All the Young Men is the touching memoir of Ruth Coker Burks, a woman who dedicated herself to caring for the people neglected by their families, friends and most of society during in the AIDs crisis in America in the course of the 1980’s and 90’s. Throughout her story, Ruth comes across as such a huge force of compassion in contrast to the shameful treatment dished out to those living and dying of AIDs by a society stoked on prejudice and fear.
Ruth begins her story on a hospital ward visiting a friend who recently underwent treatment for cancer. At one point she see nurses drawing straws to go check on a patient in a hospital room that is marked with a BIOHAZARD sign. The nurses don’t want to go near the room. Unable to ignore the pleas for help coming from the mistreated young man inside, Ruth finds herself comforting a stranger until he draws his last breath. After that moment, Ruth’s life changes. She becomes a source of strength and kindness for many of these people who have found themselves battling the virus alone. Many of the young gay men she cared for now exist only in her memory as their families and friends rushed to erase them and their histories as a result of horrific communal bigotry.
This book was incredible. Ruth’s story is truly astonishing. To be brave enough to swim against the tide in the Arkansas town that she grew up in and be smart enough to weave her way around problems so that she could ensure that these people were taken care of is a story that should be shared to teach and inspire. As much as there were parts of this book that made me tear up, there were a lot of joyful moments too. Ruth brings each of her young men to life as she describes their personalities and quirks with such affection. A part of the book I’m particularly fond of is when, after months of trying to get a response on finding housing for a young gay couple she encourages a camp young man to put on a pair of his favourite ‘Daisy Dukes’ and to accompany her to the housing office to kick up a fuss. As the straitlaced, starchy staff become flustered by the presence of the determined yet flamboyant pair, the staff bend over backward fulfilling Ruth’s requests so that she and her companion will leave the offices. Together they eventually leave the building in full triumph.
There is so much about this book that I loved. I think it’s easy for people to forget when they talk about moments in history where lots of souls lost their lives that dead people were actually real living, breathing, laughing, loving people. Ruth’s memoir shines an empathetic spotlight on to an important moment in LGBTQ+ history.
In a similar way to how writer Russell T Davis’ TV series, It’s a Sin gave a face to the people taken by AIDs in the 1980’s in Britain under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, I think in All the Young Men, Ruth allows the voices of all the people that were lost under a Ronald Regan’s Presidency to channel through her story and be heard.
If you have any interest in modern history or LGBTQ+ history then you should read this book. To be honest if I had any control over the curriculum in this country I would make sure that this was studied by every secondary school child at some point in their education. If you love reading about strong women or love a good memoir this book is for you too. All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks is extraordinary and a must read.