New UMN exhibit explores history of LGBTQ student activism

FREE fought against issues such as anti-gay employment discrimination and worked to educate the University community about the LGBTQ community.

F.R.E.E information table at University of Minnesota welcome week, 1970.
Paul H. Hagen 

Photo courtesy Anderson Library Archives

F.R.E.E information table at University of Minnesota welcome week, 1970.

Paul H. Hagen 

Gwiwon Jason Nam

A new exhibit opened last week at the University of Minnesota highlighting the school’s first LGBTQ student organization. 

The exhibit, FREE: Remembering the History of Early LGBTQ Organizing in Minnesota, holds archives focused on FREE (Fight the Repression of Erotic Expression), which was one of the first LGBTQ student organizations in the country, established 50 years ago.The group fought against issues such as employment discrimination, and worked to educate the University community about LGBTQ rights and advocacy.

The archives are part of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, which is a compilation of LGBT historical materials housed in the Special Collections and Rare Books section in the University Libraries. 

“This exhibit was intended to invite people to think about both the past, the present, and the future of LGBTQ activism, and especially on the University of Minnesota campus,” said Rachel Mattson, curator of the Tretter Collection.

The exhibit tells the history of FREE through a series of thematic investigations. One theme the exhibit examines is the work the group did around employment discrimination. In addition, the exhibit highlights how FREE tried to make a community for LGBTQ people in the Twin Cities and on the University campus.

“They held dinners and picnics, and they created what might have been the first officially sponsored gay dance on the University campus in the United States,” Mattson said.  

NBC filmed some of these dances, and they were broadcast nationally on NBC TV in December 1969. Noah Barth, co-curator of the exhibit, is currently creating a documentary for the exhibit using film footage and plans to unveil it this month.

The collection also focuses on the group’s education and outreach work. FREE had a table on campus and made brochures and newsletters that they passed out at downtown bars and on campus. The group also talked to clergy members, police officers and appeared in various ways in the news media, Mattson said.  

The exhibit’s curators believe FREE represents conversations on LGBTQ rights that were happening around the country prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots, the confrontations between police officers and gay rights activists in New York City which Barth said are often considered to be the “birthplace of gay liberation” in the U.S.

“The F.R.E.E. exhibit looks back at some of the earliest GLBT campus organizing in the country.  It’s important to remember, while celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, that significant milestones were being reached right here in Minnesota even earlier than Stonewall,” said Kris Kiesling, Elmer L. Andersen Director of Archives and Special Collections, in an email.

The exhibit is open in Andersen Library through September 27. After the exhibit ends, the curators said it will be affiliated with the Queer Forms project, which will hold exhibits around Minneapolis.