All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks
If I have one message with this book it’s that we all have to care for one another. Today, not just in 1986. Life is about caring for each other, and I learned more about life from the dying than I ever learned from the living. It’s in an elephant ride, it’s in those wildflowers dancing on their way to the shared grave of two men in love, and it’s in caring for that young man who just needed information without judgement.
In 1986, 26-year-old Ruth Coker Burks visits a friend in hospital when she notices that the door to one of the patient’s rooms is painted red. The nurses are reluctant to enter, drawing straws to decide who will tend to the sick person inside. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life.
And in doing so, Ruth’s own life changes forever.
As word spreads in the community that she is the only person willing to help the young men afflicted by the growing AIDS crisis, Ruth goes from being an ordinary young mother to an accidental activist. Forging deep friendships with the men she helps, Ruth works to find them housing and jobs, and then funeral homes willing to take their bodies – often in the middle of the night. She prepares and delivers meals to ‘her guys,’ supplementing her own income with discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets. She defies local pastors and the medical community to store rare medications for her most urgent patients, and teaches sex education to drag queens after hours at secret bars. Emboldened by the weight of their collective pain, she fervently advocates for their safety and visibility, ultimately advising Governor Bill Clinton on the national HIV-AIDS crisis, and in doing so becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of society.
Ruth kept her story a secret for years, fearful of repercussions within her deeply conservative community. But at a time when it’s more important than ever to stand up for those who can’t, Ruth has found the courage to have her voice – and the voices of those who were stigmatised, rejected and abandoned – heard.
'All The Young Men is an urgent story that needs to be toldabout the early years of AIDS in the American South. From her first moving encounter with an abandoned young man hours before he died, Ruth Coker Burks cares for ill gay men and fights homophobia with compassion, wit, courage and righteous anger. It's inspiring and compelling to read of her battles against indignities and intimidation, bigoted families and churches, and demeaning health care. The reader cheers her on when Coker Burks finds both opponents and allies in her work. She writes of Jimmy, Howard, Douglas, Danny, Neil, Tim and Jim, Marc, Bob and Phil, Chip, Luke, Angel, Jerry, Misty, Billy and all her 'guys': 'I wanted them to be counted, to have their lives matter.' All The Young Men achieves that beautifully, memorably, in their honour.' - Robert Hamberger
'This astonishing modern-day Good Samaritan story will move you to tears of sadness and outrage, but also buoy you. For Coker Burns 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.' - Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
'A moving, inspiring testament to one woman's courage, love and kindness in the midst of a deadly hate-filled pandemic.' - Peter Tatchell
'Deeply moving memoir [that] honours the extraordinary life of Ruth Coker Burks and the beloved men who fought valiantly for their lives during a most hostile and misinformed time... a must read.' - Ru Paul
'An extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman fighting for the rights of people with AIDS - and for the very acknowledgement of their existence - in her native Arkansas, in the early years of the crisis. Challenging, and sometimes changing hostile attitudes of individuals, communities, church and state she battled with courage, wit, knowledge, compassion, and a heart of solid gold for the local gay community and for those gay men who, coming home to die, were rejected by their families. Because for Ruth, this was love in action - it was the right thing to do. She and her daughter Allie became family with 'her guys'; a simply astonishing memoir.' - Kate Charlesworth
'It's a brighter story of human nature [...] this is a paean to making friendships across boundaries, to being kind even when the cost is nearly unbearable.' - The Guardian
'A beautifully written, moving account of a time that I remember all too vividly. I'm a long-term survivor with almost thirty years facing stigma, discrimination and often rejection. We need to remember how badly the world at large behaved towards a small group of people who often died alone and in fear, we also need to honour those few who offered love and support at that time. A deeply emotional read.' - Juno Roche
Publication Date: 21 January 2021