The Relationship Miracle Worker: Betty Berzon Touched the Lives of Countless Gay Men and Lesbians as She Sought to Improve Their Mental Health

Article excerpt

For more than three decades a deeply admired advocate for stable relationships and sound mental health care for gays and lesbians, psychotherapist and author Betty Berzon has left an immense legacy in the wake of her death January 24 at age 78.

From her therapy patients to readers of her successful books on self-esteem and coupling, many are mourning Berzon's death from cancer, none more so than her partner of 33 years, Terry DeCrescenzo, who was with Berzon when she passed away at their Les Angeles home.

DeCrescenzo remembers when her partner was first diagnosed with cancer in 1986. Though Berzon would undergo a mastectomy, her physician put her prognosis for survival at just two years. "Betty said, 'Bring it on,' "DeCrescenzo recalls.

Born in St. Louis, Berzon attended Stanford University in the late 1940s but dropped out after a female dorm mate tried to seduce her. She was still deeply closeted when she moved to Les Angeles in 1950. After opening a short-lived bookstore in the city, Berzon received her bachelor's degree in psychology in 1957 from the University of California, Les Angeles, rubbing shoulders with esteemed psychologists such as Evelyn Hooker, who later became instrumental in declassifying homosexuality as a mental illness.

Berzon received a master's degree in psychology from San Diego State University in 1962 before being hired at the newly founded Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, Calif. During the next few years Berzon made a name for herself by espousing the benefits of group therapy and by speaking publicly about the human potential movement.

When Berzon's 40th birthday rolled around in 1968, she realized she couldn't deny her attraction to women any longer; she came out as a lesbian, moved back to Los Angeles, and became active in the growing gay liberation movement. She began counseling gay and lesbian patients exclusively, with her specialty being male couples.

"The most important thing Betty did was to help people when she came out as the first openly gay psychotherapist," DeCrescenzo says. "Betty always said, 'You can't go into a relationship without having reconciled your own self-esteem issues and your own embarrassment about being gay.'"

In 1971, Berzon began serving as a peer counselor at a new gay community organization, helping to found what was to become the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, now the nation's largest gay and lesbian service agency. …