In the 1980s, there was a terror going through the gay community. Little was known about it at the time, but thousands of men would soon die of the mysterious illness now known as HIV/AIDS.
Acknowledged to have started in 1981, the world is honoring the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic by recognizing its heroes and activists.
In 1986, 26-year-old Ruth Coker Burks was visiting a friend with oral cancer at a local hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Coker Burks had been caring for her friend for five days when she noticed something unusual.
Down the hall, there was a door with a bright red tarp across it, emblazoned with the biohazard sign. Food trays were piled up outside, and nurses were waiting at the door, and were unwilling to enter the room.
She said, “I had been in hospitals a lot of times and so I thought that was really bizarre. The nurses were literally drawing straws to see who would go in and check on this person.”
“They would draw straws and it’d be best out of three, and then they didn’t like that and so then it’d be best 2 out of 3 and then no one would end up going in to check in on this person. They just walked away,” Ruth Coker added.
Curious, Coker Burks secretly entered the room and found a patient so frail and near death that he was unrecognizable under the sheets.
This was her first encounter with a person dying from AIDS, and would not be the last. In the next 10 years, she would be caring for thousands of dying gay men, abandoned by their families due to the stigma that was then attached to the disease.
She had some knowledge of the disease prior to the encounter, after hearing rumors from her cousin. She was told that the disease was mostly associated with “leather guys” in San Francisco.
Meeting the dying patient, however, showed that wasn’t the case. She recalled, “I went over to the bed and I didn’t know what to do but I took his hand and I said, ‘Honey, what can I do for you?’ He looked up at me and he didn’t have any more tears to cry. He was so dehydrated there was nothing left to produce any tears. But he looked up at me and he said he wanted his mama.”
She found a way to inform the mother, who, unfortunately, had no intention of visiting her dying son. The nurses told Coker Burks, “His mother’s not coming. Nobody’s coming, he’s been in this hospital for six weeks, nobody’s been here and nobody’s coming and don’t you go back in that room.”
That fateful meeting with Jimmy would set Coker Burks on her journey to HIV/AIDS advocacy. Jimmy’s mother explicitly told her, “My son died years ago when he went gay. I don’t know what thing you have at that hospital but that’s not my son.”
Coker Burks stayed with Jimmy until he died.
Jimmy’s experience was quite common at the time. Many gay men who were stricken by the disease were abandoned by their families, and were left to die alone.
The homophobia continued even after death. The hospital’s morgue didn’t want to take the body, fearing contamination.
The nurses insisted that she should take him. It took some time, but Coker Burks eventually found a funeral home that took Jimmy’s body.
After the cremation, she placed his ashes in a chipped cookie jar and had him buried above her father’s coffin. She shared, “We had a little do-it-yourself funeral, said the Lord’s Prayer, put the flowers and a big rock on top of him and we left.”
As a good Christian, she just wanted to be a role model for her young daughter Allison.
She went back to selling timeshares, not knowing that she would soon be helping other men like Jimmy. Nurses at the Arkansas hospital began giving out her number to HIV/AIDS patients.
And Coker Burks helped each and every one of them. She cared for hundreds more, and eventually buried 39 patients in her family’s cemetery.
She buried them in similar jars, accompanied by her daughter. She couldn’t get a priest or preacher to say anything at these funerals. As a result, “I had that honor of handing them back to their friends and to God,” she reflected.
Coker Burks detailed her story in “All the Young Men,” which came out in December 2020. She stressed that her story is one of hope, saying “It’s about friendships and it’s about having the very worst of situations and turning it into something else. It’s about kindness and stepping through the door, whatever the door is. It’s a fear that you override.”
She continued, “Whatever fear you have and you just walk into that room, because everybody always asked me what made me walk into that room. To me, it was a voice of God saying, ‘Go in there. It’s going to be OK.’”
Her experience taught her to see joy in everything, even in death. “Oh no, my guys lived until the day they died. I learned more about living from the dying than I ever learned about dying with the dying,” she said.
All her patients had was hope. She brought them to drag shows to lift their spirits, and some of the earnings from the shows would go to her patients’ care.
Parents may have rejected their sons, but they found their family in friends and the gay community. By the mid-1990s, Coker Burks and the work of many other advocates had paid off.
There was greater awareness and social acceptance of the disease. Better treatment also meant that Coker Burks need not care for patients personally.
Though HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, Coker Burks’ advocacy continues. After recovering from a stroke, which she partly attributes to the stress of her HIV/AIDS activism, she initiated a crowdfunding campaign to raise $75,000 to fulfill her dream.
Before she goes, she aims to create a memorial to those she buried at the Historic Files Cemetery. Honoring their memories, she wants the memorial to state:
“This is what happened. In 1984, it started. They just kept coming and coming. And they knew they would be remembered, loved and taken care of, and that someone would say a kind word over them when they died.”
Here is Ruth Coker Burks accepting her award ‘The Hero Award’: