Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
I just devoured All the Young Men, a memoir by Ruth Coker Burks with Kevin Carr O'Leary. In just a few years, in 1980s and 1990s Hot Springs, Arkansas, a young single mother became the hub of a mutual aid network to help gay men dying of AIDS. You may have read a 2015 article in the Arkansas Times about her work.
In 1986, 26-year old Ruth visits a friend at the hospital when she notices that the door to one of the hospital rooms is painted red. She witnesses nurses drawing straws to see who would tend to the patient inside, all of them reluctant to enter the room. Out of impulse, Ruth herself enters the quarantined space and immediately begins to care for the young man who cries for his mother in the last moments of his life. Before she can even process what she's done, word spreads in the community that Ruth is the only person willing to help these young men afflicted by AIDS, and is called upon to nurse them.
That bit in the middle of Huckleberry Finn, where Huck tears up the letter. You know?
As she forges deep friendships with the men she helps, she works tirelessly to find them housing and jobs, even searching for funeral homes willing to take their bodies -- often in the middle of the night. She cooks meals for tens of people out of discarded food found in the dumpsters behind supermarkets, stores rare medications for her most urgent patients, teaches sex ed to drag queens after hours at secret bars, and becomes a beacon of hope to an otherwise spurned group of ailing gay men on the fringes of a deeply conservative state.
Throughout the years, Ruth defies local pastors and nurses to help the men she cares for: Paul and Billy, Angel, Chip, Todd and Luke.
This book is of course a moving story about love and care. But also it's -- as Leonard put it -- a compassion heist.
When her work with AIDS patients started, Burks was selling time-share vacation homes. And she brought that same persuasiveness, resourcefulness, and stubbornness to her volunteer work. No one willing to draw blood for tests? She learned to do it, and literally came through the back door into the government health department to drop it off for anonymous testing. She weaponized her straight-white-Southern-lady privilege whenever necessary and possible to get her guys treated fairly by landlords, doctors, and bureaucrats.
And after the federal government finally started funding work, Burks started getting pushed out. Agencies wouldn't hire her because she didn't have a college degree, and of course out of sexist discrimination as well.
I'm a little bit used to the story of scrappy activists raising money with drag shows and concerts and bake sales -- the exemplary depiction may be the film Pride, and if you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat. But the next act of the story, where institutional funders start to show up but bypass the folks on the ground -- if there are movies about that I'd like to know.
Most of All The Young Men isn't about that. It's about carework, love, witty retorts, raising a daughter with a found family of drag queens as her uncles, battling stigma and prejudice, and Burks calling on her huge network of neighbors and friends to get things done. Recommended.