Reed Erickson by Ada Bello
In 1950 George William Jorgensen Jr., a troubled ex-GI, left the United States bound for Europe. On February 13, 1953, Christine Jorgenson returned, a glamorous blonde in full female regalia. “I am in marvelous spirits,” she declared, basking in her celebrity. The New York Post headline announced: “Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty!” Although not the first transgender individual, Jorgensen introduced the American public to the concepts of gender identity and the possibilities of gender reassignment.
In reality, such ideas had been the subject of scientific study and experimentation for many years, first in Europe and later in the United States.
In 1913 Dr. Harry Benjamin, a German physician interested in sexology at a time when such a specialty did not exist, visited this country in a professional capacity. In 1914, while returning to Germany in a British ship, the trip was interrupted mid-Atlantic by the declaration of war between England and Germany. Given the choice of continuing on to England where, as a German citizen, he would have become an enemy alien and therefore confined to an internment camp for the rest of the war, or returning to New York, he chose the latter and was to live in the United States for the rest of his life.
In Germany, Benjamin had explored his interest in the study of sex and gender while in medical school, sometimes in the company of Magnus Hirschfield, the noted gender researcher and defender of sexual minorities, using the fertile grounds of the Berlin underworld. Benjamin started his work in the U.S. as a general practitioner but continued to expand his contacts with endocrinologists and, eventually, sexologists, establishing a solid scientific reputation. In 1948 he was approached by Alfred Kinsey for a consultation regarding a young patient who, although having been born a girl, manifested a strong desire to be a boy. After treatment with hormones Benjamin referred her to a specialist in Germany for reassignment surgery; such a procedure would have been illegal and considered unethical by many physicians in the U.S. Dr. Benjamin became an expert in the gender identity field. His book, The Transsexual Phenomenon, published in 1966, was the first lengthy discussion of the subject and, at the time, considered an influential and well regarded accomplishment.
In 1963 Reed Erickson, a wealthy industrialist from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, came to Benjamin for sex reassignment surgery after successful completion of preliminary hormonal treatment and related procedures. That association was to eventually result in the creation of the Erickson Educational Foundation which, through education and generous funding of counseling services and gender clinics, was to transform gender reassignment into an accepted procedure.
Reed Erickson, the force behind this development had, through different periods of his life, a close association with Philadelphia.
Reed was [assigned female and] named Rita Alma Erickson at birth in El Paso, Texas, on October 13, 1917; she was one of two daughters of a German-born father, Robert E. Erickson, and his American Jewish wife, Ruth Herzstein, by then a practicing Christian Scientist. Mr. Erickson was an ambitious businessman with a good knowledge of engineering. The family moved to Philadelphia when Rita was quite young, taking residence in the Olney section of the city. She attended Wagner Junior High and later the Philadelphia High School for Girls at its former Spring Garden Street location.
During her adolescent years she had lesbian relationships with fellow students and other friends, becoming part of a group of women with whom she was to remain in contact long after moving away from Philadelphia. Her friends called her Eric and continued to do so even when Reed became her legal name. Unlike some other sex reassignment subjects, Erickson seemed to have found her lesbian phase reasonably satisfactory and never tried to disassociate himself from that part of his life.
After Rita graduated from Temple University in 1940, her family moved south again, this time to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Mr. Erickson had relocated his lead smelting operation, the Schuylkill Products Corporation. Lead was used at the time in the manufacture of car and airplane fuels as an aid to combustion; proximity to his main clients, the Baton Rouge oil refineries, made obvious sense. In Baton Rouge, Rita worked in her father’s business and attended Louisiana State University. She graduated in 1946 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, the first issued by that university to a female.
While in Baton Rouge Rita met and started a relationship with a woman who was to be a significant influence in her life. (Her identity is withheld at the family’s request.) Born and raised in New York’s Lower East Side, K was temporarily in Louisiana working at an Army clinic. A first generation American from Russian Jewish parents, she had inherited a tradition of progressive social and political activism; the relationship made Rita aware of issues of injustice and discrimination that led to her involvement in left politics and civil libertarian movements.
After graduation Rita and K moved back to Philadelphia, re-establishing Rita’s relationship with old friends and meeting new ones who had joined the almost exclusively lesbian group. This circle of mostly professional women were deep in the closet but enjoyed a busy social life among themselves. There were private parties and a country retreat nearby where the group often repaired for the weekend, taking advantage of the isolation of the site to drop their masks and be their own selves.
Additionally Rita and K were active in some of the political issues of the day. According to the glbtq Online Archives, in 1954 Rita had refused to become an FBI informant. They both had worked in the 1948 Henry Wallace campaign when he ran for President as the candidate of the Progressive Party. The couple also hosted the already blacklisted Paul Robeson when he performed in Philadelphia. Such behavior soon attracted the attention of the FBI. K’s file, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in the 1980s, describes several moments that occurred during the surveillance of the couple, like the frustrating interrogations of uncooperative friends and neighbors or the taking of surreptitious pictures of K as she went about her daily errands. It seems that K had been erroneously identified as the wife of an important Communist Party figure and that, combined with their political leanings, kept the government on their trail until they left the country.
During that period Rita had been working at a prestigious Philadelphia scientific institution. But when she was asked by the institution’s administration to fire her secretary because they had discovered she had been a member of the Communist Party in her native Germany, Rita refused and, to break the impasse, both were fired.
In such a climate, Rita found it impossible to get another engineering position in the city and the couple moved back to Baton Rouge; after a short stay there they left the country and lived in Mexico for almost two years. By the early 1950s, they were back in Baton Rouge where Rita re-integrated herself into the family business and started one of her own, the Southern Seating Corporation that fabricated bleachers and grandstands. She was now on her way to becoming a millionaire. Although Rita and K had ceased to be a couple, K continued to be a friend and valued advisor, a role she retained for many years.
After Rita’s father retired and moved to Mexico, she assumed full responsibility for Schuylkill Products Corporation. By the late 1950’s she had started to use male attire when away from home.
A New Life as Reed
In 1962, following her father’s death, Rita initiated the process of becoming Reed. After the preliminary hormone treatment and related surgical procedures, Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was not a surgeon, referred Erickson to a qualified doctor, who then performed the sex reassignment operation in 1963. It was one of the first female to male sex reassignments done in this country.
Reed Erickson was now extremely wealthy and highly pleased by the transformation into a remarkably young-looking male. He married for the first time and, through his newly created Erickson Educational Foundation, started his philanthropic work on transgender and gay issues.
During this period Reed, while maintaining Baton Rouge as his main residence, kept an apartment in New York City to serve as a pied-à-terre for his frequent trips north. He also took advantage of the proximity to keep in touch with some of his old Philadelphia connections. The group had not changed its determination to remain in the shadows and, as a result, his visits were received with a certain ambivalence. For Reed, by contrast, there was no problem: he saw himself as a male, looked like a man, and expected to be accepted as such. His fondness for risk-taking and what today would be called “gender bending” resulted in some entertaining episodes. On one occasion Reed expressed his desire to visit the older sister of one of the group’s members who was hospitalized with what all knew was a terminal illness. This woman, although straight and apparently unaware of the common link among the group, had played a motherly role to its members and was universally revered. Undeterred by the potential consequences, Reed marched into her hospital room accompanied by the young woman he had recently married, introducing himself as Rita’s nephew. The ruse was a complete success; the patient accepted Reed as his own nephew, even commenting on his youthful looks (“almost too young to be married”) and resemblance to his “Aunt Rita”. At the time, Reed was in his late forties.
Given the limitations prevailing at the time, not all of Reed’s daring plans were successful. He attempted to establish a scholarship at his old high school, Girl’s High, and, for that purpose, approached an old teacher with whom he had remained in contact, asking her to be the grant administrator. Things went smoothly until Reed revealed the one unwritten qualification: the recipient must be a lesbian. That judgment was to be the responsibility of the administrator. Confronted with such a demand and the certainty of future legal challenges, his former teacher declined and the scholarship was never established.
While today it is easy to find risible the intense paranoia of the Philadelphia lesbian group, it should be seen in the light of the circumstances that existed in mid-twenty century America. The McCarthy purges targeted, beside communists, homosexuals. These women had witnessed the impact that “deviant” political or sexual behavior had had on some of their friends and their families. Homosexuality as well as leftist ideas could ruin your career and your life by making you into a pariah; in the case of sexual deviation, there was the added opprobrium of sickness and immorality. Considering such consequences, it is hardly surprising these women insisted in hiding behind a curtain of secrecy and dissimulations. Reed seems to have accepted their behavior with some puzzlement combined with reluctant understanding.
The Erickson Educational Foundation, by now, occupied most of Reed’s time, although his personal life remained active. After divorcing his first wife, Reed met a New Zealander in London who in 1965 became his second wife. They were to have two children, a girl by artificial insemination and a boy by adoption.
In Baton Rouge they moved into a grand new house where the couple’s pet leopard, Henry, enjoyed luxurious quarters and played with their pet cats. Reed sometimes took walks in the neighborhood accompanied by Henry, to the consternation of the neighbors. Some of them contacted the police. However, Baton Rouge prohibitions covered only chickens, pigs, and other barnyard animals – no mention of leopards.
In 1973 Reed, his family, and Henry, moved to Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had built a palatial estate with ample grounds and many amenities. Conceived as a space for spiritual retreat and meditation, he informally called it the “Love Joy Palace Ashram”. Unfortunately, his use of illegal drugs and hallucinogenics, which had started while still in Baton Rouge, got worse in Mexico. This habit, which might have had its origin in the experimental projects he sponsored out of his quest for new experiences or plain gullibility, was to imperil his life’s work and probably hasten his death.
His drug induced behavior caused his second wife to file for divorce in 1974. The couple remained on amicable terms in Mazatlan, until his ex-wife moved to Ojai, California, with the children in 1979. Reed had already married his third wife, a Mexican woman, in 1977, but his by now uncontrollable drug use caused that marriage to fail also.
By 1981, missing his children, Reed had followed them to Ojai. At this point he was in trouble with the law and with drug traffickers on both sides of the border. His health had seriously deteriorated. He died in 1992 at the age of 74. However, Reed Erickson’s main legacy, the accomplishments of the Erickson Educational Foundation, will endure.
The Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF)
It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of the impact of the EEF in bringing the question of gender identity to the forefront, where it could be discussed on scientific, humanitarian and educational terms. Its influence has been without equal in this country and even internationally.
In little more than 10 years the Foundation allocated millions of dollars to organizations, projects, and individuals in order to realize its stated goals: “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.” This declaration of purposes and barriers encapsulates Erickson’s life experiences in which the status quo and a conventional vision often presented obstacles to his aspirations. He now had the power conferred by position and wealth, and he wanted to use it to convince the world of the value of understanding differences, accepting individual choices, and helping those needing assistance to reach their dreams. As the Foundation’s sole voting member, all funding depended on his decisions, a situation that eventually caused dissension within the organization. He was an astute businessman who had grown his inheritance into a multi-million dollar fortune. He remained convinced of the rightness of his actions to the end, when health problems and drug use clouded his mind. And by then no one could protect him from himself.
Foundation funds benefited homophile organizations and New Age projects, but its largest investment went into addressing gender identity issues.
Supporting Homophile Organizations – ONE Inc.
At a time when transgender people and homosexuals were eyeing each other with mutual distrust, the EEF supported ONE, Inc., the gay organization founded in Los Angeles in 1952 by Dorr Legg and others. By the early 60’s ONE was running into serious financial difficulties; in 1964 the EEF came to its rescue by answering a request for assistance. The assistance proffered was not limited to monetary help; it also included valuable organizational advice. As a result ONE created the Institute for the Study of Human Resources (ISHR), a non-profit arm that could receive tax-exempt contributions. The new funds provided by the EEF through ISRH made it possible for ONE to go back to its educational mission, like the publication of “An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality”, the culmination of more than twenty years of research and, at the time, the first such source of information available. Many other educational efforts followed, while at the same time ONE was able to continue its advocacy work on legal and political issues. By 1981 ONE was accredited by the State of California to grant graduate degrees in homophile studies.
In 1983 the Foundation bought, for well over a million dollars, a vast Los Angeles estate, and ONE moved its offices, library, and archives to the new location. Unfortunately, that sweet dream turned sour almost immediately. Erickson failed to transfer the deed of ownership to the organization, as ONE claimed had been promised. That started a lengthy litigation between ONE and the EEF, and subsequently with Erickson’s heirs, that continued until 1993, one year after his death. The eventual settlement awarded half the value of the property to ISHR, with the other half going to the Erickson family. With the proceeds of the sale of the ISHR share, although financially exhausted by legal fees and lack of funding, ONE was able to survive, finding a new home at the University of Southern California.
New Age and Spirituality
Erickson’s curiosity about unusual ideas and alternative healing methods was well known to his friends so it was not surprising that research in that realm was included in his philanthropy. By the 1970s, thanks to the highly effective support of the Foundation, the subject of transsexualism had made inroads into enough medical and educational institutions that they no longer depended exclusively on EEF support. Now he could increase the help offered to the type of project “where the scope of research was too new, controversial or imaginative to receive traditionally oriented support”. One of the first was the publication of “A Course in Miracles.” Even today, that book is still considered an essential text in spiritual literature; it has been translated into many languages and continues to be in print. Some of the projects (flying saucers, a vaccine against pollution) were too esoteric and impractical to develop into a useful application; however, time had validated many of the others as visionary explorations of ideas that had turned out to be valuable and well worth the investment. Among them were early studies on acupuncture, drug and non-drug induced altered states of consciousness, homeopathy, and dolphin communication systems.
Transsexualism and transgenderism
But, as mentioned before, the main area on which the Foundation concentrated its energy and resources was in the field of gender dysphoria. At the time of the EEF’s founding in 1964, surgery and other procedures associated with sex reassignment were almost nonexistent in this country; many physicians considered all the treatments unethical since they were not the result of what, in their estimation, was a valid diagnosis. Those who could went abroad; those who could not were condemned to live marginalized lives of secrecy and isolation, rejected by family and society. They were often the victims of physical abuse which went unreported since in many localities wearing a certain number of articles of attire of the opposite sex was illegal. Erickson himself was the victim of one such attack during the time he was cross-dressing. Having gender identity problems was considered an even more serious pathology than homosexuality, which was not removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973. Individuals claiming opposite gender identity could be committed to psychiatric institutions with the approval of their physicians, their family, and their religious advisors. The impact of this stigmatization resulted in drug and alcohol addiction, sickness, and depression, often culminating in suicide. No helping services or educational resources existed. It took until 2013, in the DSM-5, for transgender to be omitted from the list of mental disorders, and instead be classified as a gender dysphoria, which refers to the emotional stress caused by gender identity conflicts.
Aaron H. Devor of the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada, (where the most complete archival materials on Reed Erickson and the EEF reside) and Nicholas Matte, University of Toronto, in their article “Building a Better World for Trans People” [International Journal of Trangenderism, Vol. 10 (1) 2007] aptly divide the EEF work on transsexualism into three areas: (1) Support and Referrals, (2) Advocacy and Education, and (3) Research and Professional Development.
Support and Referrals
The Foundation did pioneering work in this area. Their Baton Rouge and New York City offices (many more were to open later throughout the country) offered individual support and counseling. Zelda Suplee, who was the EEF Director for its entire duration, personally attended to some of these cries for help, but the majority of them were handled by the Baton Rouge office, by phone or by mail. Erickson himself did direct counseling by correspondence. The Foundation also provided information packets listing resources and access to a network of services, social contacts, and referrals to trans-positive physicians and clergy.
In Philadelphia, Dr. Harold Lief, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Sexual Studies, played an important role in expanding the reach of the Foundation by helping it to establish links to the other 56 medical schools with Sexual Studies programs.
Advocacy and Education
Recognizing that the lack of information on and awareness of trans people was at the root of the social alienation that plagued that population, the Foundation organized a veritable blitz of speaking engagements by well informed specialists and transsexuals themselves at colleges, professional meetings, church gatherings, and social groups. “I’m Something Else,” a film produced with Foundation money, was widely used in many of these presentations.
The Foundation published a newsletter as well as a number of pamphlets on specific issues: “Legal Aspects of Transsexualism and Information in Administrative Procedures”, “An Outline of Medical Management of the Transsexual” and other relevant subjects. These pamphlets, written in plain and clear language, were an invaluable source of information for trans people, educators, law officers, clergy, and anyone interested in the subject. In great demand, they were reprinted many times.
The traditional media--radio, television, newspapers and magazines--was another channel that the Foundation used in its educational outreach. Articles published in popular magazines like Good Housekeeping (“My Daughter Changed Sex”) and LOOK (“The Transsexuals: Male or Female”) introduced the public at large to a controversial subject in non-threatening terms. After such articles appeared, the Foundation was inundated by mail requests for information and referrals. Zelda Suplee often took part in the radio and television programs; she became the EEF’s voice and face. Transsexualism ceased to be a secret.
Research and Professional Development
Immediately after its creation the EEF started awarding grants to individuals and institutions interested in pursuing research on transsexualism and services for those seeking gender re-asignment. Among recipients were the Harry Benjamin Foundation and Johns Hopkins University for the establishment of the first Gender Identity Clinic under the expert guidance of psychologist John Money and colleagues. Grants were also given for non-medical research, like those awarded to sexuality historian Vern Bullough, criminologist Marie Mehl, and sociologist Harold Christenson. Even the American Civil Liberties Union was included in Erickson’s philanthropy: they received a small grant for their Sexual Privacy Project. For the first time centers of higher learning, researchers, and medical institutions were given the critical resources needed to investigate that neglected aspect of human sexuality, gender dysphoria, thus gaining the necessary knowledge to provide the services for the required psychological, physiological, and anatomical transformation.
The three International Symposia on Gender Identity that the EEF sponsored or co-sponsored in 1969 (London, England), 1971 (Elsinore, Denmark) and 1973 (Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia), no doubt constituted the pinnacle of its international achievements, allowing experts in different disciplines and from several nations to come together and exchange ideas on new techniques and treatments.
It was at the opening of the 4th of these reunions, in Palo Alto, California in 1975, that the painful news of the dissolution of the EEF was announced. These biennial meetings were to continue under the aegis of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA).
Erickson made an attempt to revive the EEF in 1983, while living in California. He provided funding for a newsletter for HBIGDA. Only one issue was published. After its demise some of the functions of the Foundation were taken over by the Janus Information Services and subsequently, in 1986, by the J2CP Gender Dysphoria Clearing House and Referral Services in San Francisco.
Many who worked for the Foundation shared Reed Erickson’s enthusiasm and dedication. Its Director, Zelda Suplee, as well as others, went through heroic gestures in their respective capacities to make it successful and, at the end, to keep it viable for as long as it was possible. Today gender reassignment is recognized as a valid medical procedure that can bring happiness to individuals who, otherwise, would have been condemned to live tortured, incomplete lives.
The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, Canada, the world’s largest, are under the Academic Directorship of Sociology Professor Dr. Aaron Devor. I have consulted them as well as Dr. Devor’s website http://web.uvic.ca/~ahdevor/ extensively in preparation for this article.
Anton, Barry S. (2009). Proceedings of the American Psychological Association for the Legislative Year 2008
Bullough et al. editors An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality, 2 vols New York, Garland, 1976.
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Devor, Aaron and Matte, Nicholas, “ONE INC. and Reed Erickson – The Uneasy Collaboration of Gays and Trans Activism 1961-2003,” GLQ a Journal of Lesbians and Gay Studies 10.2 179-209
Devor, Aaron. “Reed Erickson and The Erickson Educational Foundation,”
Devor, Aaron (writing as Holly Devor). "Reed Erickson (1912-1992): How One Transsexed Man Supported ONE." In Vern Bullough (ed). Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Haworth. 2002.
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Ada Bello met Reed Erickson when she was completing undergraduate work in chemistry at Louisiana State University in the late 50’s. She had transferred to LSU following the closure of the University of Havana, Cuba by Fulgencio Batista at the end of his dictatorship. Bello moved to Philadelphia in the early 60’s and came to know the group of lesbian women who were friends of Rita/Reed Erickson and K. Bello was an early homophile activist and participated in the final Annual Reminder Demonstration on July 4th, 1969, shortly after becoming a citizen of the United States. She is a past Co-Chair of the Board of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Philadelphia and currently serves on the Board of the LGBT Elder Initiative.
Guess Who's Granma it is...
The Erickson family yacht, the Granma, named after Robert Erickson’s mother, was sold through a broker after his retirement to Mexico. The buyers were none other than Fidel Castro and his band of intrepid revolutionaries, who used the vessel to sail to Cuba and start the revolution. Today “Granma” is the name of the government’s official newspaper and the Granma rests, encased in glass, in front of Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, a landmark in Cuban History and a foot note to Reed Erickson’s story.