Longtime Lehigh Valley LGBT activist Catherine Burgi-Rios died of leukemia Sept. 21. She was 55.
Burgi-Rios was a tireless advocate for LGBT-rights issues and lent her time to a number of area agencies and causes.
As her day job, Burgi-Rios served as an operating-room nurse at Lehigh Valley Hospital, where she worked for the past 11 years.
She earned her nursing degree from Elizabeth General Medical Center and began her career in the obstetrics/labor-and-delivery field.
Outside of work, her LGBT volunteer experience was extensive.
Burgi-Rios created and captained the Lehigh Valley chapter of Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance — whose members serve as buffers between LGBT communities and antigay protesters.
SWPA founder Alanna Berger said Burgi-Rios and wife Barb Baus were the first volunteers to show up for an SWPA training she held in advance of a scheduled protest at Lehigh Valley Pride in 2007.
“It was very clear that she was well-suited to being a Silent Witness,” Berger said. “We have to keep peace, stay calm and make decisions at a split second, and she was very good at that.”
Berger said Burgi-Rios jumped at the chance to start a Lehigh Valley chapter.
She said her personality made her a good fit for a leadership role.
“Given the work we do dealing with protesters, I was absolutely amazed at how she could always keep her sense of humor,” Berger said. “She was a very strong individual and very well-organized. But she was also very open and loving.”
A resident of Bethlehem, Burgi-Rios testified at a number of Bethlehem City Council meetings last year as the city considered its LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance, which was eventually successful.
“It was very important to have people who actually lived in the community there to speak out and she had some very compelling things to say,” said Pennsylvania Diversity Network president Liz Bradbury.
Burgi-Rios was a speaker at every one of the Freedom to Marry rallies at the Lehigh Valley Courthouse in the past decade, Bradbury said.
She and Baus — who were together more than 15 years and married in Connecticut last year during a surprise trip that Burgi-Rios planned — every year would pay the $32 application fee for a marriage license at the courthouse.
“They’d request the license knowing they’d be rejected and then come out and make a wonderful statement to the media about it,” said Equality Pennsylvania board president Adrian Shanker. “She was completely committed to equality and wasn’t afraid to speak out when it was needed.”
Burgi-Rios dedicated much of her time to the Metropolitan Community Church of Lehigh Valley, where she served on the board.
“She helped to make the church a place where there was a lot of activism,” Bradbury said. “She brought her sense of equality, fairness and outspokenness to the church and to the communities it works with.”
She recently was investing energy into getting President Obama re-elected, working in the campaign’s Bethlehem office despite her illness.
“She regularly volunteered in the office, making phone calls, driving other volunteers around,” Shanker said. “She was very concerned about this election and, even though she was dealing with these serious leukemia treatments, she always made an effort to do her part.”
Burgi-Rios was diagnosed with leukemia in February and underwent a bone-marrow transplant this past summer.
Shortly before her diagnosis, she was able to attend her first Super Bowl game, a lifelong goal.
During the summer, she experienced another unforgettable occasion during First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Bethlehem.
“Cathy was trying really hard to get up close enough to shake Michelle Obama’s hand, but she was walking with a cane and couldn’t fight through the crowd,” Shanker said. “Barb went up to a Secret Service agent who was there, told him Cathy’s story about her health and her work, and they were both brought backstage and spent about 15 minutes alone with Michelle Obama, talking about Cathy’s health-care story and her story of marriage inequality. She gave them both a big hug, and Cathy said it was one of the proudest moments of her life.”
While LGBT activism played a large role in Burgi-Rios’ life, Shanker noted that she and Baus, as well as their two kids, were a typical family — which he said in itself helped move forward LGBT equality.
“Cathy was a nurse and Barb’s a teacher. Her full-time job wasn’t as an activist,” he said. “Her daughter, who is straight and married, would come to protests with them and hold signs that said things like, ‘I love my two moms.’ She just had a great impact on everyone in her family and her community and made people care about LGBT issues.”
Burgi-Rios is survived by Baus, her parents, daughter Jessica and son-in-law Daniel, son Josh, brothers Peter and Michael, sister Anne and a large extended family.
Donations can be made in Burgi-Rios’ name to Silent Witness Peacekeepers Alliance, www.silentwitnesspa.org.