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Work of a Gay Rights Pioneer Is Never Done

Advocate* With a memoir out, Betty Berzon, 74, looks to fiction to right the movement's wrongs.

July 18, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the second half of the century and a UCLA biologist named Omar has discovered a test to identify the sexual orientation of newborns. When he goes public with his test, he consults a gay research assistant, who leads him to Artemis, a grass-roots gay leader. Together, they create an institute to study gay life and launch a network of after-school programs for gay children where they learn to be happy and well-adjusted.

As adults, they will be open about who they are--and politically powerful. And, oh yes, with an assist from the new president, legislation legalizing same-sex marriages will soon pass in the Congress.

"I just fix everything that's wrong with the gay rights movement. It's a wonderful experience," says Betty Berzon, co-founder of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and, now, with this work in progress, first-time novelist. Berzon, a psychotherapist who for 30 years has specialized in counseling gays, has written five nonfiction books dealing with gay and family issues and, most recently, her memoir, "Surviving Madness: A Therapist's Own Story" (University of Wisconsin, 2002).

While the social fixes in her novel--with the working title "Queer Babies"--are fictional, she is quick to point out those things that need fixing within the gay movement are very real. Among these: What she sees as a paucity of political leadership. "Most of the people who think of themselves as gay leaders in this country, other [gays] never heard of." And an overemphasis on fund-raising. "Too often that's what gets talked about in gay and lesbian organizations, rather than the work they're doing and the people being helped."

Her book, which does not yet have a publisher, fixes that too. "There's a unification of all gay organizations into one federation" that fund-raises through tithing. "If every gay person in America tithed one dollar a month, there would be enough money," Berzon says.

On a recent afternoon in the book-lined den of the Studio City home she shares with longtime partner Teresa DeCrescenzo, a social worker and founder and director of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, Berzon, 74, reflected on her path from denial to self-acceptance, contentment and activism.

She describes that tortuous journey in her memoir. As the story begins, she is 23 and, having just botched a wrist slashing, is tethered to a bed in an L.A. psychiatric hospital. As a teenager, she'd battled strange romantic feelings toward women. "I'd heard of homosexuality ... heard that it was a sickness, and I wondered if I had caught it."

Later, at Stanford University, a female dorm-mate's sexual advances so alarmed and confused her that she left school. She smiles and says, "I left college because I thought I might be homosexual. Now people go to college to do that."

Berzon's subsequent road took some amazing turns. She dated a young Si Newhouse (of the Conde Nast empire), made an awkward stab at the Greenwich Village lesbian bar scene, spent 20 years in therapy, had several lesbian affairs, ran her own bookstore in Hollywood, had an affair with one of Anais Nin's two husbands, suffered a serious depression and had an abortion in Tijuana after a fling in Rome with an Iraqi banker.

Found Her True Calling

Luckily, an administrator at one of the mental hospitals she stayed in saw in her the potential to help other troubled souls. While working as a psychiatric aide, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA. One of her professors was Evelyn Hooker, a social psychologist and groundbreaking researcher on the mental health of gay men.

Berzon later added a doctorate, worked with Carl Rogers, the father of encounter groups, at La Jolla's Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and was involved in the human-potential movement at Esalen, a human potential institute in Big Sur. And she dated men.

On her 40th birthday, she finally faced facts: She was a lesbian.

She began conducting Quest for Love workshops for gays and lesbians (where she met DeCrescenzo), helped found the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and in 1971 co-founded the first gay group within the American Psychiatric Assn. Two years later the association deleted homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses and the American Psychological Assn. soon followed suit.

Berzon was a pioneer, says Bonnie Strickland, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and past president of the American Psychological Assn. "It took great courage for her to do what she did," considering that among psychologists and psychiatrists homosexuality was a taboo subject until the late '70s, Strickland says. "No question about it, she was well ahead of the times. When I was growing up, and when she was growing up, for us to even mention any lesbian interests, we'd be rushed off to a psychiatric hospital."

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