Who was Reed Erickson?

Liz Highleyman | January 29,2007

Reed Erickson

Though not well known today, female-to-male philanthropist Reed Erickson provided funding for one of the first U.S. gay organizations and some of the earliest services for transgender people.

Erickson, originally named Rita, was born October 13, 1917, in El Paso, Texas. Erickson grew up in Philadelphia, attending the Philadelphia High School for Girls and taking secretarial courses at Temple University. In the 1930s, the family moved to Baton Rouge, La., and in 1946 Erickson became the first woman to graduate from Louisiana State University with a degree in mechanical engineering.

After completing school, Erickson returned to Philadelphia, living in a butch/femme lesbian relationship and working as an engineer. There, Erickson came under FBI surveillance due to involvement with progressive causes and leftist groups. In the early 1950s, Erickson returned to Baton Rouge, worked in the family lead-smelting business, and started a company manufacturing stadium bleachers. Upon her father's death in 1962, Erickson inherited the family businesses.

The following year, Erickson adopted the name "Reed" and began the process of gender transition under the care of pioneering psychotherapist Dr. Harry Benjamin. After a legal sex change, Erickson married a woman (the first of three wives) and became the father of two children.

In 1964, Erickson started a nonprofit philanthropic organization, the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF). With the proceeds from the sale of his family's companies plus various other business ventures, he amassed a fortune estimated at $40 million. He provided funding for the Los Angeles-based ONE Institute (founded in 1952), one of the first U.S. homophile organizations. Much of ONE's educational work fell under the auspices of a new nonprofit created by Erickson, the Institute for the Study of Human Resources (ISHR).

The EEF was also a primary source of funding for transgender organizations and projects during the 1960s and 1970s. Erickson supported the work of Dr. John Money, who co-founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, where the first sex-reassignment surgeries in the United States were performed in the mid-1960s. The foundation provided funds for some of the earliest services for transsexuals, maintained a referral network of counselors, published educational materials, and sponsored several international conferences on gender identity.

Erickson led an adventurous life and enjoyed traveling and collecting art. For many years, he lived in a sumptuous villa in Matazlan, Mexico, with his family and his pet leopard, Henry, before moving to Southern California. Beyond sexuality and gender issues, he also funded research on homeopathy and acupuncture, dreams and altered states of consciousness, and John Lilly's work on interspecies communication with dolphins.

By the late 1970s, however, Erickson had become addicted to drugs. As his behavior grew increasingly erratic, he severed ties with many of his former beneficiaries, and his relationship with the founders of the ONE Institute became increasingly contentious. After a series of drug-related arrests – and disabled by bladder cancer – Erickson fled to Mexico, where he died in January 1992.

"When Erickson began the EEF, transsexualism was little known to either professionals or the public," says sociology professor Aaron Devor, and his contribution to the study and understanding of transsexual people is "incalculable." And, thanks to the ISHR's prudent fiscal management, "the proceeds of Erickson's philanthropy quietly continue to fund gay and lesbian research almost forty years after he saw the need for this support and offered his wealth and his expertise to provide it."

For further reading:

  • Devor, Aaron, and Nicholas Matte. 2004. "ONE Inc. and Reed Erickson: The Uneasy Collaboration of Gay and Trans Activism, 1964-2003." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. 2004. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Harvard University Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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