All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks

Reviewed by Rod McLary

While the origins of HIV/AIDS remain uncertain, it seems that it was first recognised as a pandemic in the early 1980s.  There was then much confusion and misinformation about how it was transmitted and, in some circles, HIV/AIDS was known as the ‘homosexual disease’.  Indeed, in the 1980s, it was given the name of Gay-Related Immune Deficiency [GRID] until it was discovered that about half of all the persons with HIV/AIDS contracted it through intravenous drug use or blood transfusions.

It was within this context that Ruth Coker Burks met her first person with HIV/AIDS.  While visiting a friend in a medical centre in Little Rock Arkansas, she noticed a room with a red tarpaulin across its door and food trays on the floor.  On investigating further, she heard a faint voice from inside the room.  The voice belonged to a young man and he was calling for ‘help’.  Ruth Coker Burks entered the room and asked the young man – Jimmy – what he needed.  After telling the nurses what Jimmy was requesting, she was reprimanded by an older nurse who said ‘He’s got that gay disease.  They all die’ [4].

This was the beginning of a journey Ruth Coker Burks embarked upon at age 26 to assist and support young men who had contracted HIV/AIDS.  It turned out to be a long and challenging journey and one in which she was shunned almost as much as the men she was caring for.  As she says: ‘People were swearing you could get it from gays sitting on toilet seats and using swimming pools, from doorknobs and licked stamps on envelopes in the mail’. [5]

In a story which is both heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure, Ruth Coker Burks chronicles her work with these young men from 1986 to about 2016 – first supporting those with HIV/AIDS and later as an advocate for the LGBTQ community.  She talks of the palpable rejection she receives from her church and local community as she attempts to provide the young men with medical care, food, housing and – later – funeral homes which would accept their bodies.  The support from the community is so limited that Ruth is reduced to finding castaway food from ‘dumpsters behind supermarkets’ to supplement what she can provide from her own resources.

In the provision of such personal care for these men, Ruth cannot help but grow closer to them.  Some like Jim and Tim – a couple – and Paul and Billy – another couple – become very close friends with both her and her daughter.  The trajectory of the growth of their friendships offers a leavening of the sometimes-tragic stories of the men as they face rejection from their families and ultimately death.

Although Ruth’s work with the young men is the key element of the book, she also has a young daughter Allison who shares the journey with her and becomes a favourite of the men.  Ruth has a personal life too and the reader is told of her family, her friends and her relationships with persons who do not have HIV/AIDS.  Only rarely are names dropped but one person who is mentioned is Bill Clinton – later President of the USA but then Governor of Arkansas.  He was an early supporter of Ruth and her work and a friendship grew between them to the extent that Governor Clinton rang Ruth to let her know that he was running for President.

In spite of the challenges and the rejection of her as a person and the work she does, the book is not a bitter or angry one – nor is it a polemic.  It is written in a comfortable relaxed style which immediately engages the reader who will feel that he/she is sharing with Ruth her experiences with the young men.  It reads as if the author is addressing the reader directly and sharing her life quietly and without grandiosity as in the following:

The Pancake Shop on Central is right across from the Arlington Hotel, and even on weekday mornings it was smart to get there right when it opened at six thirty or a little after.  Otherwise you would have to wait in line forever.  [182]

Also, the author – while recognising that the attitudes of the people of the church are not at all helpful to the young men – does not condemn them but demonstrates an understanding of why they may have taken those attitudes.

While the subject matter of this book is somewhat confronting, the demonstration of compassion by Ruth Coker Burks for these young men who in the last few months of their lives were ostracised from their communities – and often from their families – and the hope offered to them makes the reading of the book well worthwhile and very rewarding.

Ruth Coker Burks is now an advocate for the LGBTQ community and lives in Northwest Arkansas.  Her daughter Allison is now a mother herself.

All the Young Men

[2020]

by Ruth Coker Burks

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 4091 8911 6

$32.99; 355pp

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