By Adria Carpenter
In his first year at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Aiden Bettine has been down in the trenches of the Tretter Collection, surrounded by the ephemera of early LGBTQ life. And it’s exactly where he wants to be.
“It’s kind of an exciting time to be the new curator of the Tretter Collection, and to be able to establish community partnerships and events,” Bettine said. “I feel incredibly fortunate and lucky to have landed the job and be here. It really is the dream job.”
Bettine is an archivist and historian originally from Milwaukee, and his parents will tell you that he’s always been interested in history, starting first with a childhood obsession with the Titanic and ancient Egypt.
“I like taught everybody about them in my classes. I was a major nerd. So, I think I’ve always had a historical bent, since I was a kid and been very fascinated with who and what has come before us,” he said.
But his first foray into the discipline of history came during his time at DePaul University in Chicago, while studying racial history and critical ethnic studies. Bettine later began researching community archives at the University of Iowa. These small independent collections house a wealth of local queer history across the country, and he was fascinated with them.
Spurred by echoes of the AIDS epidemic during the first wave of lockdowns in 2020, Bettine founded a community archives in Iowa City. The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library preserves the urban and rural queer histories in the state and manages a free lending library of over 1,800 books.
With so few LGBTQ-specific archives in the country, Bettine had been aware of the Tretter Collection for at least a decade. He described the Tretter as somewhere between an archival and museum collection. It holds over 3,500 linear feet of local, national and international materials, including periodicals, zines, newspapers, DIY publications, love letters, as well as a myriad of physical objects and textiles, like T-shirts, banners and buttons.
“In our current political and cultural moment, it’s even more important to have ways to show how the community is sustained, and has always existed, and put up with a variety of political and cultural trials throughout history,” he said. “It can’t be understated how historical visibility can really be like — I don’t want to say lifesaving — but it’s so important to people’s mental health.”
The Tretter has records for Outfront Minnesota, the National Center of Trans Equality, the Minnesota AIDS project, the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, queer student organizations on campus, and more.
The collection’s founder, Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, passed away on Dec. 9, 2022, at 76 years old. A memorial service will be held in June 2023 near the time of the Twin Cities Pride Festival.
Diverse collection also documents queer and trans communities of color
Bettine feels fortunate to manage a collection that, while already diverse and inclusive by nature, has strong documentation of queer and trans communities of color, like the Minnesota Men of Color Records, along with one of the largest collections of two spirit records, representing an important segment of Minnesota’s indigenous history.
“It’s beautiful to be able to share that and get younger queer and trans folks engaged with the material,” he said. “It’s always important for the LGBTQ community to be able to see themselves reflected in the past, whether the past is five years ago or 50 years ago.”
But beyond merely housing artifacts of queer life, the Tretter is one of the few institutional collections with full-time staff dedicated to LGBTQ curation.
“The Tretter Collection is certainly interesting, in that it’s predominantly been cared for by community members,” Bettine said. “There’s a lot of incredible folks who care deeply about the Tretter Collection. That is evident. … Everybody is still so invested in the collection.”
His favorite artifacts include a hockey puck
One of Bettine’s favorite items is a hockey puck from the Twin Cities Gay Hockey Association. As a young trans kid who grew up playing hockey, the 3-inch rubber cylinder meant a lot to him.
“Another favorite set of items—cause you never forget the first thing that you take into the collection—is this incredible set of six handmade dresses from Sonne Teal,” he said.
Teal was a Canadian actress and female impersonator from the 1950s and ’60s, who died on March 5, 1966, when her plane crashed into Mount Fuji.
“They’re inspiring, they’re haunting, they’re very moving to sit with as objects,” he said.
After extensive research and interviews with people who performed with her, Bettine learned that Teal was a trans woman and underwent hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Performing as female impersonator allowed Teal to express herself and travel the world in a socially acceptable way for the time period, Bettine said.
Teal’s mother, Irene, held onto the handmade dresses for years and years until her death, eventually passing them onto her caretaker, before the dresses found their way to the Tretter Collection.
“I was told that Irene was so incredibly proud of her son that she held onto these dresses, and I think a lot of younger folks — whether queer or trans — don’t expect that parents in the 1950s would maybe feel that way about their kid,” Bettine said.
Goals include pop-up events, more collaboration
Bettine’s first year has been busy, between meeting the material, handing out his business card at punk shows, and encouraging everyone to come tour the collection. But in his second year as curator, Bettine hopes to develop new programming opportunities and foster an intergenerational space for the community.
He’s planning to host zine-making workshops and establish in-house residences, so artists can create meaningful work that interacts with LGBTQ history, and so students can conduct long-term research projects.
“I really have some admittedly lofty goals for the collection, and how we invite community members in to partake and be a part of both the history we’re preserving, but also the history we’re making,” Bettine said.
His first exhibit, tentatively scheduled for February 2024, is based on mail and correspondence in the collection (Bettine sports a tattoo reading “A Letter is Better,” so the news surprised none of his friends).
Bettine also wants to decentralize the collection by holding pop-up events and collaborating with other local organizations, so everyone can access the material, not just frequent visitors of Elmer L. Andersen Library.
“When you have a collection that is comprised of so much community material, like Tretter, it really should be a collection in, and of, and for, the community,” he said.
The Tretter Collection is open by appointment to researchers, students or anyone who just want to spend an afternoon flipping through zines and photographs. The reading room is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Tours of the archive are also available on a flexible schedule, including evening and weekends.