from the archives

March 12th, 2008 | Uncategorized

hall of prophecies

Doesn’t this look like the Hall of Prophecies in Harry Potter? It’s the University of Minnesota archives, a network of earthquake-proof vaults 125 feet below the surface of the earth. Also flood proof because they’re below the water table.

Part of my visit to the University of Minnesota last week consisted of a tour of the Tretter Collection, the GLBT archives that are stored here.
Jean Tretter is a guy who started collecting gay and lesbian cultural artifacts back in the seventies. Now his stuff has expanded into this official archive that he maintains at the University. So Jean gave me and a bunch of students a tour of the archives.jean tretter & hirschfeld book

Here he is holding a charred book that was rescued from the rubble of the Hirschfeld library after the Nazis burned it down in 1933. Magnus Hirschfeld was an early gay rights advocate and sexologist, and he had this huge library of books about sexuality. This was a biography of the Marquis de Sade, in French.

Next Jean took out a box and started unwrapping something…he told me to put on a pair of white cotton gloves, then at the last minutes thought to ask if I minded “male things.” I assured him that no, I didn’t. Look. It’s a 4,000 year old pre-ptolemaic scribe, writing away on a tablet that’s perched on his gigantic schlong. It’s kinda blurry but I think you can get the gist.

pre-ptolemaic scribe

And look, here’s all the extant editions of “Lesbian Nuns,” that Naiad book from the early eighties. Including an advance fake copy with blank pages that was used to show on tv when the Sally Jessy Raphael show did an interview with the editors.

lesbian nuns

Aren’t you glad someone’s keeping track of all this stuff? I am.

59 Responses to “from the archives”

  1. Cate says:

    That’s so cool, Alison.

    I wonder what happened to my copy of the book about the lesbian nuns….

  2. dna says:

    I am curious; does anyone have any LGBT history type books they could recommend? Iโ€™ve been trying to find some for a while. Any help is appreciated. (Also books with photos.)


  3. yelena says:

    dna: i think one classic history book is “hidden from history: reclaiming the gay and lesbian past”. it has essays on different times and places from ancient greece to postwar san francisco. some of the articles, like the one on russia, still contain information that’s not well known – very few historians of russia work on lgbt history. another fun one is “gay new york” by george chauncey, who is one of the editors of “hidden from history.” he did a lot of oral histories with gay men about the gay culture of new york before stonewall. turns out there was a lot more stuff going on than we thought. i don’t know if people have anything more up to date, but those are good places to start.

    also, if anyone specifically knows about russian-related materials, i’d be curious to hear reviews. i recently read “cracks in the iron closet,” a travel memoir of russia by a gay american reporter in the early 1990s and was quite impressed with his sensitivity to the cultural differences in russian lbgt (if that’s even an appropriate term) life.

  4. Cate says:

    Also, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, by Lillian Faderman. And I THINK — though I may be wrong — that she and her partner were the first to be married in the San Francisco Newsom marriage blitz?

  5. Quatre says:

    That’s awesome! Mad props and much thanks to Jean Tretter. Now I want to visit Minnesota…

    Hm… DTWOF needs a “do you mind ‘male things’ ” gag in it somewhere…

  6. Deena in OR says:

    Quatrefoil Library is another wonderful GLBTQ resource if you live in the Twin Cities area. It’s housed in a community center in St. Paul that used to be a school. I remember it well because the building was also my polling place for years. Here’s the link.

  7. chaia says:

    Ooh! I have a copy of that Lesbian Nuns book, too.

  8. April says:

    Cate, I believe you’re thinking of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, authors of “Lesbian/Woman”.
    Glad to know I’m not the only person in this world with a yen for archiving. I can’t help going to old book fairs and buying up every old LGBT related book in sight. Sometimes I feel bad that I’m depriving some questioning young thing of these wonderful pieces, but I just love the feeling of preserving the words of old queers until the end of time. Sigh.

  9. bronislava says:

    lesbian nuns! everyone has that book – i’m writing my hons thesis on ‘catholic nuns & sexuality’ and its surprising who’ll mention it to me…

  10. bronislava says:

    if you’re interested in lgbti history outside the US, i know of some cool stuff in australia. in fact there was a tops doco about it which featured all my favourite queer australian historians – i almost exploded with nerdy excitement ๐Ÿ™‚

    some names – gary wotherspoon, ruth ford, clive moore, robert french, david hilliard (who wrote a great article about campness and the high anglican church, aka the episcopalians for you); roberta perkins for trans stuff…

    *sighs happily*

  11. April says:

    bronislava, what was the doco called? i’d be very keen to get it.

  12. Rick says:

    Look, it’s Harry Potter! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I love archives. They always look impossibly messy–but they’re fantastic.

  13. Moni3 says:

    April is correct – Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were first to be married in San Francisco. Faderman lives in Southern California.

    Marcia Gallo published an excellent history of the Daughters of Bilitis titled “Different Daughters” – not to be confused with the coming out book of the same title. Martin Meeker wrote an interesting history of pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian organizations called “Contacts Desired”. Martin Duberman wrote “Before Stonewall”, and there are a few books (Vern Bullough, Paul Cain, Eric Marcus edited three that I read) about individual players in gay and lesbian activism back when the day was the day. And Jonathan Katz did an extraordinary job in 1974 of recording gay and lesbian history from the 1800s to the early 1970s.

    The San Francisco Public Library has an enormous collection of LGBT items, as does the New York Public Library, and Cornell University. I had no idea the University of Minnesota was also keeping track of stuff. There are privately funded archives such as ONE, Inc. and the Stonewall Archives.

  14. Ginjoint says:

    Wow, does he have the Ark of the Covenant stashed in there too?

    And – “Do you mind male things?” How sweet and genteel of him to ask!

  15. Hey, yeah, Gallo’s “Different Daughters” was a great book! All kinds of fascinating details and recollections about D.O.B’s inception.

  16. Miss T says:

    Fascinating. The U has so many mysterious, hidden archives that nobody ever hears about.

  17. tas says:

    Awesome. That’s all I can say.

  18. Liza Cowan says:

    Yelena, try Queer In Russia by Laurie Essig, Duke University Press. Essig and David Tuller, who wrote Cracks In The Iron Closet, were doing research in Russia at the same time and were great pals.

  19. exnyc says:

    Underground archives! I used to work in the Methodist Archives at my college, where the meeting minutes from the annual meetings of regional conferences of the Methodist Church (back to 18whatever) were stored. Important stuff, carefully filed away 100 feet underground. Not an exciting job, except for the security measures. The building had these awesome steel shutters on all the doors and windows, which in case of fire would slam down and pump out all the oxygen in the building. Campus rumor had it that one only had 30 seconds to escape, so my incredibly boring job had at least one little scrap of danger cred. No penis scribes, although there was a room full of old missionary plunder, masks and spears and such. I don’t know if the Methodist Church was archiving anything queer…

  20. Em says:

    Oh my… you really shouldn’t have compared it to the Hall of Prophecies because all day long I will have the mental image in my head of Death Eaters demanding “Hand over the schlong!” and I will be fighting back the powerful urge to giggle like a madwoman.

  21. Kate L says:

    Lesbian Nuns? I thought that nuns were above the temptations of the flesh! Wow. In high school, I took my first earth science class from a nun. I wanted to be just like her. Perhaps I am! : )

  22. DeLandDeLakes says:

    I am beyond bummed that I missed you when you were at the Humphrey, Allison (or, as I like to call it, the Humphdy-Hump), but I’m glad you had fun in our archives!

  23. Lara F-S says:

    Delurking to say I saw you at the Humphrey Center (I asked you to sign the page of Fun Home that has the drawing of your dream where you are running through the trees, trying to get your dad to look at the sun, which is just on the horizon), but didn’t realize you were in my building earlier the same day. I work in the U of M Archives and Special Collections (YMCA Archives), two floors above the Tretter Collection. Glad you enjoyed the visit. The caverns are pretty nifty and the Tretter Collection is amazing. Glad you enjoyed the visit!

  24. Aunt Soozie says:

    Way cool.
    I wonder about the significance of a scribe with a giant schlong??
    The Venus of Willendorf for boys? Keeping a written archive of his progeny?
    Had that Lesbian Nuns book too but dunno where it is now.
    That’s back when I wanted to edit my own collection of short autobiographical stories entitled,
    “Eat my Cookies – Lesbian Girl Scouts:Breaking Silence”
    Of course, I missed that boat and someone else ultimately edited that collection. (But it wasn’t so aptly named as mine would have been.)
    I went to a conference in Jersey City around the turn of the century, well, maybe in the eighties and there was a woman there who had started the Lesbian Herstory Archives.. something like that? She had a booth and was educating folks about her mission.

  25. Virginia Burton says:

    Holy cow! 4000 years old, but circumcised? Yikes! Done with a stone tool? My brain is reeling!

  26. The Cat Pimp says:

    People have been vicious and strange to their children ever since before we were people.

    Anyhoo, chiming in to say that I also have a copy of Lesbian nuns. I had to hide it because some women have gasped and criticised at the very title. I had to explain that I knew several lesbian nuns and reading/having the book was helpful in confirming my feelings about who those women were and validating an argument I had with my dad years ago. He insisted I respect them because “they gave up so much”. He said that meaningfully, and I got that he thought they were giving up men. I looked him square in the eye and said, “They’re not giving up a thing.” I was pretty much right in that regard and the book proved it to me. So there. Neener.

  27. Sivkoburko says:

    Yelena, Laurie Essig’s “Queer in Russia” is (IMHO) a much better read than “Cracks in the Iron Closet”, which had me cringing a lot of the time.

    Do you know Kevin Moss’ page? The link’s in case you don’t, or in case anyone else is interested.

    Assuming you’re a Russian-speaker/-reader, you might be interested in Vladimir Kirsanov’s collection of biographies of Russian LGBT people “69 – Russkie gej, lesbiyanki, biseksualki i transgendery” and the continuation “+31”, which I’ll be ordering via’s shop shortly. Shipping can take a while, but it arrives eventually ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. garlicpesto says:

    That “someone” who founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives is Joan Nestle. I won’t attempt to insert a link, but it’s easy to find her website. She’s also a fine thinker and writer. Surely y’all remember her first book, “A Restricted Country”? And how she worked so hard to counter the rejection by the 70s lesbian feminists of the 50s butches and fems?

    Joan is one of the courageous, pioneering lesbians who inspires my gratitude. The work of women like Joan Nestle, Alix Dobkin, and Alison changes the landscape and makes it that much easier for those who follow.

  29. Librarian Paul says:

    Aunt Soozie — just as the Venus of W. was probably a model of an adult woman, not a girl, I suspect that the phallus in the picture doesn’t represent the phallus of a boy, or “for boys” — in fact it looks like an adult male phallus to me.

    Hey all, THANKS for the tip on Joan Nestle’s website. How exciting. “Restricted Country” was the most revolutionary GLBT book I discovered as an undergrad, and rereading it recently, I was freshly stunned by it.

    I’m glad Joan is up to so much now. We asked her to speak at our university some time in the ’90s but she was sick. I felt like I was missing part of our history. So great to connect to writers and other folks through their blogs.

    Which, thinking as a librarian, if the blogs are properly archived, what a contribution they’re making to recording our history, given that written correspondence is essentially dead, and capturing e-mail correspondence is such a challenge.

  30. Bigtime Lurker says:

    Some classics on LGBT history in general would include works by Estelle Freeman, John D’Emilio, Jonathan Ned Katz, Martin Duberman, George Chauncey. Notice how many men were in that list (which is not to say their stuff isn’t worth reading).

    Two good specifically lesbian history books:

    “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community” by Elizabth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis — a history of Buffalo’s butch-femme community, 1940s-60s.

    “The House That Jill Built: A Lesbian Nation in Formation”
    by Becki Ross — lesbian community organizing in Toronto in the 1960s and 70s.

  31. Bigtime Lurker says:

    Oh and anything by Joan Nestle. She defines US lesbian history.

  32. SB says:

    Yes, the Cornell archive has a great collectionโ€”on a lunchtime tour there I saw some really cool photographs, particularly: an album maintained by a very old-timey small-town lesbian couple and also some wild photographs of a gay wedding held in someone’s basement rec room in the fifties or early sixties. Huge collection of pulp novels, too!

  33. Andrew B says:

    Alison, the picture of you giving the thumbs up in front of those stacks and stacks of material cracked me up. Given what you’ve said about your own propensity to save personal archives, you must have been in nerd heaven.

    I am trying to figure out if there’s some deeper meaning behind comparing an archive of the past to a “Hall of Prophecies”, though. I’m handicapped by knowing very little about Harry Trainspotter.

    The schmuck scribe suggests to me that some sculptor 4000 years ago intuitively grasped the relation between writing and masturbation. Slightly more seriously, I think (have not checked this, so take it for what you think it’s worth) that early writing often comprised harvest records, to make sure the local ruler was getting his “fair” share. If I’m right about that, there is a sort of queasy relation between fertility and power involved in early writing. It might well be represented by a phallus.

    Is there anything particularly queer about that sculpture, though? Seriously, if anybody thinks that’s an interesting question I’d be interested in what you think about it. Of course Mr. Tretter can collect anything he pleases. I just don’t see what’s queer (or gay) about the sculpture.

    Well, if we could just store the past in perfect order deep in the bowels of the earth, we would understand the future and all our anxieties would vanish. Yep. I’m sure that’s how it works.

  34. Aunt Soozie says:

    I wondered the same thing. Maybe it was just donated to the archive by a queer who had it in a personal collection of favorite artifacts.
    Librarian Paul… Oh, boy! Thanks for the lesson in proper terminology – we don’t get much of that around here. Right, girls? Bois? Trannyfags? Wimmin? Oy vay. Lurking is nice, I like it.

  35. rds733 says:

    Neil Miller published an interesting book just recently entitled “Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.” And if you’re interested in the history of portrayals of homosexuality in cinema (which I am), Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” is naturally a good place to start.

  36. ready2agitate says:

    Sorry but the schmuck scribe looks like the pearl rabbit/dolphin/etc. vibrator, no?

    Nice response, Aunt Soozie :).

  37. oceans 111 says:

    Er, wouldn’t that be a schlong scribe?

  38. ready2agitate says:

    I think schmuck in Yiddish literally means, um, schlong. But in colloquial English (US, at least) it has come to mean a real jerk of a person (like, um, a real “dick”). So I went with schmuck scribe in a nod to that usage.

    Oy, see what you started, Alison? ; – )

  39. April says:

    Yes, eerily reminiscent of the pearl rabbit.
    I imagine the reason it’s in a queer archive is simply its aesthetic and symbolic value. It may not seem particularly queer, but it’s valued in an archive of the queer, and may not be so valued elsewhere.
    I suppose my parallel would be a Judy Chicago work. It may not be lesbian qua lesbian, but to me it has essential lesbian value. Not that I’d stick it in the Department of Mysteries, it would live in my lounge room (or dining room as the case may be)!

  40. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, April and moni3, for correcting me on the marriage thing — I thought I might be misremembering but was rushing off and couldn’t google…

  41. w says:

    welcome to the historians world.

  42. bcgal says:

    dna, if you’re looking for a scholarly approach, try John Boswell’s Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality : gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century. Or his Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe. The first volume of Lillian Faderman’s history, Surpassing the Love of Men, is I think better than Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, which someone mentioned above.

    Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History was a groundbreaking work. If you want some theory with your history, try Jeffrey Weeks. And the novelist Emma Donoghue has a brilliant book called Passions between women : British lesbian culture, 1668-1801, which looks at both history and cultural representations of lesbians. Her novel Life Mask covers some of the same ground.

  43. Em says:

    See, my first instinct about the “schlong scribe” is that even before the advent of novelty gift shops, people still gave each other wacky penis-themed gag gifts. Makes me wonder how the kitsch of today will be interpreted by the scholars 4000 years from now…

  44. ready2agitate says:

    I like thinking about how the various D2WO4 characters would have handled Jean’s inquiry after white-gloving them — e.g. Lois, Mo, Clarice, Sparrow, Stuart (!), Samia, Carlos, Janis?…. Fun.

    What a great compendium of queer history sources/resources, that archive and this blog. AB asks, aren’t you glad someone’s keeping track of this stuff? Yes, Yes, and Yes again.

    And wonderful to hear Joan Nestle’s name again after many years.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Yes,a clever,copious collection of incidental information,buried deep below the hallowed ground of the Univ.of Minn.Seems considered the San Francisco of the midwest.

    Wonder if there’s any mention of Jack Baker,the first out student body president,well,anywhere (1971).My cousin Paul,an occasional reader of DTWOF,provided the photographs for his winning campaign.

  46. bette says:

    Duberman and all the above mentioned authors are great historians, but don’t you forget about:

    Sarah Schulmann: My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan/Bush Years. New York, Routledge, 1994.

    Margret Cruikshank: The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. Revolutionary Thought/Radical Movements Series, New York, Routledge, 1992.

    Apart from Odd Girls, also: Lilian Faderman: To Believe in Women. What Lesbians Have Done for America-A History. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

    Sherrie A. Inness: The Lesbian Menace. Ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life. Amherst, UMP, 1997

    Ellen Lewin: Inventin Lesbian Cultures in America. Boston, Beacon, 1996.

    Liz Gibbs (ed.): Daring to Dissent: Lesbian Culture from Margin to Mainstream. London, Cassell, 1994

    Elaine Miller: All the Rage. Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism. London, The Women’s Press, 1996

    Martha Vicinius: Lesbian Subjects. A Feminist Studies Reader. Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1996.

    and the feminist lesbian Classics Theory and (auto-)biographical writing: Audre Lorde (Zami), Adrienne Rich (Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Continuum)

    well, there IS much more, leave a note, if interested in anything particular.

  47. QKelly says:

    I wonder if they’d let me be buried in this place? As the proud owner of over 5,000 books, including every lesbian study and novel I can get my hands on (even all those cheesy Naiad romances from the ’80s, and a beautiful, dust-jacketed first edition of Jeannette Foster’s “Sex Variant Women in Literature,” and, of course, “Lesbian Nuns”), I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather spend eternity. Except maybe the L of C Rare Book Room.

    (Just bought “Different Daughters” at Oscar Wilde when I was in NYC a couple weeks ago; looking forward to it.)

  48. Feminista says:

    Anonymous,Virginia Woolf wrote,was often a woman. And I am the woman who accidentally posted Anon. above.

    Maybe it’s time for our animal friends to compose some cliff-hanging prose. Doggeral by dogs dishing dirt? Clever cartoons by Maggie’s cat Dinah?

  49. pd says:

    Phallic symbolism was a big part of ancient Egyptian culture as well as language. The god Min was always depicted with a large erection. There are even a few hieroglyph symbols that leave nothing to the imagination. A very earthy people, the Kamut.

  50. Riotllama says:

    shlong, shmuck, shmecky, putz… supposedly yiddish has more words for penis than any other language.

    Is anyone else on this blog on Goodreads?

    If you don’t know, it’s a social networking site in which you review and catalog books you have read (or are currently reading, or wish to read). I like finding new books to read through it, and I enjoy watching certain books make their way through my circle of friends.

    I’m hereby inviting all of you to be my friend on Goodreads.

  51. Metal Prophet says:

    Exnyc, did you happen to go to Drew University? I graduated there in 2002.

  52. lunchmaker says:

    DNA: if you’re looking for books with photos, Gay by the Bay and Becoming Visible are two excellent books with history, but mostly a ton of images. Also, Nan Boyd’s Wide-Open Town (about SF) is very good and has a lot of images as well.

  53. Olivier says:

    Speaking of archives, Alison, have you decided which institution will eventually be graced with the small mountain of artifacts you must have produced over the years? Apologies if this is somehow an inappropriate question.

  54. Ginjoint says:

    Riotllama, that seems like a site I could get lost in for hours. In a good way.

  55. Auntchovie says:

    Love lesbian nuns.

  56. bronislava says:

    april, i believe it’s the hidden history of homosexual australia (there’s a great picture of ‘passing’ women at that link!)

    sorry for taking a while, i forget to check back here after posting something ๐Ÿ™‚

  57. Grrreta says:

    I love the photo of you in the archives. You look friggin hilarious.

  58. dna says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions