December 2020

All the Young Men

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The history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is often told from the perspectives of white, openly gay men who lived in major cities. But that’s not even close to the whole story. Ruth Coker Burks’ All the Young Men tells of the HIV-positive men who lived and died in the deeply conservative state of Arkansas, where the stigma of homosexuality was nearly as deadly as the virus.

In 1986, Burks was 26 and visiting a friend in the hospital when she became aware of a young man dying of AIDS in another room. The medical staff, disgusted by the disease, neglected him in his final hours. As a devout Christian, Burks couldn’t bear to let the man die hungry, scared and alone.

She soon developed a reputation in Hot Springs, Arkansas, as someone who would help care for gay men dying of the virus. Many of the men who came to her were from religious families who believed that, through illness and death, these men got what was coming to them. Refusing to treat people with HIV as outcasts made Burks a pariah in her community and particularly in her church, where appearances mattered more than anything. As a single mom, Burks was well versed in the conservative social politics of the South and adept at “killing them with kindness.” She showed great ingenuity as she shamed politicians, businessmen and medical workers into taking action on behalf of AIDS patients.

Throughout the memoir, it’s hard not to fall in love with Burks for her big-heartedness and enduring sense of humor in the face of suffering. However, All the Young Men isn’t an uplifting book. Ignorance, denial and cruelty have always been, and always will be, killers. But as Burks forges a path alongside these vulnerable men, her embrace of education and rejection of bigotry light the way forward for us all.

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