U event celebrates GLBT history

by Emily Dalnodar

Jean-Nickolaus Tretter collects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender materials. He started doing it 20 years ago and now owns more than 3,000 local, national and international items.
Books, political buttons, baseball cards, musical scores and a diverse array of related materials once filled each nook and cranny of his St. Paul home. Now they’re on display in Coffman Union’s third-floor Mississippi Room.
Thursday marked the first comprehensive showing of Tretter’s extensive accumulation in a special evening exhibition titled, “Collecting Ourselves.” About 100 people attended the exhibit, including University President Mark Yudof and Tretter himself.
The event not only celebrated the collective history of hundreds of years of GLBT documentation, but it held hope that Tretter’s collection could find a permanent home at the University.
“This is history that’s being re-gathered and pieced together, and if the University takes on this collection it takes a step to prove that this is a valid history,” said Susan Raffo, a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Programs Office executive assistant.
Plans to house Tretter’s collection on campus are still in the preliminary stages, said Kim Clarke, an assistant librarian. University librarians have to address many issues before committing to harbor the compilation.
“If we were to take it, we couldn’t just put it in the library because you could put books on the shelf but you can’t just do that with a box of buttons,” Clarke said.
The GLBT programs office — which has coordinated with Tretter in hopes to establish a stable residence for his collection on campus — has two years to find a suitable location for his materials if the University decides to take them.
Very few comprehensive GLBT collections exist, including the International Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. If the University housed Tretter’s collection, both Clarke and Raffo said it would establish itself as a prominent institution in archiveable GLBT materials.
The very lack of GLBT collections prompted Tretter’s obsession with amassing related materials.
“In 1983 on the 50th anniversary of the Hirschfield Library burning I decided to do an exhibit in St. Paul,” Tretter said, referring to the mass book-burning during the Nazi regime in Germany. “It was then I realized no one had collected GLBT materials and archiving them.”
The lecturer of gay and lesbian subjects dedicated the better amount of his time digging for items related to the rich history of homosexuality, cross-dressing and transgender behavior.
Included in his collection are swim trunks worn by Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis, a book saved from the burning of the Hirschfield Library and, his favorite: a love letter found by a local remodeler under the floor boards of an old house.
The 1942 love letter is written to “Bill.” It describes the unbearable weight of forbidden love in an unforgiving world. It is signed by “George.”
Written in pencil and wrapped in tissue paper, the letter was donated to Tretter for the special exhibition Thursday by the remodeler. It is the crux of the collection, Tretter said.
“Too precious to throw away, but too scary to keep it,” Tretter said. “It really speaks about the gay and lesbian archives. This is what it’s really about. It’s the idea of getting people to not throw away this stuff when they find it. It’s our history.
“It’s not just a collection from dead society, but it’s a living, breathing society,” he said.
Though the bulk of Tretter’s accumulation left Coffman Union after Thursday’s exhibition, many of his materials will remain on display in cases located just outside the GLBT programs office on Coffman’s third floor.