All the Young Men
A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South
Ruth Coker Burks
with Kevin Carr O’Leary
Reviewed by Hank Trout
In 1986, while visiting her long-time friend Bonnie who was being treated for cancer at a Hot Springs, Arkansas, hospital, Ruth noticed, at the end of a long empty hallway, there was a door covered with a blood-red tarp with a sign on it: BIOHAZARD. As she got closer, she saw six trays of untouched food on the floor outside the room. She heard a slight sound from inside the room:
It was so plaintive and small that I pulled the tarp aside to peek in. And there he was, this young man, stretched out on the bed and down to about eighty-five pounds. You couldn’t tell him from the sheets. I stood right in the doorway. “What do you need, honey?”
With that one small courageous act, that one simple question, Ruth Coker Burks embarked on a decade of much larger courageous acts, a decade of righteous anger in the face of prejudice and fear, determination in the face of stigma and ostracism, and genuine love in the face of unrelenting hatred. Taken together, those acts form the most remarkable story of real heroism in the face of AIDS that I have ever read.
From 1986 through the mid-1990s, Burks took care of young men suffering from AIDS. She helped them sign up for Social Security Disability Insurance; she helped them get subsidized housing; she cooked meals and delivered them to “my guys.” She called their families, when asked, and met their abuse (“My son died when he went gay!”) with stoic composure. She learned how to draw blood samples and, with cooperation from a doctor friend, tested dozens of men for HIV herself. She stockpiled medicine left behind by the dead to give to the living. She found them piece work (e.g., making fishing lures) to help support themselves. She became a regular in the hospitals in Hot Springs and Little Rock, comforting the sick; more often than not, she was their sole support giver was often the one who held their hands as they died. And once they died, she arranged for their cremation; dozens of her guys now lie in cookie jars buried in the cemetery that Burks inherited from her mother. It is evident that she loved her guys as much as she loved her daughter Allison.
Her only rule with her guys was that she was totally unavailable from 4:00 p.m. on Saturday until noon on Sunday. Otherwise, she encouraged her guys to call her at any time, for anything they needed. And boy oh boy did they need! Burks completely rearranged her life around her guys’ needs, driving them to doctor appointments, taking them to the ER, driving them to see their families a last time.
Burks’ compassion for all the young men she cared for came at great personal cost. Her fellow church members shunned her; her friends thought she was nuts and deserted her; churches and other organizations denied her use of their space for a support group. Since Burks was divorced and now a single mother, she felt as though all the women in town thought she was sleeping with their husbands. Her daughter Allison was ostracized at school, her classmates having been told not to play with her. In short, Burks’ kindness cost her dearly.
Except in the gay community! The gay communities in Hot Springs and Little Rock took Ruth deep into their hearts, welcomed her as chosen family. The largest gay bar in Hot Springs let her speak and distribute pamphlets on safer sex. Many of Burks’ guys were drag queens, and Burks became a regular guest at their Saturday night drag shows—she even bought a designer gown from Misty, one of her drag queens, to wear to the Clinton Inaugural ball.
I highly recommend All the Young Men as a reminder that even during the most horrible, most deadly years of the AIDS pandemic, there were people among us who were capable of great generosity, courage, compassion, and deep love. It is also a tribute to all the straight women who took care of us and fought for us, with us, despite their fears. And finally, it is a fitting elegy for all the young men who fought and died of AIDS. We are blessed to have had Ruth Coker Burks in our lives, and equally blessed to have her beautiful memoir.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick Greathouse.