If it feels like Jonathan Van Ness is everywhere these days, it’s because they are. The television personality, podcast host and author, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, is starring in two series available on Netflix this month: season six of the wildly popular “Queer Eye” reboot and the new original “Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness.”
In the new six-episode series, inspired by Van Ness’ long-running podcast of the same name, nothing is too big or too small to spark curiosity — from bugs to skyscrapers. In some of the episodes, Van Ness revisits subjects nearest and dearest to them, including figure skating, beauty standards and the gender binary.
“Those are such expansive, gigantic topics that I’m so passionate about. I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning about them,” Van Ness told NBC News.
Breaking from the one-guest podcast model, an exuberant Van Ness interviews a host of experts for each of the show’s episodes. When they’re not holding court in a colorfully decorated loft, they’re often running around New York City, dropping by such landmarks as the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and various parts of Central Park.
The Stonewall Inn, the site of the historic 1969 demonstrations that became a turning point in the modern gay rights movement, is one of the backdrops for the series’ hallmark episode, “Can We Say Bye-Bye to the Binary?” In the episode, Van Ness and a group of notable cultural figures and activists dive into the long history of gender-nonconformity and the much more recent history of the modern gender binary.
“The gender-diverse community — trans people, our whole community of nonbinary, gender-nonconforming people — has been so vilified and so ‘othered,’” Van Ness said. “I wanted to show just how human we are and how common we are. We’ve been around for thousands of years. Being trans, or gender-nonconforming or nonbinary isn’t new. Some of the language is new to some people. But even the language isn’t that new to a lot of people.”
Language is a topic that comes up throughout the episode. At the Stonewall Inn, Van Ness holds a roundtable with the artist and activist Joshua Allen, the writer and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon and Geo Neptune, a Two-Spirit artist who broke ground by being elected to office in Maine in 2020. Two-Spirit is an Indigenous-specific term that encompasses multiple understandings of gender and sexuality: In the episode, Neptune explains how in the Wabanaki creation story, the first Two-Spirit person is created from the combined essences of the first man and first woman.
The roundtable participants discuss the relationship between language, community and representation — including the history behind the term “coming out” and, for Neptune, receiving their spirit name. They also discuss how the gender-nonconforming community has used and continues to use language as a tool to combat the systemic erasure of trans, nonbinary and gender-diverse people.
Van Ness, who publicly came out as nonbinary in a 2019 interview with Out magazine, said that up until a few years ago, the language of gender diversity was still new to them. The repercussions of that and of not having the ability to fully explore their gender identity until later in life are things that Van Ness has discussed openly in the last few years. And they said that their desire to protect other people from those same experiences is a driving force in the decisions they make as an entertainer and how they use their platform.
“Growing up, I was bullied so much,” Van Ness said. “And, from a very young age, I remember thinking that if I can turn it into something that makes it so that other kids don’t go through this, then it will have been worth it.”
The show also aims to have a multigenerational appeal by covering figures that range from early activists like Marsha P. Johnson, who was a central figure in the 1969 Stonewall uprising and an advocate for low-income LGBTQ people of color, to activist and model Nala Toussaint and the millennial voices at the roundtable.
Van Ness described the episode as “a love letter to all gender-diverse people.” As much as it was inspired by what they would have wanted to have seen growing up, they said it’s also for older people who have been left out of the conversation: “There’s so many older people who don’t understand. They don’t have the language for it. They grew up in repressive areas with all sorts of indoctrination. They didn’t know how to live their authenticity.”
It’s a lot of ground to cover in a half-hour episode. But Van Ness pulls it off with effervescent charm and a heavy dose of wholesome humor — including a satisfying opening skit about gender-reveal parties and playing life-size versions of his shoulder angel and devil — something that all of the series’ episodes have in common.
Next up, Van Ness will publish a second book, “Love That Story: Observations From a Gorgeously Queer Life,” which is out in April. They also hope there will be more installments of “Getting Curious”: “Six episodes is amazing, but I’m really curious,” they said.