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Aids activist Ruth Coker Burks: I just did what everybody should have done, but didn’t

Attitude’s Hero Award winner helped more than a thousand dying gay men during the Aids epidemic

2019-10-18

Words: Thomas Stichbury

Not all heroes wear capes. Or have superpowers. Sometimes they’re just ordinary people with extraordinary reserves of kindness.

Meet Ruth Coker Burks, a single mum from Hot Springs, Arkansas who cared for more than a thousand dying gay men during the Aids epidemic in rural 80s America.

On October 9, Ruth was honoured with the Hero Award at the Attitude Awards for being a beacon of hope in one of the darkest chapters of LGBTQ history.

“It makes me uncomfortable because I’m not a hero. I just did what everybody should have done, but didn’t,” she insists.

In a candid interview Attitude's Awards issue - out now to order globally and download to any device - Ruth remembers meeting her first Aids patient, Jimmy, who had been abandoned by his family.

It was 1984 and a group of nurses at the University of Arkansas’s Medical Center were drawing straws to determine who would have to go into his hospital room.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The young man’s food trays were lined up on the floor because no one would take them into him, and he was too weak to go out and get them for himself. I couldn’t take it any more, so I snuck into his room,” Ruth – who was 25 at the time – recalls.

“Bless his heart, he was so frail. You couldn’t tell him from the bed, he was so thin. He probably weighed less than 75lbs,” she continues.

“I stayed with him for 13 hours until he took his last breath. I thought Jimmy was going to be my only patient, that that was it, I’d done my duty.”

However, word spread, and Ruth juggled looking after her daughter, Allison, and the sick, from ferrying them to doctor appointments to helping them fill out their own death certificates.

Lovingly referred to as the Cemetery Angel, she went on to bury her friends – some 43 of them, including Jimmy – in her family’s own graveyard.

“Throughout my childhood, my mother would say, ‘This is all going to be yours someday.’ I was like, ‘What am I going to do with a cemetery?!’ Who’d have thought that I’d have a cemetery where I would be able to bury so many who were left behind, whose families didn’t want them,” she says.

A childhood friend of former US president Bill Clinton, Ruth, now 60, has dedicated three decades of her life to raising awareness as an activist.

“I loved every one of them,” she declares. “If I didn’t love them for long, I loved them fiercely.”

Read our full interview with Ruth and all the winners from the Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar in the Attitude Awards issue, out now.

Buy now and take advantage of our best-ever subscription offers: 3 issues for £3 in print, 13 issues for £19.99 to download to any device.