Do You Know?

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Philip Harrison and Jonathan Ned Katz, 2014

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Jonathan Ned Katz, still from Do You Know Jonathan Ned Katz?, 2022, photograph by Brian Wengrofsky


Jonathan Ned Katz, 2015, photograph by Philip Harrison


Jonathan Ned Katz, c. 1976, photograph by David Gibson


Jonathan Ned Katz at Gay American History reading, 1977, photograph by Gerald Hannon


Jonathan Ned Katz and Joan Nestle, 1999, photograph by Bert Hansen

Philip Harrison’s film-in-progress Do You Know Jonathan Ned Katz? is a portrait of OutHistory’s founder, now in his mid-80s, as he narrates his storied life and ongoing work as a queer historian. Katz is the author of Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (1976), Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (1983), The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995), Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Heterosexuality (2001), The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams (2021), and other works on the history of sexuality and gender. You can find more about Jonathan here.


Joseph Plaster (JP): I’ve known Jonathan for more than a decade. He’s a singular character: as comfortable with camp humor as he is left and labor politics; a serious historian devoted to concentrated archival research and an extroverted “theater queen” who often breaks into song on the streets of Manhattan. What has it been like to work with Jonathan?


Philip Harrison (PH): From the beginning, Jonathan has been fun to film. He loves old movies and he’ll often make wry allusions to cinema history. “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.” He also has a love for the theatrical from listening to his father’s Bessie Smith “blues” albums and going to Broadway musicals; he’ll break out singing his own big, vibrant versions at any given moment as we walk down the street! But over time, I’ve learned that Jonathan’s “theater queen” spontaneity belies an emotional depth. Whether talking about his love of his old friend Carol Joyce, who supported him after a sexual assault, or when reading his poem, “Dan Allen,” about a lover who died from AIDS, Jonathan has shown deep care for the relationships he has had in his life.


With a father in the Communist Party in the 1940s, Jonathan was a “pink diaper baby” and learned from an early age about working class issues and civil rights and the progressive left. As a gay person, also outside of the mainstream, Jonathan has a compassionate affinity with other disenfranchised groups and has woven progressive analysis into his historical research. As I learned about this history through Jonathan, I was surprised by how relevant it was to the world we are living in today where conservative forces are working to silence progressive and LGBTQ+ voices. Without Jonathan’s work, and the work of the larger LGBTQ+ history community, our world would look very different today.  


JP: How did this project begin? Why did you decide to work on a film about Jonathan?


PH: Coming out as a young bisexual person in the early ‘90s during the AIDS crisis, I was not at all comfortable with my sexuality. I carried a lot of shame and internalized biphobia. Around that time, I came across and read Jonathan Ned Katz’s groundbreaking book, Gay American History (1976). It contained hundreds of fascinating stories of LGBTQ+ people throughout U.S. history and was one of the first affirming things I read. It was a lifeline and I still have my old, tattered copy. Years later, in 2012, I gave him a call and he invited me to his brownstone on Jane Street in the Village and we spent a few hours together talking about LGBTQ+ history. It was such a pleasure talking to this hero of mine. I thought, why not a documentary about Jonathan?


JP: You’ve been filming Jonathan for more than nine years. How has your relationship changed during that time? How has this impacted the shape and scope of the film?


PH: Since the first filming visit in 2014, I’ve felt very connected to Jonathan. I feel that we’ve become friends and knowing Jonathan has been very healing for me. More than a generation before me, Jonathan also struggled with negative feelings about being gay; it took a lot of work with therapists and then support from the gay liberation movement for him to start feeling good about himself. And then he used LGBTQ+ history as another vehicle for restoring his own positive sense of himself. What inspires me is his perseverance. He gets support from friends, he creates sexuality-affirming art, he continues to write LGBTQ+ history—he brings things into his life that affirm what was previously disparaged.


Originally, my primary intention was to connect with and understand Jonathan as a person—to create a portrait of him with a cross-generational perspective. Working on the film for these many years, I’ve also learned much more about Jonathan’s work; how he learned to do historical research without academic degrees, how gay liberation inspired him, what obstacles he had to surmount, how his work has evolved, and what a huge impact it has made. To not reveal his accomplishments fully would be a disservice to Jonathan and to viewers.


Gay American History was my first exposure to Jonathan’s work and I was fascinated by it, but, as an untrained historian, I didn’t fully understand its importance. I was mainly interested in Jonathan as a person: his history, challenges, and triumphs. But as I continued filming with Jonathan and interviewed more people, I expanded my vision of the documentary to include his historical work.  I want viewers to be as inspired by the history Jonathan revealed and the ideas he presented as I was. In this vein, I plan to use archival photos and documents – augmented with sound, the spoken word, and motion graphics – to bring Gay American History to life. We will explore gender fluidity and colonial romance, Boston marriages and Victorian cruising, the Society for Human Rights and the Mattachine Society, Whitman and Thoreau and Cather. Portraits of Native Americans, lesbians, and working class and black gays are integral to Jonathan’s inclusive research and worldview and will be included in the film as well.


JP: Can you give an overview of the archival materials, first-person interviews, and correspondence you’ve gathered to produce Do You Know Jonathan Ned Katz?


PH: The backbone of the film is Jonathan today, in his mid-eighties. He is a charming, funny, and deeply emotional character and the film invites you to see the world through his eyes. I’ve filmed hundreds of hours with Jonathan, interviewing him in his home or following him to locations around New York City that represent important memories. Supporting that, Jonathan has given us access to his archive at the New York Public Library and his personal archive. There are thousands of pieces of evidence of a life lived: photos, home movies, and paintings. I especially love the journal entries that reveal Jonathan’s dreams and struggles.


I found two amazing archival examples from the period (1971-72) when Jonathan produced his gay history play, Coming Out! The first example is an audio interview that lesbian activist Martha Shelley facilitated with the female cast of the play. They talk about how Jonathan didn’t know any “dykes” and how the lesbian cast’s input helped improve the script. I also found a videotape of excerpted scenes from a 1972 Boston production of the play in a box in the back of a garage!


Additionally, I’ve interviewed over forty of Jonathan’s friends, family and colleagues. Interviews with important LGBTQ+ historians like John D’Emilio, Marc Stein, Jim Downes, Susan Stryker, and Channing Joseph bring home the influence Jonathan’s work has had.


JP: Did any themes emerge in the forty interviews you’ve conducted?


PH: One surprising insight that came out in the interviews is how Jonathan flew below the radar initially. In the early 1970s, he was doing LGBTQ+ history work as a college drop-out, without institutional support. Jonathan had minimal financial resources and he didn’t have easy access to research libraries and archives, but being a community historian was also an asset as Jonathan didn’t have to deal with institutional homophobia. In my interview with feminist Ann Snitow, she explained,  “He was able to find his own discourse…. He didn’t have to be part of the going discourse within the university. He could be really original and exploratory…without maps.” For Jonathan, it really was something he was doing for his community.


Historian Susan Stryker, who wrote Transgender History, also spoke about Jonathan’s evolution around transgender issues. Recognizing that Gay American History has significant shortcomings on the interpretation of transgender issues, she added that Jonathan “owned up to it.” She observed, “He was not defensive about it. He was ‘I was wrong about that’ and moved forward with it. What more could you want from an ally?” This is a central quality of Jonathan: humility and willingness to learn from others in the quest for knowledge and inclusion.


JP: What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned while working on the film?


PH: One surprising part of Jonathan’s story is the influence his father has been. Ben Katz was involved in progressive causes before Jonathan was born. While working in advertising, he was also involved in the Communist Party. Jonathan remembers his mother hiding books on communism in the basement and FBI agents coming to the door and asking him about his father. Ben took what he learned home and taught both Jonathan and his stepbrother, the noted historian of black history William Lorenz Katz. Influenced by his father, Jonathan’s first historical writings were radio plays about fugitive slave incidents, one of which involved a successful Black-led resistance. This writing paved the way for his gay history work!


Also surprising was to learn that Jonathan’s work, and the work of other LGBTQ+ historians, was cited as an important basis for the 2003 Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, that struck down the anti-gay sodomy laws in the United States. It’s awe-inspiring to know that the quiet, steady work of Jonathan and others was crucial to this landmark progress. 


JP: What do your behind-the-scenes conversations with Jonathan look like regarding the shape and scope of the film? Was he always open to a nuanced, complex portrait of his life, rather than a hagiography, or is this an approach you’ve both developed over time?


PH: I’ve always wanted to re-introduce and celebrate Jonathan as an important pioneer of our history. But from our initial conversations, I communicated to Jonathan, then 76, that I was interested in making a candid and intimate portrait dealing with the sometimes-difficult personal journey that he wrote about in his memoir “Coming of Age in Greenwich Village.” Jonathan was on board with this idea and we leaped into things quickly. I wanted to approach the filming as a process of getting to know Jonathan, allowing space for trust to grow.


Although he has voiced that it’s up to him to set his own boundaries, Jonathan has also expressed how hard it is to be under the gaze of the camera lens, as it triggers feelings of judgement that he experienced as a child. To address these concerns, I have given Jonathan space to answer questions fully and with a sense of ownership. I’ve also initiated periodic conversations to check-in around his comfort level with what he has revealed. We’ve even filmed a couple of our conversations about the film and what it should include, what the point of view should be, even how it should be constructed. In the final editing stages, I will bring Jonathan in to collaborate with that process. This is his story and it’s important for him to have his input in how it is told.


JP: How can we learn more about the project?


PH: To learn more, you can visit the project website at In addition to photos and a short teaser, there is also a link to our fiscal sponsor where you can make a tax-deductible donation. Recently, the Stanley and Eve Geller Family Foundation made a generous offer to match all donations up to $20K through the end of August 2023, so it’s a great time to make a contribution and have its value doubled! You can also find us on Instagram where I’ll be posting updates on different facets of the film as we make progress. Our Instagram handle is @doyouknow_jnk.


Philip Harrison graduated from the film program at the State University of New York at Purchase and is an American Cinema Editors Eddie- and Emmy-nominated editor and producer of documentaries, narrative films, and television based in Los Angeles. He cut his teeth in independent film as editor of Die Mommie, Die!, which won its star, Charles Busch, a Sundance Film Festival award. Philip has worked as a television editor for Glee, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Mr. Robot, 13 Reasons Why, A Teacher, and A Friend of the Family. He also has edited several LGBTQ+ documentaries and  fell in love with queer history while editing and producing HBO’s Emmy winning documentary Vito, about The Celluloid Closet author and activist Vito Russo. Do You Know Jonathan Ned Katz? marks Philip’s directorial debut.


Joseph Plaster is Curator in Public Humanities and Director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. His first book Kids on the Street: Queer Kinship and Religion in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (Duke University Press, F2023) explores the informal support networks that enabled abandoned and runaway queer youth to survive in central city tenderloin districts across the United States, and San Francisco's Tenderloin in particular, over the past century. To learn more, visit Plaster’s personal website.