"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.
At times, this book makes for painful reading, but it is never depressing because Ruth Coker Burks tells her story with verve and Southern charm. Not surprisingly, a film of All The Young Men is already in the works.
It’s never clear exactly what compelled Ruth to devote her life to helping those with Aids, at a time when the whole world seemed to be against her.
In the end, perhaps, it all came down to her stubborn determination that something had to be done for these young men.
All the Young Men could be categorised in many ways: it’s one woman’s relentless mission to help a community survive when those in power abandoned them. It’s the tale of people with Aids who returned to Arkansas during the first years of the epidemic. It’s also the story of a Christian woman who would go on to advise the Clinton administration on Aids education. The desire to witness the dying runs parallel with the writer’s human need to be witnessed herself and, unsurprisingly, there’s now a movie being made.
That’s the dark side of this compelling book. But there are also joyful stories from the tight bonds that Burks forms with the men she cares for. Among those which stand out are Burks’s friendship with “hillbilly dandy” Tim, and his boyfriend Jim. She finds them a home, battles to get their medication, and looks after them until they finally end up together in a cookie jar in Files Cemetery.
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.”