The history of HIV / AIDS in the United States is often told from the perspective of openly gay white men living in big cities. But it is not even close to the whole Story. All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks chronicles the HIV-positive men who lived and died in the deeply conservative state of Arkansas, where the stigma of homosexuality was almost as deadly as the virus.
In 1986, Burks was 26 years old and visiting a friend in the hospital when she learned that a young man had died of AIDS in another room. The medical staff, disgusted by the health issue, neglected him in his last hours. As a devout Christian, Burks could not bear to let man die of hunger, fear and alone.
She quickly developed a reputation in Hot Springs, Arkansas, as someone who would help care for gay men dying from the virus. Many of the men who came to see her came from religious families who believed that, through illness and passed away, these men received what was happening to them. Refusing to treat HIV-positive people as outcasts has made Burks an outcast in his community and especially in his church, where apparitions are more important than anything. As a single mother, Burks was well versed in Southern conservative social policy and knew how to ” finish it with kindness.”She has shown great ingenuity in embarrassing politicians, businessmen and medical staff to act on behalf of AIDS patients.
As the memoirs go, it’s hard not to fall in love with Burks for his big heart and enduring sense of humor in the face of suffering. However, All the Young Men is not a cautionary book. Ignorance, Denial and Cruelty have always been Assassin. But as Burks makes his way alongside these vulnerable men, his commitment to education and his rejection of bigotry are paving the way for us all.