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Reed Erickson (1998)

Reed Erickson (1998)

©2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1998). Reed Erickson. Transgender Forum.







Reed Erickson

By Dallas Denny


Reed Erickson was an important figure in the history of transsexualism. It’s unfortunate he was almost forgotten, for he did more for transsexual people than anyone else, with the possible exception of Christine Jorgensen and Dr. Harry Benjamin. His story, although obscured by time and his history of protecting his privacy, is a fascinating one that was almost lost but is slowly emerging through the historical research of Dr. Aaron Devor, a sociologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Here’s what I know about Reed; some I already knew, but I learned most of what follows from Aaron.

Reed Erickson was an FTM who transitioned back in the bad old days, the early 1960s. He came from a wealthy family and inherited a lead smelting and recycling business, which he ran for a while and then sold for several million dollars. He bought land which contained petroleum, increasing his fortune. Reed also owned a business making seats for stadiums.

Reed’s money allowed him not only to look into his own gender issue, but gave him the financial resources to develop resources for himself and others. Reed was deeply interested in transsexualism, and more importantly, transsexuals. He was also fascinated by homosexuality, UFOs, parapsychology, altered states of consciousness, spirituality, and branches of the healing sciences which are respected today but which were ridiculed at the time. He paid for the first translation into English of any book on acupuncture, opening the doors to the current-day U.S. acceptance and popularity of this ancient healing art. He also funded the first edition of The Course in Miracles and John Lilly’s early research on dolphin communication.

But it was transsexualism and homosexuality that were the primary targets for Reed’s philanthropy. What he did for transsexualism was nothing short of amazing. First, he gave money to the Harry Benjamin Foundation, subsidizing a small group of researchers who met at Dr. Benjamin’s offices in New York City. He also provided funded for the lab of Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University and the Hopkins gender program, the first in the United States. Aaron notes it’s unclear how much money Reed provided and how essential he was to the operation of the Hopkins program, but he has been able to verify Reed’s involvement.

Reed also funded the groundbreaking textbook by Richard Green and Money, Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, which provided a method of sex reassignment to fit the theory put forth by Harry Benjamin in his 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon, which defined the “syndrome” of transsexualism. Reed also funded other important early books on gender identity.

Reed sponsored the first several conferences of the physicians, psychologists, and researchers who were working on transsexualism; out of this grew the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA, today known as The World Professional Association for Transgender Health), and its Standards of Care.

Reed’s philanthropy was channeled through the Erickson Education Foundation, which was headquartered in Baton Rouge, LA and which had an office in New York City and from time-to-time other small offices scattered through the U.S. The late Dr. Zelda Suplee was the Foundation’s most well-known director.

The Erickson Foundation did more than provide seed money for professionals who worked with transsexuals; it was the world’s primary source of information on transsexualism and gave referrals to the desperate transsexuals of the day. The Foundation published several booklets and flyers, including Guidelines for Transsexuals, Religious Aspects of Transsexualism, and Transsexualism: Information for the Family, copies of which can still be found today.

When Reed’s attention eventually turned away from transsexualism, he closed the Erickson Foundation. Alice Webb, who will be installed this month as President of HBIGDA, remembers helping Zelda Suplee burn the papers and correspondence of the Foundation, a tragic loss of historical information. Aaron notes that the Erickson Foundation re-opened for a while in the 1980s, but was less involved with transsexualism in that incarnation.

The Erickson Foundation’s mission to educate the world about transsexualism and educate the world’s transsexuals about themselves was passed on to psychologist Paul Walker, who founded the Janus Information Facility in Galveston, Texas. Paul provided referrals and distributed new editions of the Erickson literature until he came out as a gay man and moved to San Francisco, where he died in 1991 of AIDS.

When he closed Janus, Paul passed the torch to Joanna Clark and Jude Patton, who are themselves transsexual. Using their initials as the basis for the name, they formed J2CP and continued the work Erickson started. Eventually Jude moved to Oregon and began practicing as a therapist, leaving J2CP to Joanna.

Incidentally, both Jude and Joanna are themselves icons in the history of transsexualism. Jude was one of the first visible FTMs in the United States and served on the Board of Directors of HBIGDA in the early 1980s. Joanna, who was a decorated combat helicopter pilot in Viet Nam, rejoined the Army after her sex reassignment and is still the only known person to have officially served in the armed services as both a man and a woman.

Joanna later became a nun and changed her name to Sister Mary Elizabeth. When she made a trip to Arkansas to look after some cows she had inherited, she discovered many HIV-positive men and women in the rural areas of that state, cut off from information and support. She founded AEGIS, an AIDS information service, about the same time and probably a little before I founded another AEGIS, which happened to be a transsexual information service. At the IFGE conference in Houston in 1991, Sister Mary Elizabeth passed the Erickson Foundation torch to me. I carried that torch for eight years, retiring it only because I could find no one foolish enough to take it from me. Sister Mary Elizabeth continues to run her AEGIS, which has grown to be the primary source for AIDS information in the world.

But back to Reed.

Even before he began his work with transsexualism, Reed provided funding for ONE, Inc., a California-based homophile organization. ONE was an information clearinghouse for homosexuality in those pre-Stonewall days, and is still in existence. Reed supported ONE for nearly 20 years. He bought land for the ONE Institute in what is today a multi-million dollar lot in downtown Los Angeles. Eventually, ONE and Reed had a falling out, and the ownership of the L.A. property came into question: did it belong to Reed, or had he given it to ONE? The dispute intensified when Reed became non compos mentis and his heirs became involved.

What do we know of Reed himself? Not a lot, but Aaron is still researching his life. We know he died in 1992. We know he had several wives who survived him and who are still alive. We also know that for all he did for transsexualism, he was no one-dimensional hero, but rather a living human being with the usual number of associated warts. Dr. Vern Bullough once told me of a time when Dr. John Money and Zelda Suplee had to make a trip to Mazatlan, Mexico to pay a ransom for Reed, who was in the hands of desperados who had more or less kidnapped him. We also know that, not surprisingly in light of his arcane interests and of the times, Reed used psychoactive drugs, especially cocaine and ketamine, sometimes heavily.

It’s sad Reed didn’t leave us an autobiography, but his legacy is nonetheless a great one, for without the seeds he sowed, transsexualism wouldn’t be what it is today.