meant that he was directly involved in numerous public health campaigns. Among other things, he arranged one of the more unusual photography sessions on record.
It was for a 2004 poster campaign emphasizing that littering and feeding pigeons and squirrels worsened the city’s rat infestation. The poster showed a rat on its haunches, standing in the shadow of a giant version of itself.
“The rat is a relatively small animal, and we wanted to suggest that it’s a big problem,” Mr. Escoffier explained to The Daily News that year. “The shadow really is the shadow that is cast by the rat problem in the city.”
Getting an image of a rat, though, wasn’t as easy as you might think.
“There are not that many stock photos of rats,” Mr. Escoffier told the newspaper. “We actually had a photo shoot with the rat.”
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner for part of Mr. Escoffier’s tenure, said by email that Mr. Escoffier was “always able to see a new side to a challenging issue or situation — and often to bring out the humor in it.”
But long before he was working on the rat problem (as well as H.I.V., West Nile virus, smoking, childhood asthma and other serious health concerns), Mr. Escoffier was a leading voice in gay and lesbian scholarship and theory, both as an editor and as an essayist.
In 1972, early in the post-Stonewall gay liberation movement, he founded The Gay Alternative, a publication of the Gay Activists Alliance of Philadelphia. He relocated to San Francisco from Philadelphia in 1977 and 11 years later, after spending much of the 1980s as executive editor of Socialist Review, founded Out/Look: National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly, which published articles of interest both to gay men and to lesbians, two groups that at the time were often at odds.
And he wrote voluminously. Many of his essays, as he put it in the introduction to “American Homo: Community and Perversity,” his 1998 book, “explore the social significance of homosexual emancipation since the end of World War II and the political reaction that it has precipitated in American public life.”
That included excavating the pre-Stonewall history of gay life, along with economic and other aspects of it. It also included examining gay pornography, how it had changed over the decades and how it had both reflected and helped to shape gay identity. His most recent essay collection, published last year, was “Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography: The Pornographic Object of Knowledge.”
“Jeffrey Escoffier embodied the radical queer public intellectual,” Whitney Strub, an associate professor at Rutgers University-Newark whose books include “Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right” (2010), said by email. “In particular, in such essays as ‘The Political Economy of the Closet,’ he showed how to think and write gay economic history, even when its archives had often been erased or destroyed. Later, his pioneering work on pornography called on scholars to move beyond textual analysis and think about labor, the work behind the bodies onscreen.”
Jeffrey Paul Escoffier was born on Oct. 9, 1942, in Baltimore and grew up in Manhattan and on Staten Island. His father, George, was an Army colonel, and his mother, Iris (Miller) Wendel, owned an antique shop.
“I had my first homosexual experience at 16 during the summer of 1959,” Mr. Escoffier wrote in “American Homo.” “After that, I thirsted for wild adventure. Growing up on Staten Island, realizing my queerness in its sleepy working-class communities, I viewed Greenwich Village as Shangri-La.”
Mr. Escoffier earned a bachelor’s degree at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and a master’s in international affairs at Columbia University. He moved to Philadelphia in 1970 and did doctoral work in economic history at the University of Pennsylvania.
He became president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Activists Alliance soon after arriving in the city. A 1975 article by The Associated Press described him as “a librarian who yesteryear was considered queer, today gay.”
“There was a time he wouldn’t have wanted the last fact mentioned,” it continued. “Now he seems to welcome the chance to talk about it and the city’s gay community.”
Fifteen years later, in San Francisco, Mr. Escoffier showed just how far the new openness had come. He and his colleagues at Out/Look had organized OutWrite, a conference for gay and lesbian writers. The 1990 conference drew 1,200 people.
“We are here to mark the coming-of-age of gay and lesbian literature,” he told The Los Angeles Times.
The Out/Look journal lasted until 1992. In 1993 Mr. Escoffier moved to New York, and two years later he joined the city health department as deputy director of the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health, where, among other duties, he helped to shape “Julio and Marisol,” the comic-strip serial that had begun appearing in city subway cars in 1989 as part of an AIDS education campaign. In 1999 he was promoted to the marketing position.
Dr. Frieden, his former boss, called him a “kind, gentle, creative man who thoughtfully designed lifesaving public health campaigns.”
Dr. Mary T. Bassett, now the New York State health commissioner, said that when she became New York City’s health commissioner in 2014, one of the first things she did was to reach out to Mr. Escoffier.
“The Affordable Care Act was about to begin enrollment through the exchange, and I wanted to give New York City residents a tailored campaign,” she said by email. “He got to work. In just two weeks Jeff and his team came with about a dozen images, with the tag line ‘Get Covered!’ Today only 5 percent of NYers are uninsured — and Jeff made sure we hit the ground running.”
Mr. Escoffier, who lived in Brooklyn, is survived by three sisters, Lin Boulay, Deirdre Wendel and Leith ter Meulen.
Ms. Escoffier was also co-editor of a book about dance and wrote a biography of John Maynard Keynes. Sandra Mullin, an associate commissioner in the health department when Mr. Escoffier was there, said she was dazzled by his eclectic résumé.
“He was our Renaissance man,” she said by email.
“He was a queer man who lifted people up on his team long before the rest of the world gained D.E.I. consciousness,” she added. “No creative idea was dismissed, even bad ones. He always made them better. And in his way —- whether a hard-hitting tobacco campaign or another installment of the soap opera H.I.V. subway campaign ‘Julio y Marisol,’ Jeffrey helped save lives.”