"If I have one message with this book it's that we all have to care for one another". In 1986, Ruth Coker Burks, a young straight, white single mum living in Hot Springs Arkansas paid a visit to a friend in hospital. She noticed the nurses' reluctance to enter a nearby room, and on impulse, she entered the quarantined space herself. Immediately she was moved to care for the young man inside as he cried for his mother during his final moments of life.Thus, an accidental activist was born. Coker Burks became the only person in her community willing to help the many young gay men afflicted and stigmatised by the growing AIDS crisis; finding them housing and jobs, delivering meals and medication, persuading drag queens to practise safe sex, and arranging burials when the upstanding Christian families of her "guys" had disowned their sons. In so doing she faced outright hostility and ostracism, but forged deep friendships with the men she helped; friendships doomed to be cut short by the ravages of the virus.
Soon to be a Hollywood film this astonishing modern-day Good Samaritan story will move you to tears of sadness and outrage, but also buoy you. For Coker Burks is a do-gooder with sass. And hers is a story of ordinary but heroic human empathy that we could all do with reading right now.
It is not to diminish her story to say that heterosexual angels weren’t the dominant narrative of the Aids crisis, but a vanishingly rare exception to a rule of homophobia, cruelty and prejudice. That said, there’s something immensely uplifting about her decision to involve herself in the travails of a community not her own, simply because she could see that there was a need. It’s a brighter story of human nature, an analogue to this winter’s tale of good Samaritan Sikhs bringing curry to stranded Bulgarian lorry drivers in Kent.
The cause is education, combating prejudice and hate, but most of all the cause is love. It’s the love Burks didn’t get from her family or husband. The love she lavishes on these men is deeply moving, and she gets some back. At a gay club she meets a community of drag queens who are like a family. The star of them all, Billy, is the one she loves most. “We breathed in unison,” she says, as she held him on his last day, “a slow rhythm that I committed to memory, like a song I could remember for the rest of my life.”