Feature image of Reed Erickson courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
When we look at resistance history, we have a tendency to focus on the most public-facing activities. We envision demonstrations numbering in the hundreds or thousands taking over entire buildings, blocking highways and train stations, and preventing boats from leaving their ports. We think of organizers vandalizing the homes or corporate offices of people and corporations responsible for some of the most terrible atrocities we’ve ever witnessed. Or we remember moments where organizers took over radio and television stations or the stages where politicians were speaking.
I see why we do that — they’re flashy, they’re impressive, they make us feel less lonely, and their coverage in the media has the power to get other people thinking about the issues at hand. But this leaves out a lot of other resistance strategies and a lot of people who work to improve our society.
I’m always thinking about resistance that happens behind the scenes, the things people do to create material change without putting themselves or their work in the spotlight. When I’m digging through archives and researching online, I’m on the look-out for people who challenged the norms of our society and created pathways for other people to do the same — even in ways we wouldn’t normally classify as resistance.
I don’t know if Reed Erickson would think of himself as being among an assemblage of people who did this kind of work. After all, his legacy is quite complicated and he was an extremely private person who evaded most attempts at public attention for his contributions. But when I think about people who had the power (and money) to do something and then did, I think of Erickson and all he accomplished.
Reed Erickson grew up in a middle class suburb in north Philadelphia where his engineer father owned a lucrative lead smelting business. When Erickson graduated from college in 1940, his father moved the business to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Erickson followed to attend Louisiana State University’s school of mechanical engineering. While going to school and working in the family business in Baton Rouge, Erickson met a female partner (her name has been withheld from all archival documentation at the family’s request) who he was with prior to his medical transition in the early 1960s. From there, he and his partner moved back to Philadelphia.
Erickson didn’t start working towards trans liberation until he was middle-aged, but his early adult life was peppered with involvement with progressive politics and left-leaning political inclinations. In 1948, he and his partner campaigned for Henry Wallce of the Progressive Party, they hosted Paul Robeson — yes, Paul Robeson — at their home in Philadelphia, and Erickson was even fired from his engineering job for refusing to fire his secretary on the grounds that she was a suspected member of the Communist Party. Erickson’s father died in 1962 and left the family business to Erickson, which he managed to expand and run successfully for a number of years.
I can’t be certain that his father’s death is what gave him the freedom to seek medical transition but it certainly seems that way from the sequence of events. In 1963, Erickson sought the help of Dr. Harry Benjamin who had a track record of treating people with hormonal replacement therapy for what would later become known as gender dysphoria. According to sociologist Aaron H. Devor, Erickson had his name legally changed in Louisiana in 1963 (Devor says it was a legal first for the state to change a name due to a “sex change”) and then underwent gender affirming surgeries in 1965. Although he originally sought treatment from Benjamin for himself, it was their relationship that precipitated a different dream for Erickson.
I want to be clear: this is a very abbreviated account. The truth is, Reed Erickson lived an incredibly rich life that was also marked by drug problems, divorces, protracted legal battles, and a very public falling out with ONE, Inc., the legendary gay rights organization that Erickson helped fund for much of its early existence. In addition to that, some of Erickson’s early work was done in conjunction with not just Benjamin, but also Dr. John Money, whose work many people (especially trans people) regard as terribly misguided at best and violent and dangerous at worst.
I don’t think the less flattering parts of Erickson’s life should be ignored just because he was able to accomplish so much in a time period when there was so little care and support for trans people. In the 1960s, the field of gender identity research was extremely limited, particularly in the U.S. There weren’t a lot of doctors, like Benjamin and Money, who were willing to take the risk of addressing “transsexualism.” In fact, it was this absence of available treatment and ongoing research in the field of gender identity that pushed Erickson to use his money — and the power bequeathed to him as a result of having said money — to do something about it.
Once Erickson’s treatment was “complete,” he didn’t just turn around and continue living his life. He used his newfound sense of whatever he was feeling — I imagine something close to freedom — to make sure other trans people could feel the same way. In 1964, Erickson founded the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF), a philanthropic organization that was established to fund projects, institutions, and research to help trans people get the gender affirming care and treatment they needed. Through the EEF, Erickson funded the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (HBIGDA) — now called the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) — and helped subsidize the opening of the Johns Hopkins University Gender Identity Clinic.
The EEF also funded years of the annual International Symposium on Gender Identity, an event that helped gather together doctors from all over the world to discuss their medical research and advancements in the treatments of “transsexual” patients. Through their work at the symposium, the HBIGDA became the first medical organization in the U.S. to develop standards of care for transgender people: the Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders. The Standards of Care became a living document that has been amended year after year as new research and new clinical practices in the treatment of trans people evolve.
Beyond the contributions to the medical care that trans people received then and now, the EEF also provided mental health support and aid to trans people seeking help in understanding themselves. The EEF published and distributed newsletters and publications to trans people who needed information on gender affirming care and support in discovering the possibility of trans life. They also kept an in-person office with a phone line, both of which were open to anyone who needed support and wanted to call-in or stop by to get it.
Of course, Reed Erickson was in a unique position to do this work that most trans people are not. Through the inheritance of his father’s business, his growth of that business, and his sale of it, Erickson was able to amass a small fortune that is wholly inaccessible to most of us. And any good organizer knows that philanthropy technically doesn’t change the material conditions of the people it’s intended to help. In most cases, I think that’s absolutely true.
However, when I examine Erickson’s contributions, it feels much more complicated than that. Erickson wasn’t technically an organizer and the EEF wasn’t necessarily started as a political organization working towards the liberation of trans people. In fact, the mission of the EEF 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.” From this vantage point, it seems like Erickson’s work with Benjamin (and Money and many others at the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic) wasn’t just about providing critical care to trans people but also to push the boundaries of what people understood as “normal.”
This reality is most closely reflected in who was able to take advantage of the foundation’s support and Benjamin’s and the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic’s treatment. Although it’s estimated that Benjamin treated more than 1,500 trans patients over the course of his career, the majority of the people who could both afford to make the trip to Benjamin’s clinic and take advantage of treatment options were middle to upper class white trans people who exhibited Benjamin’s very narrow and specific set of symptoms for “gender identity disorder.” The EEF’s funding didn’t help alleviate this lack of access for other trans people, and Erickson stayed incredibly rich until his death in 1992.
But even with those limitations Reed Erickson’s contributions were significant to the material conditions of trans people’s lives. It’s important to recognize the fact that gender affirming care almost always guarantees happier and more fulfilling lives for trans people. While it’s true that any real liberation movement would address and attempt to solve the problems I’ve noted, it’s also true that the creation and existence of the institutions he funded made it possible for many other people to receive treatment. The advancements in these treatments and care for trans people that came out of the institutions he personally bankrolled have been improved upon as the years have gone by, and that wouldn’t have been possible if they never existed in the first place. And even though trans healthcare is still not as accessible as it absolutely should be, Erickson’s funding of this essential research helped the field grow and move forward toward a more substantial level of accessibility. It took a lot of courage and a lot of tact — and, sure, the privilege granted to him through his class position — to not only live publicly as a trans man in the 1960s and 1970s, but to provide medical institutions with the funding necessary to give others the same opportunity.
When we think of resistance, we don’t often think of it this way. But even as a person who thinks immense wealth is a crime against humanity, I can’t deny that Reed Erickson used his class position and the power that came with it to actually affect vital and lasting change.
This doesn’t absolve Erickson’s wealth hoarding, but I do wonder if it can serve as an example for what’s possible in our current moment of legalized anti-trans violence. Challenging the legal discrimination and exclusion of trans people in public and in the courts is, no doubt, an essential part of the fight for our lives and our ability to live them. But I wonder if sometimes we forget the fact that many of us have to live our lives — and figure out how to afford therapy, gender affirming care, etc. — regardless of what happens with the law. There are many organizations working to provide critical mental health support to trans people around the country who desperately need it, yet the anti-trans violence keeps coming. And the more extreme the violence gets, the more I find myself wishing we had a network of care and relief that could not only provide mental health support to trans people experiencing the effects of these laws but could also help us make the material changes needed to improve the conditions of our lives overall. A lot of people might roll their eyes at the idea of the redistribution of wealth and a lot of people probably feel overwhelmed at the thought of movement building, but if one guy could change the trajectory of trans history simply by throwing a bunch of money at the lack of trans healthcare in this country, I think we could pull together — especially those of us from privileged and powerful class positions — to work towards the same.
At a time when gender affirming care wasn’t just unusual but was also illegal in some places, Erickson and the EEF were able to pull the resources together to create a pathway to both help create the very first standards of trans healthcare and help provide that treatment to many people who needed it. Right now, we’re standing at the crux of a historic moment where many people are faced with the same decision as Erickson. Do you make the choice to resist and figure out how to create the conditions necessary to get people the care they need? Or do you use your privilege and power to shield yourself from the more damning effects of the anti-trans violence we’re all experiencing?
I’m not saying we need another Reed Erickson, but I do think we can use the lessons we’ve learned from him and the Erickson Educational Foundation to conceive of a more liberatory path forward, a path even he couldn’t imagine.
This piece is part of our 2023 Trans Awareness Week coverage. Our Senior Editor, Drew Burnett Gregory, felt like cis people were plenty aware of trans people in 2023 thank you very much, so this week trans writers will be taking us back into recent history — specially post-Stonewall (1970) to pre-Tipping Point (2013).