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Betty Berzon, 78; Writer, Psychotherapist, Activist Helped Establish L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center

Times Staff Writer

Betty Berzon, an author and pioneering psychotherapist, who was a beacon of the Los Angeles gay and lesbian community for three decades, died Tuesday at her Studio City home after a 20-year battle with cancer, according to her partner, Terry DeCrescenzo. She was 78.

In 1971, at a time when gay professionals could lose their livelihoods if they publicly affirmed their homosexuality, Berzon helped found the country’s first social service agency for gays and lesbians, now called the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. She was a leader in the human potential movement of the 1960s and was instrumental in organizing the first meeting of gays in the American Psychological Assn. at a time when her profession still classified homosexuality as a mental illness.

In later years, she wrote bestselling self-help books -- including “Positively Gay” (1979), “Permanent Partners” (1988) and “The Intimacy Dance” (1996) -- and a popular advice column for the website PlanetOut.com. In private practice, she counseled only gays and lesbians, particularly male couples.

She also wrote a memoir, “Surviving Madness, A Therapist’s Own Story” (2002), which won a Lambda Literary Award for excellence in gay and lesbian writing.

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According to her often anguished account in that book, her life was cleaved into two distinct halves: The first part was dominated by inner battles over sexual identity as a deeply closeted gay, and the second half by political and social battles she led as an openly gay activist.

Berzon was born in St. Louis on Jan. 18, 1928, to teenage parents, whose unhappy marriage encouraged her to seek solace outside her family from an early age. She started dating boys when she was 14.

She was aware of a strong attraction for other women but buried those feelings, explaining in her memoir that she “had heard of homosexuality ... heard that it was a sickness” and wondered if she had “caught” it. When a woman in her dormitory at Stanford University tried to seduce her, Berzon fought her off and dropped out of school.

She moved to New York City, where she talked her way into a job at Gotham Book Mart, a legendary haunt frequented by such literary heavyweights as W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal and Eugene O’Neill.

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Her job ended abruptly when its eccentric proprietor, Frances Steloff, threw a book at her head, but the overall experience of working there served Berzon well when she arrived in Los Angeles in 1950.

That year, she opened Berzon Books in Hollywood with a $10,000 gift from her stepmother. She quickly established the bookshop as a force on the local literary scene when she arranged an appearance by British poet Edith Sitwell, whose admirers swarmed the store.

Berzon later hosted a reading by Anais Nin, the avant-garde writer of fiction, journals and erotica, who adopted the bookstore as her headquarters and became a regular in Berzon’s salon.

Despite a promising beginning, Berzon Books lasted barely a year. Berzon said the stress of running the store, coupled with the end of her affair with a woman, sent her into a deep depression. She tried to kill herself and spent a year in and out of mental hospitals.

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She recovered under the care of a psychiatrist who, in keeping with the prevailing view of homosexuals as mentally ill, assured her that she did not have to be gay. She convinced herself that he was right and, with his blessing, emerged from her last hospitalization with the idea that she could forge a new career in psychology.

By 1952 she was enrolled at UCLA in a course on group dynamics. Her professor was Evelyn Hooker, the social psychologist whose later work would lay the foundation for research leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. Berzon concentrated her studies on group psychotherapy, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 from UCLA and a master’s in 1962 from San Diego State.

In 1962, one of her professors founded Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla and hired Berzon as its first employee. With two giants of humanistic psychology -- Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow -- as research fellows -- the institute surged to the forefront of the human potential movement. Rogers became known as the father of the encounter group, a mode of personal growth in which a therapist helps members learn to express their true emotions. Berzon mastered its nuances under Rogers’ tutelage.

By the mid-1960s Berzon was focusing on ways to provide group therapy to people who lacked access to a trained psychotherapist. The product of her research was marketed as “Encountertapes,” tape-recorded instructions for self-directed encounter groups. The project received national attention, and Berzon became a popular speaker, particularly for her “Quest for Love” workshops for singles.

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On her 40th birthday in 1968, however, Berzon realized that she had failed at her own quest for love. Alone and sad, she admitted to herself that she was gay. She left La Jolla for Los Angeles, where she thought it would be easier to emerge from the closet.

Within a few years, her life changed dramatically.

In 1971, she joined with a group of gay liberationists to launch a community center. The founders included Don Kilhefner, who became the center’s first executive director, and Morris Kight, who had helped to establish the Los Angeles branch of the Gay Liberation Front. Through them, Berzon wrote, “I was able to achieve a clarity about what it means to be gay that I’d never had.... For the first time in my life, I was having positive feelings about an aspect of myself that I had spent decades ... hating myself for.”

The Gay Community Services Center opened in October 1971. Berzon created gay growth groups and trained counselors to help run them. She later joined the center’s board of directors and raised funds for the organization.

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Kilhefner, now a psychologist in private practice, credited Berzon with introducing many professional and upper-middle-class gays like herself to the center, which has become the nation’s largest gay and lesbian services agency.

“She played a heroic role,” Kilhefner said recently.

Her acceptance of her own homosexuality kept her on the front lines of the gay civil rights movement through the 1970s.

Berzon was instrumental in organizing the first meeting of gay and lesbian members of the American Psychological Assn., a hastily organized event that she and colleague Don Clark publicized with handwritten notices scrawled on hotel laundry bags.

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The 1971 meeting, which attracted more than two dozen members, laid the groundwork for a protest at the association’s national convention and the formation of the Assn. of Gay Psychologists in 1972.

These events occurred at a time when the taboo against homosexuality was so strong that a gay psychiatrist who was protesting the American Psychiatric Assn.'s definition of homosexuality as pathology spoke at the organization’s 1972 convention wearing a mask.

In late 1973, that association, in response to lobbying by East Coast gays, dropped homosexuality from its authoritative list of mental illnesses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The American Psychological Assn. followed suit two years later.

The early 1970s brought Berzon into a long-lasting relationship with DeCrescenzo, who founded Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, a Los Angeles agency that serves homeless gay and lesbian teenagers.

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Berzon and DeCrescenzo were among the eight founding members of the Western Gay Academic Union in 1976. Berzon later became president of the national Gay Academic Union.

Her relationship with DeCrescenzo inspired Berzon to write “Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships,” which has been described as a how-to manual for same-sex couples trying to stay together.

In 1986 Berzon was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. When the cancer recurred in 2001, she fought prejudice along with the disease: Asked if she was single, married or divorced when she checked into the hospital, she replied, “None of the above. I’ve lived with a woman for 29 years.”

She held up the admissions process until the hospital agreed to a change in its procedures.

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When gay patients are asked about marital status now, they can -- thanks to Berzon -- choose a box that says “domestic partner.”

In addition to DeCrescenzo, her partner of 33 years, Berzon is survived by a sister, Stephanie Miller of Lancaster, Ohio; her stepmother, Trude Berzon of Des Moines, Iowa, and Palm Beach, Fla.; and a stepsister, Barbara Kaplan of North Palm Beach, Fla.

The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park.

A memorial service featuring the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus is planned for 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Omni Hotel, 251 S. Olive St., Los Angeles.

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Memorial donations may be sent to Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, 650 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069, or Lambda Literary Foundation, P.O. Box 1957, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113.


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