About Jean Tretter

Learn about Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, the namesake and founder of the Tretter Collection. 

Jean Tretter (1946-2022) grew up in Little Falls in a family that first arrived in Morrison County in 1848, before Minnesota was a U.S. territory. Born in 1946, Tretter had a sense beginning in childhood that he was attracted to men but had to hide his attraction.

The Stonewall Riots in June of 1969 signaled a new chapter in his life. By April 1972, he was out of the closet and out of the Navy where he had served during Vietnam as a decorated linguist. When Tretter returned to the Twin Cities, he and his friends organized the first Twin Cities commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in June 1972.

Around the same time, Tretter started to collect Gay and Lesbian materials in a piecemeal fashion. He didn't start out with the grand scheme of amassing an archive; he just gathered the things that mattered to him.

Tretter studied social and cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota from 1973-1976. He wanted to specialize in gay and lesbian anthropology but could not get the institutional support he needed. He dropped out of the University and began working as a counselor at a Ramsey County residence for youth with multiple disabilities. He also studied gay and lesbian history on his own, beginning the accumulation of the thousands of books, photos, and other documents that ultimately made up his collection.

Tretter worked as a visible advocate for gay and lesbian issues in other contexts, as well. For sixteen years he was the host and producer of "Night Rivers" on KFAI, the only regularly broadcast Gay and Lesbian classical music show in the country. In 1982, he acted as co-chairman of Minnesota's Gay/Lesbian Olympic Committee and helped assemble the third largest delegation to the games (after San Francisco and Los Angeles). Tretter even talked California organizers into diverting their New York to San Francisco torch run into the Twin Cities.

In 1983, Tretter was assembling a Gay history display at St. Paul's Landmark Center when he made a disturbing discovery: "Our Gay history was disappearing as fast as we were producing it." Tretter consciously started collecting anything about the GLBT community, always on the lookout for new materials. Since 1982, he has been a member of the Los Angeles-based International Gay and Lesbian Archives where he served as both a Board member and the Upper Midwest Representative. Tretter took his growing knowledge of Gay and Lesbian archiving and began to apply it to Minnesota history in earnest.

The Tretter Collection was donated to the University of Minnesota Libraries in 2000. The scale of the collection was no longer manageable in Tretter’s apartment. Moving to the University provided resources for preservation of and acquisitions to the collection. It was also a way to make the collection more accessible to students, faculty, and community members.

Jean-Nickolaus Tretter served as the staff for the collection until his retirement in 2011. During that time, he became a major resource for students getting degrees in lesbian and gay studies. Most scholarly sins, he believes, come from cultural biases. "Archaeologists find two graves, one with the remains of a man, one the remains of two women. The traditional interpretation is always that the man had two wives. But suppose it was a Lesbian couple with a male slave? The cultural bias is built in."

Even in retirement, Tretter continued to serve on the Advisory Board of the collection. He was often sought out by scholars for information about the collection and his knowledge of the GLBT community. And he continued to collect materials for the archive until his passing, December 9th, 2022.

Explains Tretter, "It's important we create a historical legacy to pass along to future generations. It's how the Jews endured thousands of years of persecution, because they had a tradition and a history. I would like to have a part in giving Gays and Lesbians of the future something similar to hold on to."

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