For his first Twin Cities Pride, in 1972, Jean-Nickolaus Tretter walked down the sidewalk of Nicollet Mall with a few dozen others, yelling phrases about gay and lesbian pride. No one called the cops or got confrontational as he and the other protestors had worried. Many onlookers just seemed confused. The idea of LGBTQ pride was still new.
Since then, Tretter has ensured that local LGBTQ history remains at the forefront of the festival with the creation of the History Pavilion, which you can visit for free in the Loring Park Community Arts Center.
There you’ll find Tretter, one of the founding members of Twin Cities Pride, chatting away among stories and artifacts from decades of LGBTQ experiences. Part of the reason he isn’t out walking among the crowds is that his eyesight makes it more difficult for him to navigate the festival. The other part is, just as he says half-jokingly and half-seriously, “Since I am so old, I’m a piece of that history now, and I’m still living.”
The History Pavilion’s walls are lined with panels that display LGBTQ experiences, historic events, photos, and more, all derived from the massive collection of LGBTQ history that Tretter donated to the University of Minnesota Andersen Library. The collecting for what would become the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies began in the 1970s, when Tretter began to keep little snippets of LGBTQ stories in pop culture partially due to his own anthropological interests. (During that same time, he would also end up leaving his educational program at the University of Minnesota because he wasn’t allowed to have a former emphasis in gay and lesbian anthropology.) But in 1983, the lack of material for a history display he was putting together for St. Paul’s Landmark Center was the catalyst for what became an absorbing endeavor.
As curator emeritus Lisa Vecoli puts it, “What I have at Andersen is literally 3,500 linear feet of documentation. I have tens of thousands of books, tens and tens of thousands of issues of periodicals, thousands of T-shirts and buttons, 3,500 films and videos, posters and works of art, and millions of pages of content.”
While the collection has certainly grown since the 18 years Tretter donated it to the University of Minnesota, the reason he donated it in the first place was because it had overtaken his apartment so much, the fire marshal had begun threatening to condemn the residence.
Photo by RJL Photography
All researchers are welcome to visit the archives, but for everyone else, the best way to experience the wealth of knowledge is at the History Pavilion as the panels weave together the thousands of primary resources into synthesized narratives.
When Tretter was still operating—if you can even call it that—the collection out of his apartment, the History Pavilion he made with it was one of the first history pavilions at any U.S. pride festival. The early versions consisted of him literally stringing saran-wrapped poster boards along fish line with tape and paper clips under a canopy tent. As it has gone through its evolutions, the History Pavilion has always retained a mobile format; the printed panels can still be easily transported to community events all over the world.
Tretter’s first history panels included information that went all the way back to ancient times, but as the collection transferred over to the University of Minnesota, the History Pavilion zoomed in on LGBTQ experiences across all races in the U.S. and Europe during the 20th and 21st centuries. Each year, as victories have been won, new battles have surfaced, and researchers have been able to add to the collection, the panels change a little more, too.
Several panels are dedicated to Minnesota alone, and some of the highlights include how Jack Baker was the first elected openly gay student body president and how he and Michael McConnell became the first legally married gay couple in the nation in the 1970s, how Minneapolis was the first unit of government to pass transgender inclusive non-discrimination laws in 1975, how Minnesota had one of the nation’s first lesbian bookstores, and how Minnesota was the first state to reject a constitutional amendment explicitly banning same-sex marriage. This year, Vecoli says they will have to add at least one more thing: Minneapolis council member Andrea Jenkins is the first openly transgender African woman to win elected public in the U.S.
“When you can convince the young gays and lesbians to go into the History Pavilion, it helps to remind them and tell them the story here in Minnesota,” Tretter says. “Whether it’s a gay baby being born today or tomorrow or somebody like me who’s born 70 years ago, we still have to fight and we’ll have to fight all of our lives.”
Photo courtesy of Lisa Vecoli