On Dec. 9, 2022 we lost a giant. Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, avid collector and founder of the Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies, a University of Minnesota archive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, and queer-gendered (LGBTQ+) materials.
At 76 years of age, Jean left an indelible mark on LGBTQ history thanks to his persistent collecting of LGBTQ history that began in the 1970s. Surrounded in an apartment full of books, periodicals, and ephemera relating to LGBTQ history worldwide, Jean Tretter built a collection that will have a ripple effect on our capacity to know queer and trans history long into the future.
“He was a courageous man with lots of foresight,” said Lisa German, University Librarian and Dean of Libraries. “We are very grateful for his commitment and generosity.”
Aiden Bettine, the Curator of the Tretter Collection, spoke warmly of the archive’s founder, who he was fortunate to be able to connect with since becoming curator in August.
“I am honored to steward Jean’s legacy through the collection,” Bettine said. “Jean began collecting long before institutions thought that LGBTQ history was important enough to preserve and build a one-of-a-kind collection in the Midwest.”
Documenting the history of people too long overlooked
Until the end of his life Jean Tretter carried that fire for collecting the raw materials of history of people too long overlooked — or even erased — by official accounts. Tretter understood that “other people were not going to collect this history,” Bettine said.
Tretter, a U. S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War era, believed that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were made stronger by the foundation of their history and their traditions. In an extensive interview recorded by Outwords Archive in 2018, Jean expressed that he wanted his community to understand their beginnings, their milestones, and their ongoing life, too.
Like other archives of gay and lesbian people that sprouted outside of official libraries, Tretter began his archive in a St. Paul apartment that gradually transformed into a storehouse.
Remembering the Nazis’ attempt to completely burn the library of Magnus Hirschfield, a German sexologist and gay physician, Tretter collected everything gay that he could find. From flyers created for the second Twin Cities Pride parade (1973), which he helped organize; boxes of personal papers from gay bar owners, lesbian activists, and public figures who happen to be transgender; and records of human rights organizations and AIDS/HIV activists from Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
“The Tretter Collection is a testament to the power one person can have, and the permanent change one person can make.”
— Lisa Vecoli, first curator of the Tretter Collection
Minneapolis might be considered flyover country by some, but the Tretter Collection, which has print material in 60 languages, holds a world view of LGBTQ history. The focus of the collection is a bit off the beaten track because Tretter began with — and the archives continue — a focus on ordinary people’s lives, Bettine said, not just the heroes of LGBTQ history.
Since moving into the University of Minnesota Libraries in 2000, the Tretter Collection has exponentially grown. The collection is home to the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project, the world’s largest oral history collection on transgender, gender-queer, and non-binary people. The original oral historian for the project was poet Andrea Jenkins, the first transgender person to be elected to the Minneapolis City Council.
After creating podcasts during the depth of the pandemic, the Transgender Oral History Project is continuing into its third phase with funding from the Tawani Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Tretter’s friend and fellow veteran, Col. Jennifer Pritzker.
Tretter’s legacy is remarkable
Lisa Vecoli, a community organizer who leaped into the role of the Curator of the Tretter Collection following Jean Tretter himself, said Jean Tretter’s legacy is remarkable.
“Very few places have a dedicated LGBTQ archive. And the University of Minnesota has it because of the stubborn persistence of one man — Jean-Nickolaus Tretter,” Vecoli said. “The Tretter Collection is a testament to the power one person can have and the permanent change one person can make.”
Jean Tretter served as the original staff person for the Tretter Collection from 2001 to 2011, helping connect students and researchers with the contents based on his personal knowledge. He added the records of Twin Cities Pride, the Minnesota AIDS Project, University Professor Charles Nolte, Tobias Schneedbaum, Minnesota Men of Color, Amazon Bookstore, Log Cabin Republicans, and dozens of other donors.
One collection is that of a GLBT group from Sri Lanka who felt their materials were safer in the United States.
During his tenure at the Tretter Collection, Jean also founded the GLBT Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections Conference (ALMS). This first-of-its-kind international conference drew participants from across the world to Andersen Library to hear keynote speeches by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, among others.
“The legacy that Jean left is the archive, but also his impact on the entire field of LGBTQ history,” said Vecoli. “Students that worked with him, colleagues he inspired and those who have researched at the archive are all extending his reach and influence — and that will continue for generations.”
How to view the materials
Anyone can access the Tretter Collection, although materials do not circulate. Please contact the archival team at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment to view materials in the Wallin Reading Room. Jean Tretter left behind this extraordinary legacy, fighting the tide of official history and fueled by love of community. A celebration of Jean Tretter’s life is being planned for June 2023 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library.
More from the Star Tribune
The Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis published a news obituary on Jean-Nickolaus Tretter on Dec. 10.