Burks, Ruth Coker with Kevin Carr O’Leary. “All The Young Men”, Grove Press, 2020.
Behind the Red Door
In 1986, 26-year old Ruth Coker Burks went to visit a friend at the hospital and noticed that the door to one of the hospital rooms was painted red. She saw nurses drawing straws to see who would take care of the patient inside. On impulse, Ruth entered the quarantined room and began to take care for the young man who was crying for his mother in his last moments of his life. Before she could even understand what she had done, word spread in the community that Ruth was the only person willing to help young men suffering from AIDS and she was called upon to nurse them. She was able to create deep friendships with the men she helped and she worked to find them housing and jobs and even searched for funeral homes that were willing to take their bodies. She cooked meals for sick men, stored rare medications for her most urgent patients, taught sex-ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and became a symbol of hope sick gay men in the conservative state of Arkansas. Ruth is still a legend in Arkansas. I lived there from 2005-2014 and people still speak of her goodness and altruism. I regret that I never had the chance to meet her.
Burks dared to defy local pastors and nurses to help the men she cared for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke. As she carried the weight of their collective pain, she advocated for their safety and visibility and advised then Governor Bill Clinton on the national HIV-AIDS crisis.
“All The Young Men” is her moving memoir in which she honors the men who fought for their lives during a hostile and misinformed time in America. She beautifully balances pathos and humor as she shares her story. It is difficult to picture a place like conservative Arkansas that exhibits hard feelings for those who are different and even though it has come a long way, it still has a long way to go in accepting the LGBTQ community and I can say that having experienced it myself.
This is a story that had to be told. The American South was unlike other places during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. I was lucky enough to be out of the country for it (aside from a short visit to New Orleans in 1989 where what I saw broke my heart).
It took just one moving encounter with Jimmy, an abandoned young man hours before he died that brought Ruth Coker Burks to action and to begin to care of ill gay men and fight homophobia. She battled indignities and intimidation, families and churches and health care.
In the spring of 1986, Burks was a single mom living in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She found a new family while visiting her best friend in the hospital when she came upon that red door and saw the behavior of the nurses. This was the beginning of how Burks began advocating for a better life for men like Jimmy. She sought out ways to reach gay men and teach them how to avoid getting AIDS. She inherited a cemetery she inherited that became a final resting place for Jimmy and for many that followed. By the end of that summer, she’d buried eight men.
She learned more and more about HIV/AIDS and found ways to help. She spent time in hospitals and visited those who were not yet hospitalized. Burks offered them dignity. something others were unwilling to do. She was ostracized by others, especially from the members of her church.
As I read, I cried, I laughed, and I became enraged and I fell in love with Ruth Coker Burks who dared to help an already ostracized group of people that were shunned by society and their own families. We really see the hypocrisy of religion and the sexism and insincere attitudes that were everywhere in Arkansas at the time.