Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

New exhibit showcases letters that LGBTQ+ community used to connect from 1950s to today

A collection of letters and mail
“Dear Community: Mail, Correspondence and Postal Activism in LGBTQ History” is on display now. The exhibit incorporates love letters, personal ads, mail order catalogs and reader-written periodicals from the 1950s through today.
Courtesy Tretter Collection

When was the last time you sent a letter? Maybe to a kid away at camp? Or a long-term pen pal?

Most of us don’t use letters as a main form of communication with loved ones anymore. But curators at the University of Minnesota library found that throughout the 20th century, letters were an integral tool for community building for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Before the internet and before it was widely safe to be out, LGBTQ+ people used the discrete art of letter writing to find each other, connect and support each other. A curator from the Tretter Collection of LGBTQ history put together letters in an exhibit to demonstrate how vital letter-writing is.

It’s called “Dear Community: Mail, Correspondence and Postal Activism in LGBTQ History.” Curator Aiden Bettine joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

A reception for the exhibit will be held April 9.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Well, let me ask you this, when was the last time you sent a letter, an actual, honest to goodness letter? You wrote it out, maybe, I don't know, to a kid away at camp? Did you ever have a long-term pen pal? Most of us don't use letters as a main form of communication anymore with a loved one.

But curators at the University of Minnesota library found that throughout the 20th century, letters were an integral tool for community building for members of the LGBTQ community. Before the internet and before it was widely safe to be out, LGBTQ people used the discreet art of letter writing to find each other, to connect, and support each other.

A curator from the Tretter collection of LGBTQ history put together letters and an exhibit to demonstrate how vital letter writing is. It's called Dear Community, Mail Correspondence and Postal Activism in LGBTQ history. The curator is Aiden Battine. And Aiden's with us right now. Good to hear your voice, Aiden. Thank you.

AIDEN BETTINE: Thank you so much for having me.

CATHY WURZER: This is fascinating, absolutely fascinating. What was the spark that gave you the idea to curate this exhibit?

AIDEN BETTINE: Yeah, honestly, there's kind of two things I can trace. One is my own kind of love of mail and sending mail, making mail, writing letters. I'm really a big postal fanatic, I suppose, in some of my own hobbies.

And then the other is that Jean-Nickolaus Tertter, our namesake and founder of the collection, was also a very avid stamp collector on top of collecting a lot of LGBTQ historical material that eventually ended up being the bulk of our collection at the University of Minnesota in the 2000s. And so I think for the love of Jean and for the love of mail, this was a very fun exhibit for me to do as my first one here as the newer curator of the collection since 2022.

CATHY WURZER: As I say, I knew Jean. And I didn't know-- well, I didn't know that he was a stamp collector. And I bet as you went through and started to curate, I bet you came up with some amazing letters. Any themes that you-- that you hit on that you saw?

AIDEN BETTINE: Well, yeah, I think the big themes are really connection and visibility people writing to each other because they found out that there was a gay and lesbian-- gay or lesbian publication in the 1950s or '60s. Or they saw someone come out, or be on television, or in the news. And so a lot of community members around the country were writing to each other, writing to famous, or at least more boldly out, LGBTQ folks historically throughout the '70s forward during gay liberation.

And so I think a big thread is connection. No matter where you are, no matter whether or not any LGBTQ folks in your community, in your hometown, in the city that you live in, you could find somebody and connect either through a magazine or a publication on one hand, or by writing to someone who you saw in the news.

CATHY WURZER: I bet the letters were very intimate and sometimes and quite vulnerable.

AIDEN BETTINE: Oh, definitely, and this was a harder challenge to actually curate this exhibit after I had pitched the idea just because we have an abundance of letters. And it's like, how do you pick which love letters to represent the collection? Which political letters? Which forms of admiration and connection? There's almost too many letters to pick from. And it definitely took a long time to really land on what taste you get of the collection in the exhibit.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned politics. I understand you have letters to Senator Allan Spear, Senator Spear was the first out senator in the state of Minnesota. Would you mind-- could you read a little bit of one of those letters for us?

AIDEN BETTINE: Yeah, so he actually came out on December 9th of 1974. And so he received a lot of letters in response to his public outing and being a really early first out gay politician in the state of Minnesota. But this actually got not just state level or national representation, it got international representation.

So one of the letters that I want to share actually comes from Germany. And so it was written December 23, 1974. And the letter writer writes dear Senator Spear, enclosed is a page from the December 23 issue of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. I thought you might be interested to see how widespread report of your account has been.

Your public coming out deserves the heartiest congratulations. It was a courageous and ultimately reasonable act. I had the pleasure of speaking with you briefly last summer at a GCS fundraiser and was deeply impressed with the seriousness of your commitment to gay rights. I wish you much success in these years-- in this year's legislative session, through your efforts and the efforts of many dedicated gay and straight people in Minnesota. Public declarations such as yours will hopefully soon be taken for granted, much less make the international news waves, sincerely yours, Richard.

So here we have this just incredible moment, where someone's sent along a news clipping with a letter in German saying, look, you've made this international headline. Thank you for your work.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, I bet he was really pleased by that. I'm wondering the oldest-- the oldest letter that you've come across?

AIDEN BETTINE: The oldest letter, we definitely have some letters I can think of in the 1950s that are very coded, discreet love letters between people. I have a few in the love letter case that are just kind of very mundane. And you have to read between the lines to realize that there's a love connection in the letter.

It was a bit discreet and secretive. And in one instance of the correspondence I'm thinking of, they actually use-- the writer uses a woman's name, kind of like a Dear Abby approach, I think, to veil the gender identity of two men writing to each other. And so there's a lot of subtle hints and suggestions at kind of queerness or interactions in some of the earlier mail that we have in the collection.

CATHY WURZER: What do you want folks who come to the exhibit-- what do you want them to take away? What do you want them to be thinking about as they view these letters?

AIDEN BETTINE: Yeah, I think I really want folks to take away that sense of connection and that people could find each other even in historical moments when we maybe can't imagine a very public LGBTQ life. Particularly pre-gay liberation, but even through the 1970s and the gay liberation movement, the ways that the postal service really did facilitate community building and visibility for LGBTQ folks around the country.

And I think the exhibit also gives the backdrop that this was really hard won, to be able to write to each other openly, to be able to publish magazines because of the history of mailing and obscenity laws at the federal level. The or the 1873 Comstock Acts from Congress that criminalized information in the mail actually really blockaded some of the earliest LGBTQ publications that were sent completely by mail.

They were mail order. You couldn't get them online. There was no internet yet. And so we see a lot of censorship in the 1950s and 1960s that is targeted through the postal service and through postal inspectors opening mail, and outing people, and reporting them to their employers. And so it's really fascinating to see this shift over time the way that the postal service affords community building and connection on one hand, but people really have to overcome and be very kind of sly about how they're sending mail in this particular era.

And I think the kind of last case in my mind from the exhibit, because it's the last one that I set all the items in, is postcards and postage stamps. And when you think about those, they're completely visible. Nothing's hidden in a postcard. There's no envelope. So I think it even changed for me as someone who's a certainly a fan of the USPS, or at least of mail as a medium, really was empowering to see, oh, we've had to come through so much as a community to be visible in this way, to send a postcard without shame, to slap a Harvey Milk stamp on an envelope, for example. That's a really hard won piece of history that you just don't see until you put this all together in an exhibit.

CATHY WURZER: Well, you did a good job. Thanks, Aiden for talking about it.

AIDEN BETTINE: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Aiden Bettine's been with us, curator of the exhibit Dear Community, Mail, Correspondence, and Postal Activism in LGBTQ History. It's open now at the University of Minnesota's Andersen Library. ? By the way, there's a reception for the exhibit next week. You can go to that if you'd like, Tuesday, April the 9th.

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