Therapist was an activist for lesbian rights

Times Staff Writer

Myra Riddell, a psychotherapist, former president of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women and pioneering activist for lesbian and gay rights, died Jan. 11 at her Studio City home. She was 81.

Riddell had Alzheimer’s disease, according to a longtime friend, Susan M. Wolford.

A prominent figure in the gay community for several decades, Riddell was the founding president of Southern California Women for Understanding, launched in 1976 to build a social and political network of gay career women.


In 1977 she was one of 14 gay and lesbian leaders invited to the White House to brief Carter administration officials on discrimination against homosexuals by government agencies. The meeting, which provoked intense criticism from conservatives such as Anita Bryant, represented the first time openly gay leaders had met in the White House.

Riddell later served on the Los Angeles County Commission for Women for 12 years, including two years as president, from 1992 to 1994. She stirred controversy during her last few years on the commission when she helped form a task force on satanic ritual abuse. She had developed an interest in the subject after some of her psychotherapy patients described memories of satanic abuse as children.

Born in San Diego on Nov. 23, 1926, Riddell grew up in a family in which children were encouraged to speak their minds. Her father was a judge, and her mother was a radical who edited a Jewish newspaper.

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Riddell studied at UCLA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in social work. She opened a psychotherapy practice in 1959.

Married at 18, Riddell left her husband in the mid-'50s and, despite the repressiveness of the era, came out as a lesbian. When the gay rights movement emerged after the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, she became a political activist.

Through her work at what was then called the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, she met psychotherapist Betty Berzon, who, in 1976, invited Riddell to help her start a support group for lesbians. It began as an offshoot of the Whitman-Radclyffe Foundation, a Northern California-based activist organization. Finding little support for their interests in a group dominated by gay men, the women soon broke away and formed Southern California Women for Understanding.

Riddell and Berzon, who died in 2006, wanted to reach out to successful career women like themselves. This focus was revolutionary, according to historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons in their book “Gay L.A.,” because “a formally established social group made up exclusively of upper-middle-class lesbians had . . . never yet existed.”

Most of the women who joined the group were not openly homosexual. Taking their fears of exposure into account, Riddell and Berzon chose a name for the organization that avoided gay connotations. They held high-toned events, such as poolside champagne brunches and dance cruises, an approach that attracted what Faderman and Timmons described as “the most careful and closeted women” who were curious to meet other “A-list lesbians.”

The group developed an elitist image, but by the early 1980s it had more than 1,000 members and chapters throughout Southern California.

“We knew there was a tremendous, untapped pool of energy and talent among lesbians, particularly those who had achieved a level of success in their careers,” Riddell wrote in an article published in 1999. “These women tended to be very isolated and closeted, and we realized our first goal would be to provide a safe environment.”

Southern California Women for Understanding also engaged in political action, playing an important role in the defeat of the anti-gay Proposition 6, also called the Briggs initiative, in 1978. The group invited politicians, civic and religious leaders and journalists to the Century Plaza Hotel for a series of cocktail parties called “Receptions for Understanding,” where polished and accomplished lesbians -- including two active Army officers -- discussed the threats posed by the initiative, which called for banning gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

The initiative lost by a large margin. Riddell said years later that one of the most rewarding results of the anti-Briggs effort was earning the support of a prominent Roman Catholic nun who took a visible role in the “No on 6” campaign.

Riddell is survived by a niece, two nephews and a great-nephew. A memorial service will be held April 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood.