Jean Tretter was born in 1946, in Little Falls, Minnesota, into a German-Catholic family who had immigrated to the United States a century before. During WWII, Jean’s parents hid their German roots and passed as Norwegian-Americans, even speaking Norwegian at home. It wasn’t until after his mother’s death in 1999 that Jean discovered documents revealing his German heritage.
Jean served as a decorated linguist in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He left the Navy in 1972 and, inspired by the Stonewall Riots in 1969, came out as a gay man. In 1972, he organized the first Stonewall commemoration in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The event became the annual Twin Cities Pride festival, one of America’s largest LGBTQ celebrations.
In the early 1970s, Jean also began collecting gay and lesbian books and other materials he came across. He began studying cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota in 1973, hoping to turn his love for history and the preservation of queer culture into a full-time vocation. When the university refused to let Jean formalize gay and lesbian anthropology as a course of study, Jean dropped out and began studying LGBTQ history on his own. Along the way, he produced and hosted a gay and lesbian music radio show, and co-chaired Minnesota’s Gay Games committee in 1982.
Since the 1980s, Jean’s full-time pursuit has been the preservation of LGBTQ history. He organized careful, elaborate systems for collecting and organizing materials ranging from books, documents and photographs to artifacts like buttons and campaign posters. In 2000, Jean donated his entire collection to the University of Minnesota Libraries, where it now occupies 3,000 linear feet of space, and receives rightful recognition and respect as the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collections in GLBT Studies. Jean retired as full-time curator of the collection in 2011, but continues to serve on its advisory board.
Perhaps because he has never received proper recognition for his efforts, Jean expressed deep appreciation that OUTWORDS was willing to travel all the way to snowy St. Paul, Minnesota to interview him. But in our opinion, the honor was all ours. Jean is a titan in the field of queer history. He expresses his pride as a gay man in the most tangible form possible: collecting, curing, and caring for our history, both for its own sake, and because the whole world stands to gain from studying our community’s extraordinary gains.
Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.L-R: Louise Marie Tretter (sister, now named Louise Harris), Murriel Eunice Robison Tretter (mother), and Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus, 1949. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus, age 4, as the ring bearer for a friend of the family’s wedding. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus and his niece Mickey in front of the White House, during the Nixon era and his studies in Washington, DC, 1969. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter and Dwight Henry Gaut in a vintage photo booth, 1976. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter and Harry Hay at the od International Gay and Lesbian Archives, Hollywood, CA. Jean-Nickolaus shares, “The archives were in danger of being lost, so I came and stayed with Harry and John Burnside to help out for a couple of weeks. I’ve been a board member since 1982.” Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter and Pat(ricia) Barnhart, the mother of Jim Chalgrew, on Pride Day, June 24, 2001. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, February 6, 2003. Photo Credit: Sophia Hantzes. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus, February 6, 2003. Photo Credit: Sophia Hantzes. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, April 4, 2003. Photo Credit: Sophia Hantzes. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter with a bust of Harvey Milk. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Current curator Lisa Vecoli and founder Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. Photo credit: Sophie Hantzes. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.Jean-Nickolaus Tretter, Lisa Vercoli and Michael McConnell out north. Photo courtesy of Jean Tretter.
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