Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Pioneering activist Betty Berzon dies


Betty Berzon
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

Betty Berzon, pioneering gay rights activist, psychotherapist, and bestselling author died of cancer at the age of 78 in her Studio City home on Wednesday, January 24. At her side was Terry DeCrescenzo, her beloved partner of 33 years.

Ms. Berzon was born in St. Louis on January 18, 1928. To alleviate Ms. Berzon's asthma, the family moved in 1941 to Tucson, where as a reporter for her high school paper, she scored an exclusive interview with Eleanor Roosevelt. Later, living in the dorms at Stanford University, Ms. Berzon struggled with her attraction to women, which she recounted in her Lambda Literary Award-winning memoir, Surviving Madness: A Therapist's Own Story (2002). She moved to Greenwich Village, and worked at the legendary Gotham Book Mart. Moving to Los Angeles in 1950, she opened her own bookshop, Berzon Books, where she hosted readings by luminaries as Anais Nin and Edith Sitwell. After the business failed, she suffered a severe depression, aggravated by her inability to accept her sexual orientation, which sent her to a psychiatric hospital. A year later she had become a student in the same facility. In 1952 she studied with famed psychologist Evelyn Hooker, with whom she developed a series of encounter groups for gays and lesbians, called The Quest for Love. Earning a bachelor's degree at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1957, Ms. Berzon became the first employee of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, working with giants of humanistic psychology Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. During this period Ms. Berzon earned a master's degree in 1962 from San Diego State University. After many years of internal struggle, she finally embraced her lesbian identity.

In 1971, during a UCLA conference called "The Homosexual in America," Ms. Berzon became the first psychotherapist in the country to publicly declare herself a gay mental health professional. In 1973, Ms. Berzon met DeCrescenzo, both of whom were among the eight founding members of the Western Gay Academic Union in 1976. Ms. Berzon later became president of the national Gay Academic Union. DeCrescenzo founded Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, of which Ms. Berzon was a founding board member. Ms. Berzon also served on the boards of National Gay Rights Advocates, the first public interest law firm to focus on gay rights; the Community Guild, providing assistance to low-income gay and lesbian seniors; and the Gay Community Services Center (later the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center) where Ms. Berzon created gay growth groups, trained counselors to run them, and raised funds for the organization.

Ms. Berzon's tireless activism contributed to numerous other organizations that continue to promote the well-being of the LGBT communities. She was architect and founder of Southern California Women for Understanding, co-founder of the California Academic Union, and producer of Gaythink, the first national conference to unite gay and lesbian faculty and students. At the Whitman-Radcliffe foundation she created a personal growth program resulting in the book Positively Gay: New Approaches to Gay and Lesbian Life (1979, rev. 1984).

For the last 25 years of her life, Ms. Berzon practiced psychotherapy with individuals, couples, and groups, and also published the books: Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships that Last (1988, revised 2004), Intimacy Dance: A Guide to Long Term Success in Gay and Lesbian Relationships (1996), and Setting them Straight: You Can Do Something About Bigotry and Homophobia in Your Life (1996). Ms. Berzon left an unpublished futuristic novel, entitled Queer Babies.

On January 25, California Assembly Speaker Fagan Nunez (D-Los Angeles) issued a statement that "Betty Berzon was a pioneering champion. She dedicated her life to promoting dignity, understanding and equality for all Californians and fought for the community at a time when few others did. She paved the way for the rights won by the gay and lesbian community. Her voice, her courage, and her conviction will be missed."

In 1986, Ms. Berzon had been diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer recurred in 2001. In addition to DeCrescenzo, Berzon is survived by sister Stephanie Miller, stepmother Trude Berzon, stepsister Barbara Kaplan, seven cousins, and eight nieces and nephews.

On Friday, January 27, Rabbi Denise L. Eger conducted a moving funeral service at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park, attended by over 150 family members, friends, colleagues, and supporters. A celebration of life featuring the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus is planned for February 26, at 5 p.m., at the Omni Hotel, 251 S. Olive Street, Los Angeles. On Saturday, April 22, at the National Center for Lesbian Rights 29th annual gala in San Francisco, Ms. Berzon will be honored with the organization's prestigious Founder's Award.

Jim Van Buskirk is the program manager for the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
facebook logo
facebook logo
Newsletter logo
Newsletter logo
ISSUU logo