The Celebration of a Life Well-Lived: Jean-Nickolaus Tretter

Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. Photo by Lisa Vecoli
Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. Photo by Lisa Vecoli

It’s hard to accurately predict which pieces of our history will be important to future generations. It’s nearly impossible to know which newspaper clipping or episode of a popular TV show or work of art will go down in history as the most important one. In the 1970s and ’80s in the United States, it was unfathomable that any relics of LGBTQ history would ever be anything more than a shameful secret, but that didn’t stop Jean-Nickolaus Tretter from starting to collect and preserve our history. Thankfully, times have changed for the better, and queer history is all over the place—there are hundreds of classes on queer history and literature, podcasts dedicated to queer history, TV shows, stories, museums, Instagram pages—you name it, there’s a way to study it. However, when Jean-Nickolaus Tretter set out to make history by collecting it, finding actual artifacts of queer history was the challenge of a lifetime.

Tretter was born in 1946, and grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota. He says that even early in his life he knew—and knew that he had to hide—that he was attracted to men. Tretter spent most of his early adulthood in the closet, serving as a decorated linguist in the Navy during the Vietnam War, but by April of 1972, Tretter was out… and proud of it. In fact, in June of 1972, he and his friends organized the very first Twin Cities commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, which had happened only a few years earlier, in June of 1969. He then began his studies at the University of Minnesota in cultural and social anthropology, but soon dropped out after his attempt to specialize in LGBTQ anthropology went unsupported by the university.

Instead of a formal and traditional education, Tretter taught himself LGBTQ history by reading everything about the subject that he could get his hands on—he scoured libraries, bookstores, and anywhere else he could find that might have some clues and insights into the topic of queer history, which, at the time, was a virtually non-existent field of study. While Tretter was interested in finding and preserving important queer artifacts, he was also fascinated and frustrated with the cultural biases that made it so difficult to decode queer history.

Tretter then began collecting gay and lesbian memorabilia as he found it, not with the intention of creating the archive that he later founded, but instead with the simple passion of preserving a history that he said was, “disappearing as fast as we were producing it.” Watching your own history disappear before your eyes is a terrifying experience, and Tretter wanted to make sure there was LGBTQ history around for future generations to learn from and enjoy. His fear and pride are what motivated him to start collecting more—everything he could find to preserve the past. This is what eventually lead to his accumulation of thousands of books, photos and other documents that now make up his collection.

In 2000, after his collection of gay and lesbian artifacts was far too large to be contained in his apartment, Tretter donated his materials to the University of Minnesota Libraries. This donation afforded the collection preservation resources, as well as acquisition resources, and gave Tretter back his home, which had become overrun with incredible items from the past. By placing his collection in the care of the university, it also made it much more accessible to students, faculty, and the community as a whole. Today, anyone can contribute to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection Fund by donating materials, participating in oral history projects, volunteering, donating money, or even just by attending events.

According to the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Minnesota, “The Tretter Collection holds approximately 3,500 linear feet of material—including books, periodicals, grey literature, personal and organizational records, zines and pamphlets, artifacts and ephemera, and audiovisual materials,” they also note, “The collection is national and international in scope (featuring materials in approximately 58 languages), but is especially strong in materials documenting the history of LGBTQ people, organizations, and communities in the Upper Midwest, especially the Twin Cities area.”

Tretter once said, “I would like to have a part in giving Gays and Lesbians of the future something similar to hold on to.” He achieved this goal one-thousandfold. We are so lucky for all of the things he gave us to hold onto. It is now our duty to do the same for the queer generations of the future. While that doesn’t necessarily mean holding onto every little thing you find that relates to queer history, it does mean knowing and celebrating our history, and honoring the people who made it possible for so many of us to live out and proud.

Tretter continued collecting queer history until his recent passing, on December 9th, 2022. The community felt the loss of an icon and a friend profoundly. If we should take one thing from Tretter’s life work, it is this: this is your history. Fight for it. In a time, especially in the United States, where queer people are facing spiking levels of hate and oppression from lawmakers, it is important to demand that our history be preserved, and that our present be protected. What better way to honor the life of a man whose life was dedicated to preservation, than to persevere? What better way to celebrate history, than to make it?

A celebration of Life will be held for Jean-Nickolaus Tretter on June 23rd, 2023, from 1:00pm-3:00pm at the Elmer L. Andersen Library. To honor his legacy, The University of Minnesota is encouraging all attendees to wear as much rainbow garb as they can, and for drag performers to come in full regalia, if they would like.

All information was found in the Special Collections and Archives of the University of Minnesota. For more information, log on to

A Celebration of Life for Jean–Nickolaus Tretter
June 23, 1:00-3:00 PM
Elmer Andersen Library, University of Minnesota Twin Cities West Bank Campus, Minneapolis

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