It’s been a transformative year for the LGBT community. I live in a place that is one of the last holdouts for trying to “keep things the way they have always been”. Most people in my sleepy, river town don’t know this place has a rainbow-hued history with historical significance to the transgendered world.
There’s just one degree of separation in Baton Rouge. If you meet someone who grew up here, you can always find a connection. My connection to this story is through my sweetie, Steve. Steve and his late wife bought a house with a storied past. In the 60’s there was a woman, Rita, from an affluent family, who went to Sweden and became Reed. Reed Erickson and his beautiful Swedish nurse fell in love, got married and moved back to Baton Rouge, Reed’s hometown.
It was the home Reed, his wife and their adopted child lived in, that my sweetie bought decades later. As Steve renovated this home, its history came alive. Nowhere more so than when he turned the Erickson’s room for their pet into his office. It was a large room because it was a large pet…it was a pet leopard. That’s right, a leopard, whose name was Henry. Henry was well known in the neighborhood and Henry sometimes wandered away from home, as cats are prone to do. While Henry never hurt anyone, the thoughtful Erickson’s kept their neighbors refrigerators stocked with steaks. The steaks were for Henry, so if he wandered into the neighbor’s yard, they just had to throw a steak over the fence and Henry would leap over and go back home.
Other neighborhood stories included the knowledge that the beautiful Swedish wife as also a bit of the nudist. Apparently the presence of a leopard did nothing to deter this being a popular home to make deliveries to.
Reed Erickson went on to set up the Erickson Education Foundation which helped the transgender community during a time when they had few allies and little resources. The house in this older Baton Rouge neighborhood, with it’s stately oaks that form a shady canopy over the streets, became a safe home for trans people to quietly begin their transformation into a new life.
This story was an open Baton Rouge secret for years. Steve said that even though it had been years since the Erickson’s lived in the house, mail would occasionally come to the family that was long gone. Out of curiosity, Steve once opened a letter and found its contents so heartbreakingly sad that he never opened another.
That unassuming, ranch-style home has had a few more owners since Steve lived there. I hope it is still filled with hopeful dreams of a good life. I celebrate that the LGBT community does not have to live in secret any more. I also celebrate the fact that I don’t live next door to a leopard.
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