Babes You Should Know About: Ruth Coker-Burks
The Babes You Should Know About series focuses on fantastic people in society who have gone over and above to achieve and pave the way for others, but who don’t receive mainstream acclaim or recognition. These Babes operate often in difficult, thankless roles throughout their lives, and we aim to highlight their brilliant contributions here.
If you’ve watched It's A Sin (and if you haven’t, feel the toll of the shame bell and head over to Channel 4 with a box of tissues immediately!), then you’ve learnt a little of the tale of Jill Nalder (or Jill Baxter, as she’s known in the series), a straight cisgender woman who was on-hand during the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1980s Britain to offer unwavering support and comfort to those suffering with the extremely stigmatised, and frankly terrifying, disease. Indeed a whole army of women rose up to hold the hands, the physical and the emotional baggage of the gay community who needed love and compassion so badly – and today, these women are known as the AIDS Angels. We can probably all agree that these are incredible people, but even the most famous of the AIDs Angels, you’ve probably never heard of. We think you should, so, let me introduce… Ruth Coker-Burks.
Ruth Coker-Burks lived and worked in Little Rock, Arkansas, and in visiting a friend undergoing cancer treatment at the local hospital in 1984, noticed nurses too afraid to enter a room with a patient diagnosed with AIDS inside. Apparently unafraid herself, and a little bewildered by the whole situation, Ruth popped her head round the door and entered to chat with the man. In a bedside heart-to-heart, he expressed that his dying wish was to see his Mum before he passed away.
Ruth left the hospital and tracked down the man’s mother, contacting her to pass on the message. She refused to see him and the conversation became quite heated – with Ruth threatening to publish the man’s true cause of death in the local newspaper in order to shame her to take action. Ruth didn’t pass on this to her new friend but instead immediately took over his palliative care and nursed and comforted him until he died. It was just 13 hours later. The women never visit her son – and refused to claim his body.
Like the rest of us reading this, Ruth was horrified.
Nonetheless, she persisted (yeah, you’ve read that before, and shit, is it relevant here), and phoned around funeral homes to make arrangements. This was a struggle back in the 80s, but eventually finding one willing to take on the job, she had him cremated – and buried his ashes in her father’s grave.
“I just gave my guys what any normal human being would do. I gave them my hand.” – Ruth Coker-Burks
None of this went unnoticed with hospital staff, who were in part both in awe of Ruth’s bravery but also felt they could perhaps ‘hand off’ some of the more difficult work to her. Word quickly spread and hospitals began phoning her to request her befriending and support of those hospitalised with AIDS or related conditions. Ruth began to take patients to appointments, apply for assistance and funding for their care, pick up prescriptions, push for diagnoses and coordinating funeral arrangements. She made those she supported feel empowered, comforted and supported in their greatest hour of need – often when there was literally no one else to help. At one point, Ruth was so well known and trusted by medical professionals that she was permitted to keep supplies of AIDS medications in her pantry at home; drugs that otherwise were rarely found in community pharmacies and were difficult to obtain for many. She cared for over 1,000 people across three decades in this way.
“They knew they would be remembered, loved, and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died.” – Ruth Coker Burks
Being from a fairly wealthy background, Ruth’s family had a ‘family plot’ at a local cemetery, and in a domestic dispute with her uncle, her mother had bought up all of the plots for her own use. Passing on this land to Ruth in her will when she died, over 40 of those who died as a result of AIDS and its complications were buried in the Burks family plot.
“I live with my guys every day. They’re always with me.” – Ruth Coker-Burks
Continuing her activism through handing out safe sex kits and offering one-on-one support to the families, friends and loved one of those affected by AIDS didn’t come cheap, and the local LGBTQ+ community stood in to help. Gay bars across the state put on fundraising events to support Ruther’s efforts and even launched their own charities, including Helping People With AIDS.
“[The local gay bars] would twirl up a drag show and here’d come the money – that’s how we’d buy medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent. If it hadn’t have been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.” – Ruth Coker-Burks
Of course, this work was all voluntary – and not all that popular. Ruth and her daughter Allison were shunned by most of their local community and twice even had the Ku Klux Klan burn effigies on crosses on their front lawn. Throughout it all, Ruth maintained paid work where she could and never knowingly turned down a request for help if she could meet it. Her brilliant support services even gained the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who noticed that those receiving care from Ruth lived on average up to two years beyond the national average life expectancy of those with an AIDS diagnosis.
“The only thing I did was what we were taught in church, to take care of the sick, take care of the poor, take care of the hungry.” – Ruth Coker-Burks
The landscape for those with AIDS changed vastly in the US in 1990, when care was made more widely available under the Ryan White CARE Act, and more was understood about the condition; combatting lots of the fear previously found in both the public and healthcare workers. Ruth struggled at this point to find employment in a related field because she wasn’t medically qualified, but was recruited as a White House Consultant by ex-POTUS Bill Clinton on AIDS education.
In 1995, Ruth laid to rest her last AIDS patient and went on to work bit-jobs including working as a fishing guide and funeral director. In 2002, she sadly suffered a stroke and had to relearn how to talk, read and write, and also suffered with memory loss. Going on to make an almost full recovery, Ruth continues to advocate for those with HIV and AIDS and to promote safe sex.
Now, she may almost be set to receive the long overdue recognition she so deserves. She co-authored her memoir in 2020, titled ‘All The Young Men’ and it saw rave reviews by those in publishing and literature critique. A film adaptation of Ruth’s life has now been announced and will see Ruth Wilson (best known for playing Alice Morgan in Luther) in what’s been initially titled ‘The Book of Ruth’.
Truly, Ruth has dedicated her life to the support of others in a beautiful, brilliant and often very simple way. Just being there for others when they need you to hold their hand also has a hold on their heart, and she has delivered compassion and dignity to thousands.