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Attitude Hero Award: Ruth Coker Burks, the woman who cared for more than a thousand gay men dying of Aids

Ruth Coker Burks may not see herself as a hero, but we beg to differ.

2019-10-09

Ruth Coker Burks has been honoured with the Hero Award at the Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards 2019, powered by Jaguar.

In the 1980s, during a time when doctors and leaders of the world were refusing to help those with the virus, a then 25-year-old took it upon herself to care for those who had been shunned and disowned by the own families during their last days.

After a chance meeting with a gay man rejected by his family and dying of Aids in hospital, Ruth spent years meeting Aids patients, providing care and medicines for those who need it and eventually burying more than 43 victims of the virus.

Sometimes dubbed the 'Cemetary Angel', Ruth became a beacon of hope in these mens' darkest of hours, laying many of them to rest in her own family burial plot.

“Who’d have thought that I’d have a cemetery where I would be able to bury so many whose family didn’t want them,” Ruth says in the Attitude Awards issue - available to download and to order globally now.

“There are 43 [men buried there] that I know of, but my daughter thinks there are way more than that. People would call and say, ‘My lover died and I have his ashes, can I put him in the cemetery?’

"I’d go, ‘Sure, walk around and wherever you come upon a site that feels right, that’s yours. One time, I had a young man and he had his partner’s ashes, his partner’s partner before’s ashes and somebody else’s.”

Ruth has continued to dedicate more than three decades to raising awareness as an activist, humanitarian and motivational speaker - and notably served as a White House consultant on Aids education during Bill Clinton's presidency.

"It makes me uncomfortable because I'm not a hero", Ruth says of receiving an Attitude Award for her years of selfless activism.

"I just what everybody should have done, but didn't".

Ruth's Hero Award was presented to her at the Virgin Holidays Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar via a special video message from Clinton himself, who paid tribute to Ruth's tireless work to improve the lives of those living with HIV.

"Thankfully, through the dedication of people like Ruth and so many other heroes, and HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and our society has come a very long way towards treating those who hate HIV-positive with the respect and the love they deserve", Clinton said.

"But in those desperate early days, thank God Ruth Coker Burks was there to stand up against fear and stigma”.

Read more about Ruth and all the winners from the Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards 2019, 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.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch all the highlights from the Virgin Atlantic Attitude's Awards 2019, powered by Jaguar.