Trans Figures in History Pt. 3: Reed Erickson
After a much needed mini hiatus from writing, I am back with my third installment of Trans People in history. Don’t forget to go back and read the other installments to this series and tell your friends! Sign up for notifications when I make new posts as well. Enjoy!
If you look at the lives of queer people in the 20th century, the lives they led were ones that were constantly hanging in the balance. You were one wrong move away from loosing everything. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time or having the wrong person find out the truth about you could leave you ostracized, impoverished, without family, hurt, or dead. You had little to no government protection and the road to becoming yourself and accepting yourself was treacherous (if you ever got to the point of accepting yourself at all). Walking that fine line between your truth and utter ruin led many queer people to hide.
For trans people of this time you were without many friends, support, or a platform on which to advocate for yourself. Even those within the queer community were reluctant to help or saw the trans community as a blemish that would ruin things for everyone else. To be quite honest, their understanding of gender identity and expression was just as primitive as everyone else's during that time. To be openly trans and proud was a dangerous endeavor and you didn’t always have the resources to survive or have your voice truly heard. Trans people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, though outspoken in their demand for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community and outspoken in their involvement in the gay rights movement, found themselves rejected, unsupported, and even hated. How do you survive when the world is against you in every aspect?
Like Christine Jorgensen, Reed Erickson was dealt an unbelievably lucky hand in life. He was an out and accepted trans man. Not only was he able to lead a full life but he did it with millions of dollars at his disposal (a built-up fortune of $40 Million to be exact). Reed Erickson was born on October 13, 1917 in El Paso, Texas. He was born into a wealthy family where his father was a successful
businessman who owned multiple companies. Though he was born in Texas he grew up in Philadelphia. He attended an all girls school in Philadelphia and then attended Temple University for a short time before the family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he attended Louisiana State University and was the first woman to receive a degree in engineering from that institution.
Also, like Christine, Reed proved that it was not a troubled childhood or mental illness that led to claiming a queer identity. During his youth in Philadelphia, Erickson enjoyed a slew of lesbian relationships and even joined a group of lesbian women which he became very close to and kept a connection with long after he left Philadelphia. His closest lesbian relationship was formed while living in Baton Rouge, where he met a woman who would become his partner of many years and influence him to become involved in left politics civil libertarian movements. It is documented that they attracted the attention of the FBI because of their association with certain people like Henry Wallace and Paul Robeson, and their connection to the Communist Party.
In 1962, after his father’s death, Reed Erickson took over his father's smelting business and around that same year started his transition to becoming male. He approached well known endocrinologist Dr. Harry Benjamin to oversee his transition. Dr. Benjamin would use the work that he did with Erickson (some work that was also funded by Erickson as well) to write his most famous piece of literature The Transsexual Phenomenon (1964), which would become one of the basis for the study of transgender people and gender identity. Dr. Benjamin himself would become well known for developing the standards of healthcare for trans people because of his overseeing of Erickson’s transition and would receive up to $100,000 ($775,000 in today’s money) in funding from Erickson for his research for his book. It's also important to note that he worked with and was one of the doctors who oversaw the transition of Christine Jorgensen about 10 years prior. You can read about her in my previous entry!
Erickson funded these philanthropic endeavors not just for his benefit but also for the benefit of other queer people across the country. This led him to start the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF) in 1964. Its mission was “to provide assistance and support in areas where human potential was limited by adverse physical, mental or social conditions, or where the scope of research was too new, controversial or imaginative to receive traditionally oriented support.” Their goal
wasn’t just to provide help to the LGBTQ community, but to the world as a whole.
With the help of Erickson’s funding, Dr. Harry Benjamin would develop the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care and create the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA) which is known today as the World Professional Organization for Transgender Health (WPATH). The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care would be deemed the standard of care for trans health. Through this Benjamin made transgender health into a legitimate study. WPATH still exists today and serves the transgender and wider queer community. Erickson funded things like the first gender clinic at Johns Hopkins University, counseling for transsexual and transgender individuals, quarterly newsletters, educational pamphlets, books and even John Lily’s dolphin communication research (there is actually an episode of Drunk History about this). Zelda Suplee would be named the leader of the EEF and was best known for owning many nudist colonies and was credited as the first full frontal nude shot for Playboy Magazine.
The biggest achievement of Erickson and the EEF is the funding of one of the biggest organizations in the gay liberation movement, ONE Inc. ONE Inc. was founded in Los Angeles, California in 1952 by Dorr Legg and various others and by the 1960s had very serious financial troubles and was in dire need of funding. They were in jeopardy of losing their headquarters in LA. In 1964, Erickson met with Dorr Legg after seeing an ad they had placed asking for funding help and he agreed to fund them through the EEF. Through the EEF, ONE Inc. was able to set up a tax-exempt charitable division called the Institute for the Study of Human Resources (ISHR) where Erickson served as president until 1977. His second wife with whom he had two children with (one via IVF and one by adoption), Aileen Ashford, was also one of the directors of the
organization and Dr. Harry Benjamin sat on the board of trustees. He would later have a falling out with ONE Inc. ending in a legal battle between he and Dorr Legg, starting in 1983, over the use of the $1.9 Million Milbank Estate which served as the organization’s headquarters. The case would not be settled until after his death by his daughter Monica.
Aside from his philanthropy, Erickson was also known to have had a rather eccentric personal life, owning multiple properties, exotic pets (his pet leopard Henry), marrying a total of four times (he was known to be quite the lady’s man), fathering two children and towards the end of his life suffering from drug addiction. He married his first wife Daisy Harriman Lewis in 1963 and after a year of marriage they divorced. In 1965 he married his second wife, Aileen Ashford and they lived in Mazatlan, Mexico where they lived in a mansion he called the Love Joy Palace. They had two children, Monica and Seth. In 1974, Reed began to experiment with drugs (mostly ketamine and cocaine) which then turned into an addiction. His drug addiction caused his marriage to Aileen to end in 1974. He married for a third time to Evangelina Trujillo Narkis (Eva) in 1977. Together, they moved to Southern California to be closer to his children. His marriage to Eva dissolved between 1983 and 1985. Fleeing drug charges, he moved back to and married a fourth and final time to Maria Luisa de Celis Contreras in 1987. With his health continuing to fail he passed away in 1992 at the age of 75.
Reed Erickson left behind an extraordinary legacy of philanthropy that he, from behind the scenes, used to support not just the Gay Rights Movement but the queer movement as a whole. So much research that was funded by him helped shape transgender healthcare and helped American society better understand that the queer community consisted of people who were just like everyone else and deserved to be treated as such. The fact that he was able to exist unapologetically in the 20th century was most definitely a feat in itself (with his wealth being a huge part of that acceptance according to some sources). It amazes me that he has been hidden in queer history considering his contribution to one of the biggest gay organizations in the Gay Liberation Movement, but it has been an amazing and eye-opening discovery none the less. I believe that he had been gifted the means to live freely by birth and simply wanted to give other trans people the ability to do the same. Don’t forget to click on the many links I’ve put throughout the article to get more information!