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Photo courtesy Tretter Collection/University of Minnesota

The Upper Midwest’s largest collection of LGBTQ material is in Minneapolis

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Originally published in Lavender Magazine, October 2020

October is LGBT History Month, a reminder to honor those in the LGBTQ community who have helped provide the rights we have today.

At the University of Minnesota, the artifacts and stories that are important to us have a place where they will be available for generations to come.

The Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies is the largest LGBTQ-specific archive in the Upper Midwest.

Inside, you’ll find books, personal records, organizational newsletters, audiovisual materials, and more. Through a quick search, I found the history of LGBTQ publications in the Twin Cities, which started in the 1960s. Their collection includes previous editions of Lavender, dating back to the magazine’s beginning in the 1990s. You’ll even find male physique magazines from the ‘60s and personal ads printed in the ‘90s, too.

Jean Tretter. Photo courtesy Tretter Collection/University of Minnesota.

To understand the Tretter Collection is to understand the history of the person it was named after. Born in 1946, Jean Tretter grew up in Little Falls, MN, knowing that he was attracted to men, but needed to suppress his emotions. After serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Tretter returned to Minnesota, and with his friends, organized the Twin Cities’ first commemoration of the Stonewall Riots. Around that time, Tretter also started to collect items that had meaning to himself and other members of the gay and lesbian community.

Tretter’s collection was donated to the University of Minnesota Libraries in 2000, and Tretter served on staff for the collection until his retirement in 2011.

The best of the Tretter Collection

Rachel Mattson is the Curator of The Tretter Collection. Lavender asked Mattson for their favorite items in the Collection.

First up is the Minnesota HIV/AIDS Caregivers Oral History Project, which consists of 34 recordings and transcripts of interviews with individuals who have worked to provide services to HIV+ people and people with AIDS in Minnesota.

According to Mattson’s colleague, Myra Billund-Phibbs, “The goal of the project was to document the work of doctors, nurses, community health workers, case managers, educators, affordable housing providers, harm reduction workers, and clergy members who confronted the HIV/AIDS crisis in Minnesota from the early 1980s into the 2000s.”

You can read the Oral History Project here.

Tretter Transgender Oral History Project

A big undertaking for the Tretter Collection is the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project. The six-year initiative strives to collect, preserve and make available oral histories of gender transgression, broadly understood through a trans framework.

According to Mattson, the first phase of the project, which was from 2015 to 2018, was led by now-Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins.

This phase of the project sought to document the life stories and experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people, with a focus on people living in the upper Midwest as well as those often excluded from the historical record, including trans people of color and trans elders.

“The second phase of the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project, which began in July 2019 and will continue through next spring, is led by trans studies scholar Myrl Beam,” Mattson said. “The oral histories collected during this phase document the transformative power of trans movements, and the stories of trans activists who are building them.”

“COVID has of course affected the project, in a wide range of ways,” Mattson tells Lavender. Travel was halted and in-person interviews were canceled. “But the project’s oral historian, Myrl Beam, responded quickly to develop a new set of strategies to support remote interviewing, and as a result, we are still on track to finish Phase 2 on time,” Mattson said.

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Exploring and supporting the Collection

The Transgender Oral History Project has conducted more than 200 interviews which are available online. They are planning to add more on an ongoing basis.

In the spring of 2020, Tretter staff launched a podcast to share these incredible interviews with a broader audience. The pilot episode of “Transcripts” can be found at A second episode is in the works.

If you find yourself at home more this year, it’s a great time to explore the Tretter Collection online. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, in-person services are at a limited capacity.

The Tretter Collection is inside the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank Campus. Items are kept in secure storage, only accessible by staff. Collection materials can only be used in the Reading Room. However, many items are now online.

The continued documentation of LGBTQ history is in jeopardy. “We are facing severe budget cuts in the coming year,” Mattson said. For information about how to donate, please visit their website.

Related: A Minneapolis nonprofit is giving away $250,000 in grants to LGBT individuals

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Photo courtesy Pride Institute.

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