What if you had an embarrassing secret.
A secret so embarrassing it could cost you your family, your friends and your job. Would you zealously guard that secret? That’s what Betty Berzon did for the first half of her life.
For Berzon, the renowned psychotherapist and best-selling author was a lesbian.
“Come with me to a psychiatric hospital...” wrote Berzon. “See in the bed a young girl, wrists and ankles tied to the bed rails, eyes staring through the barred windows...
“I am that young girl, being protected from myself, restrained against the vein-slashing suicide attempt that brought me here. I am twenty-two years old…”
The year was 1950. Berzon had dated boys from the time she was 14, wanting to be “normal.” But with great self-loathing she was attracted to women and after some painful rejections from women, finally found happiness in a relationship. But then that woman left her.
For the next year, Berzon was treated in psychiatric hospitals. As difficult as that experience was, it created a tremendous career opportunity for her. A director of one of those hospitals saw how well she got along with the other patients and hired her to assist the medical staff.
It was he and a patient who convinced her to become a psychologist and a new career was born.
Bright and talented, Berzon graduated from UCLA in 1955 and got her Master’s Degree from San Diego State in 1962.
And her career took off like a rocket, when she launched her “Quest for Love” workshop, helping people find love. It became so popular, she took it nationwide.
As for her homosexuality, she stayed deeply closeted. In secret, psychiatrists tried to “cure” her. She usually dated men, even becoming pregnant once.
But the father of her child, whom she met in Rome, was a director of the Central Bank of Iraq and Berzon being Jewish, decided the relationship would not work and quietly aborted the baby. She would never again become pregnant.
What of her own “Quest for Love?” On her 40th birthday in January 1968 “I am acutely aware that I am alone…,” Berzon wrote. “I eat dinner from a tray in front of the television.”
But now “…I come face to face with myself and I know I must stop the charade,” wrote Berzon. “I know I am a homosexual. I can no longer hide. I have to do something about it.”
In stages, Berzon began to openly date women and stopped dating men. She also got involved with a group of gay activists and in 1971; risking their livelihoods, they launched what became the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the first such social services agency in the U.S.
By the thousands, gay people began coming for counseling, legal aid, medical care, and job and housing assistance. It was also a place for gays to be able to safely socialize with each other in a society that often arrested them as “perverts” or treated leniently, those who brutalized them.
Today, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center is America’s largest gay and lesbian services organization, serving over a quarter million people annually with its 200 employees.
In 1973, Berzon fell in love with Terry DeCrescenzo, a woman 17 years her junior. They became life-partners in a 33 year relationship that ended with Berzon’s recent passing from cancer at 78.
DeCrescenzo said Berzon was “the mother of the gay and lesbian community nationwide.”
Berzon lovingly mentored gays through her books, her public speaking engagements, in her psychotherapy practice and in an online advice column. She also tackled gay rights issues with pride and dignity.
DeCrescenzo said of gay and lesbian people, “We didn’t have any [marital] rights. There was no such thing as a domestic partnership. [We had] to adopt one another so we could inherit.”
Berzon challenged these conditions and reasoned with governmental agencies and corporations to recognize gays and lesbians as couples. If that failed, she sometimes turned to the courts.
When TWA wouldn’t allow same sex couples to join their Ambassador Club as couples, Berzon educated them with news coverage reprints and reasoned dialogue that same sex couples make similar commitments to each other as heterosexual couples do. TWA changed its policy.
When American Airlines bought TWA, they refused to recognize same sex couples until Berzon reasoned with them. Today American is a major sponsor of gay events.
When the Auto Club refused to recognize same sex couples and give them the lower rates other couples receive, through a national gay rights organization, Berzon and DeCrescenzo sued. The Auto Club settled the suit and today, they sponsor gay and lesbian community events.
Each time gay and lesbian people had a victory; it reinforced their self-respect and encouraged them to pursue the same rights and treatment that others in our society receive.
But Berzon’s most important contribution and her legacy is, “Permanent Partners: Building Gay and Lesbian Relationships That Last” a preeminent and popular guide to same-sex couples. In it, she counsels same sex couples to recognize the commitment they’ve made to each other even if society doesn’t.
That commitment gives their relationships a sense of permanency so that when problems arise as they do for every couple, there will be. “– no running away from problems; no retreating into silence, no escaping into drugs, alcohol, or outside sex, no moving on to the next lover, “ Berzon wrote.
Berzon invested the latter years of her life in issues such as the establishment of gay marriage, gay adoption and gay foster care and convincing gay couples of their self-worth and of the validity of their loving relationships. As she said:
“How dare straight society demean that which is so precious to so many of our people? How dare they decide for us how legitimate our loving relationships can be, what benefits we are entitled to, what religious or civil ceremonies should be available to sanction our partnerships?”
Success Tip of the Week:If you shun same sex couples, someone dear to you may be keeping a secret from you. Or feel alienated from you. Open your heart and share the compassion that lies within you and you may discover a kinder, more giving person than you ever thought yourself to be.
Editor's Note: Thank you to Terry DeCrescenzo for her assistance, which was so helpful in writing this article. Betty Berzon’s quotes are from her hard-hitting autobiography, “Surviving Madness: A Therapist’s Own Story.”
In the next KazanToday: Two powerful words that could uplift your life and the lives of others as well.