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Jonathan Ned Katz celebrated as a pioneer historian of gay history

Historians in the News
tags: gay history, LGBT, Jonathan Ned Katz



Jim Downs is an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. His book "Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation" will be published by Basic Books next month.

Modern gay history is too often reduced to shopworn narratives of overturned sexual taboos and a classic street struggle for civil rights. To be sure, it included both — but much else too.

A more-encompassing depiction, with intellectual, religious, aesthetic, journalistic, and other activity, began to emerge in the 1970s as gay studies, which found its first home and thrived outside academe among activists, writers, and independent scholars. The scholar initially responsible for that was a nonacademic who at first simply sought an understanding of his place in the world. Through activism, ­avant-garde drama, and then traditional historical narrative, and inspired by a revitalized look at African-American history, Jonathan Ned Katz started matching political puzzle pieces with their theoretical and historical complements. In orienting himself, he helped orient an emerging generation of gay people and also helped arm them with a groundbreaking philosophical and intellectual agenda at the height of gay liberation.

In the summer of 1975, Katz was living in a spacious apartment, rented for $150 a month, at Bank and West Fourth Streets. He had grown up a few blocks away in a brownstone, where his bedroom window looked onto a patio and a yard. Twenty-four years earlier, he had become a celebrity of sorts in that yard by directing, at 13, a film version of Tom Sawyer starring the kids in the neighborhood. Life magazine even did a feature story on him titled "Life Visits a Backyard Movie Set." But by the 1970s his ambitions had shifted to preparing for a revolution. Now, every Saturday night, he met with a group of like-minded companions — members of the Gay Socialist Action Project. Katz waited all week for Saturday night to come. It was thrilling to be in a room with men who shared his vision and hopes.

The tiny sliver of New York City where Katz lived was undergoing a rapid transformation. The Village had been home to scores of intellectuals, writers, artists, and musicians since the turn of the century, and in more recent decades it had given rise to the Beat poets and Bob Dylan. When Katz came of age in the neighborhood, his parents both had careers reflecting its literary culture. His mother, Phyllis Brownstone Katz, was a magazine editor, and his father, Bernard Katz, was an advertising art director. When he was a young boy, they’d sent him to the Little Red School House, an independent school that was a refuge for families targeted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts. He then graduated from the High School of Music & Art in 1956. Now, post-Stonewall, the neighborhood was being shaped by the promise of gay liberation.

On his way to the Gay Socialist Action Project meeting uptown, Katz would walk to the subway along West Fourth Street. Gay men crowded onto the streets where even months before they would have been too fearful to linger. On hot summer nights, some walked around shirtless, while others wore only leather vests, showing off their hairy chests and muscled bodies. He passed by Abingdon Square, where gay denizens watched the weekend tourists arriving wide-eyed, many of them having come expressly to stare at the men dressed in denim. The men sat and waited for night to fall, and for the chance to walk a few blocks west toward the piers and the trucks, where they would have anonymous sex. Katz would brush by them as he rushed to catch the subway. This was not his idea of being gay. "Everyone went crazy in the piers," he told me during recent interviews. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education


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