More to Palm Springs ’Cross Lady’ Than Innocent Victim?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 21, 2008

Among blogs of both the right and the left, she's become known as The Lady With the Cross.

Her name is Phyllis Burgess, and the Nov. 7 incident in Palm Springs in which Ms. Burgess, carrying a Styrofoam cross, was reportedly shoved and had the cross taken from her and then stomped to pieces, has become a totemic example for the religious right, who use the episode to characterize anti-Proposition 8 demonstrations nationwide.

In all 50 states, and in 300 cities, demonstrations against Proposition 8 have taken place, with the vast majority of rallies being peaceful and free of incident.

In the case of the Palm Springs rally, however, Ms. Burgess, according to witnesses, shoved her way through a pro-marriage equality rally while carrying a large cross made of Styrofoam and uttering pro-Proposition 8 slogans.

To some, Ms. Burgess' insinuation of herself and her cross into a crowd assembled to mourn communally for the loss of their right to marry has come to look like a publicity stunt.

According to one witness account posted at ireport.com, Ms. Burgess pushed her way directly through a crowd that had assembled in front of the City Hall building in Palm Springs, knocking a disabled man to the ground as she made her way into the throng.

Wrote the witness, "I attended the rally in front of Palm Springs City Hall that turned into a candlelight march and further protest rally in front of the Mormon Temple in Palm Springs.

"At City Hall a woman with a huge styrofoam cross appeared screaming about YES on 8 at the back of the crowd of NO on 8 supporters--their rally," continued the witness' account.

"She wanted to get to where the speakers were up front and I saw her knock a disabled man, a NO on 8 supporter to the ground, screaming, 'Get out of my way!'

"People in the crowd around her tore away her cross and threw it to the ground and began pushing her," added the witness.

The account continued, "Local CBS channel 2 and KMIR channel 6 videotaped the woman being shoved and then interviewed her, ignoring the poor disabled man who was attacked first.

"Later after all of the rally, march and protest were over I watched the news which headlined this as 'Gay Protest Turns Violent!'"

Added the witness to the Palm Springs incident, "First it was NOT a 'Gay Protest'. Many people in the NO on 8 crowd at the rally were straight citizens of Palm Springs concerned about the denial of civil rights.

"Second the protest DID NOT turn violent, it was this woman, this provacateur [sic], who started it and seriously what did she expect coming to a NO on 8 protest rally with her hate-based religion in everyone's face."

The witness went on, "This is an example of how at least some media are distorting the issue to make gays and lesbians look like the aggressors instead of the real victims of this hate-based religions attack on a minority's civil rights."

The witness to the incident mentioned that Ms. Burgess had also appeared, again carrying a cross, at a Gay Pride event a few days before the Palm Springs pro-marriage rally.

"By the way, not a week before this woman appeared at the local Gay Pride March with her cross and invective," wrote the witness.

"She obviously wants media attention for her homophobia."

Added the witness with respect to the Nov. 2 Gay Pride event, "That day the local media ignored the loving dignified gay and lesbians couples marching and only showed drag queens and this woman complaining about the names people called her at the parade. Media spin..."

The witness' post was immediately countered in the reader's feedback section by another user, who wrote in to say, "You are a liar, she did not knock down a disabled man.

"However she was struck and pushed around by loud mouth intolerant gays that have no respect for anyone that doesn't accept their deviant lifestyle."

Continued the user, "Her property was also destroyed, those that did it should be arrested and charged.

"Gays are constantly given a pass by law enforcement for their illegal and disgusting behavior, urinating on each other in public, having sex in public..."

Other reader comments were positive, thanking the witness for the account.

At another online site, the blog of Mike Tidmus an examination of the Palm Springs incident and the response from the religious right was posted.

Tidmus noted that Peter LaBarbera, who leads the anti-gay group Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, had seized upon the Palm Springs incident as--in LaBarbera's words, quoted at Tidmus' blog--"more evidence that homo-fascism is coming out the closet following the triumph of Proposition 8," with LaBarbera going on to assert that, Gay activists now rail against ANY opposition to their agenda as hateful."

A video of the incident was posted by LaBarbera, who invited readers to view it for themselves, commenting, "Note the anchorman's politically correct summation, as it the hate on the video really came from both sides!"

A passage from an article from local newspaper the Desert Sun was excerpted in the LaBarbera posting.

The excerpt read, "A candlelight service to protest the state's recently enacted gay marriage ban turned hostile Friday night when a woman carried a cross into the crowd."

Continued the Desert Sun excerpt, "The crowd chanted, 'Go home!' 'Nazi!' 'Shame on you!' as organizers pleaded with the crowd to ignore the woman."

The quotes excerpted by LaBarbera from the article featured a quote from Burgess, who said, "God has given me a message, a word for all of us, and it is fidelity."

A similar quote appears at Burgess' MySpace page.

Tidmus reported that Burgess, who was bruised as the crowd reacted to her presence, came to be shoved not as the result of a deliberate action against Burgess, but because the crowd, in close quarters, was in agitated movement spurred by Burgess' entrance into the crowd with the cross.

Several people present in the crowd rushed toward the cross, causing the shoving to occur; grabbing the cross, they then threw it to the ground and stomped on it.

Tidmus, citing the same Desert Sun article that provided the excerpts used by LaBarbera, noted that the article also stated (and LaBarbera neglected to mention) that the rally had been organized as a peaceful demonstration for marriage equality supporters.

Tidmus also excerpted from the same article its closing sentence, which read, "At the close of the event, participants snuffed out their candles to symbolize the passage of the same-sex marriage ban extinguishing gay civil rights."

According to Tidmus, Burgess' entry into the pro-marriage crowd was prompted by the presence of a second film crew. Tidmus directed readers to footage posted by TV station KESQ.

Tidmus analyzes the footage, pointing out that it shows Ms. Burgess cutting through the thick of the crowd and mentioning that Burgess was no stranger to the news anchor, who recognized her from the Gay Pride event cited by the witness who posted the account related above.

News coverage on the Gay Pride parade from KESQ also quotes Burgess, who says of opponents to marriage equality, "They don't see the sanctity in male-on-male or female-on-female."

The item also quotes Burgess saying that she was "amazed with the hate" she perceived aas coming from marriage equality supporters.

Writes Tidmus, "Amazed with the hatred, but eager to get on TV again, Burgess came back and butted into the candlelight service intended to heal the community's grief and anger over the passage of Prop. 8."

Added Tidmus, "...mischaracterizations of the incident, along with accusations of 'homo-fascism' spread like wildfire across right wing blogs, online forums like FreeReublic, and radical religious right news sources like WorldNetDaily and OneNewsNow."

However, noted Tidmus, "What has subsequently not been widely reported is that, following an apology from one gay man, Phyllis Burgess has opted not to seek assault charges.

"She also acknowledged contacting officials prior to her controversial intrusion at the candlelight vigil, and Ms. Burgess now says she would support "some sort of marriage" for those in a committed relationship," Tidmus wrote.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.