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Jonathan Ned Katz Oral History: LGBTQ Historian, Painter and Pioneer

Village Preservation shares our oral history collection with the public, highlighting some of the people and stories that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo such unique and vibrant neighborhoods. Each includes the experiences and insights of leaders or long-time participants in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life.

In August 2023, Village Preservation conducted an oral history with Jonathan Ned Katz. Katz is a scholar of LGBTQ+ history and American history, as well as a painter and artist. He is the author of Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA, which was published at a time when producing such scholarship could ruin a career. But through his work and through talking with other gay scholars over subsequent decades, Katz helped establish a network of gay men and lesbians that met regularly for informal group therapy, study, or consciousness raising –– often in the Jane Street house in Greenwich Village where Katz lived as a child –– enabling Katz, and others, to build the field of LGBTQ studies and public history.

Jonathan Ned Katz moved to Greenwich Village in 1948 when he was two. Katz described the Village of his youth as like a little town where “everybody knew everything everybody else was doing.” He attended the Little Red School House, where he was encouraged to make art, and the High School of Music and Art, where he learned to paint and found ways to discuss politics with his fellow “red diaper” babies, or children of members of the Communist Party. Through school, he found himself in a group of like-minded individuals, whom he called “a bunch of weirdos,” and yet, as a young adult, he still felt the impact of the repressive politics of the 1950s and a sense of isolation that followed him throughout his twenties.  

After the Stonewall riots, Katz became involved with activism within the gay community through the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). He found a lifelong community when he joined the GAA. The group introduced to him a vision of resistance, “a hope that we could change things and make things better––more just––for gay people and lesbians.” 

99 Wooster Street in 1973

In 1972, the GAA produced his documentary play, “Coming Out!,” at the firehouse on Wooster Street. Katz discusses how producing the play marked a turning point in his personal relationship with his mother.

“By June 1972, the Gay Activists Alliance was producing my documentary play called Coming Out!––exclamation point! That was really important. So the morning the play was to open, I got a call about 10:30, and it was my mother on the phone. She said she had seen an ad for the play, with my name on it, in The Village Voice. And she said, [sounding distressed] “Is that you in The Village Voice?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Are you a homo-sexual?” with the hyphen in homo-sexual. And I said, “Yes.” And she said, [makes a sound of distress] “Why didn’t you tell me?” And I said, “Because I knew you’d act like this.” So that was a big coming out, and after a few years, my mother got used to the idea, and by 1975, she was helping me edit this first book on LGBTQ US History that I wrote, called Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA.”

Katz’s first book, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA, was published in 1976. As a college drop out, Katz had to take an untraditional route to researching and writing the book, relying on the community he had begun to develop in the GAA. Through writing the book, Katz’s understanding of himself as a writer developed in tandem with his understanding of gay people as an oppressed social group.

Throughout his Village Preservation oral history, Katz stresses the importance of learning about history as an avenue to exploring his own identity, saying “it helped me become a different person from who I was in this repressed Greenwich Village upbringing. So that’s a good example of why studying history is important. It shows us how different things can be, under different social systems, different social structures. That’s what’s happened. We––gays––by asserting ourselves, have changed the social structuring of homosexuality, of heterosexuality.

Explore more of Katz’s oral history, where he also describes the unique approach to parenting that he experienced; his tenure as a designer at the Jack Prince Studio and the after-work conversations that enabled him to talk about sexuality and gender; anti-racism and the resistance of Black enslaved people; the importance of the naked male body in his artwork; and writing his memoir, Coming of Age in Greenwich Village: A Painter, His Paintings, His Life. Explore all of our oral histories here, including Jane JacobsPenny ArcadeWolf KahnJonas MekasMarlis MomberEdwin FancherMargot GayleDavid AmramMatt UmanovMerce CunninghamJoan DavidsonRichard MeierRalph LeeMimi SheratonJohn GuareCalvin Trillin, and Chino Garcia

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