Reed Erickson was born in El Paso, Texas, on October 13, 1917. Initially named Rita Alma Erickson, Erickson was born female-bodied. Erickson spent most of his early life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After graduating high school, Erickson attended Temple University. Erickson moved with his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resulting in a transfer to Louisiana State University. Erickson moved back to Philadelphia after graduating from Louisiana State University with a degree in mechanical engineering. In the early 1950s, Erickson returned to Baton Rouge, working in his family's business before starting his own company making stadium seating, Southern Seating. In 1962, Erickson's father passed away, leaving him the family business, which he successfully ran until 1969 when he sold it for 5 million dollars.
Erickson began his transgender transition under the care of sex realignment surgery pioneer, Dr. Harry Benjamin, in 1963. Once his physical appearance matched his identity, he changed his name to Reed and began fully living his life as a male. His transition was completed in 1965. In this period of transition, he married and divorced his first wife. Later that year, Erickson met and married his second wife. The couple lived in Baton Rouge, where they had two children. During this period, Erickson had started to experiment with recreational drugs. Over time, Erickson's substance abuse of hallucinogenic drugs and cocaine increased, causing strain in his life and relationships. In 1974, Erickson and his second wife divorced. Shortly after his second divorce, Erickson met his third wife. In 1981, he moved to Ojai, California, to be closer to his children and second wife. By 1983, after a series of arrests, Erickson fled to Mexico to escape drug-related indictments, and he remained there for the rest of his life.
Despite a difficult personal life, Erickson successfully managed his investments and became a major philanthropist. In 1964, Erickson founded the Erickson Educational Foundation (EEF), a charitable foundation primarily created to support research and services in transgenderism, gender identity and sexual diversity. Throughout the late-1960s and 1970s, Erickson donated money to various organizations including the Harry Benjamin Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, and ONE, Incorporated. Shortly after his initial donation to ONE, Erickson aided the establishment of a charitable sector of ONE, called the Institute for the Study of Human Resources (ISHR), which advocated for the advancement of homosexual research. In establishing ISHR as a nonprofit funding organization--and through the help of Erickson and EEF--ONE was able to start and maintain research study programs, a library, gay and lesbian studies courses and lecture series. This led to ONE becoming a California state-accredited institution in 1981, providing graduate-level education in gay and lesbian studies. The first homophile studies degrees were given in 1982, and the ONE Institute of Graduate Studies presented Erickson with an honorary doctoral degree that same year.
In 1983, Erickson's relationship with ONE, Inc. began to dissolve due to a dispute over the real estate property known as the Milbank Estate. The Milbank Estate was purchased by Erickson and used as headquarters for ONE, Inc. However, by 1984, Erickson had ceased funding and was pressing to remove ONE from the estate. In 1986, ONE no longer possessed authorization to provide degrees, but continued to conduct homophile classes, publish its newsletter, and maintain its library and lecture series. The Milbank property was divided, but the terms of the legal dispute were not resolved until after Erickson's death in 1992.
Erickson died in Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1992.
Devor, Aaron H., and Nicholas Matte. “One, Inc. and Reed Erickson: The Uneasy Collaboration of Gay and Trans Activism, 1964-2003.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10.2 (2004): 179-209.
Reed L. Erickson Papers, Coll2010-001, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles, California